There's something very reassuring about the yearly round. The trip to Birch Park has become a landmark in recent years: the first chance to see everyone after a summer's absence, and the first football after two months of drought. Whatever else changes, it has its own permanence.
It's not even strange any more to get a train to Scunthorpe station, shop at the market and on the high street, and then catch the Bottesford bus without going near Glanford Park. We varied the routine by heading in the opposite direction around the loop compared to previous years, and arrived at Birch Park in plenty of time to drink cider and eye up the returning fans.
Karen was waiting for us inside the ground, and so began the exhausting struggle to feed, hydrate and exchange gossip before the match got underway. We'd dealt with our personal news, and the final word on certain departing players whose names will no longer be mentioned, but when the players took the field, I had no idea who the newcomers were.
We quickly established that not all of them were wearing their proper shirt numbers, and I managed to pick out Chris Dagnall and the delectable Matt Godden. Karen pointed out new signing Jordan Robertson, sitting beside the pitch waiting for his turn to come; he failed so completely to stick in my memory that I asked her at least twice more who he was before half time.
The game progressed in the usual leisurely way of friendlies. xCLP asked whether we were winning, then whether anyone was winning - a touching display of confidence that the Iron were, for once, justifying. Matt Godden darted all over the pitch as we created a chance, and Dan bellowed at him to use his left foot. He used his right, and the ball pinballed around the penalty area before being stuck into the net - not exactly a training ground move, but a pleasant assurance that we knew how to find the net.
Soon afterwards, Godden himself claimed a goal. His shot from distance took a hefty deflection, which left the goalkeeper stranded and provoked Dan to announce that it was 1-1, since both sides had scored. I told him in the most withering tones I could muster that he was as bad as Lindsay.
xCLP, who had been sitting on a chair some distance from the fray, came to sit on the wall and pay attention to the match, demanding sweets every so often. I agreed to distribute sweets if Scunthorpe scored, and the fact that I had to hand them round once before half time is pretty much all I remember about the third goal. By that time, I was more interested in the players sitting round the edges. I asked Karen who they were, and apparently earned a glare from Michael Raynes by asking who "the one with the ugly face" was. (It was Paul Reid, sitting next to Raynes at the time, who seems to be desperately in need of a functioning razor.)
With half time approaching, I finally lost the battle with the heat. My new compression vest feels wonderful most of the time, but a blend of polyester and spandex is not exactly what I want to be wearing under my shirt in direct July sunlight. I fled for the toilet to take it off, and emerged just as the final whistle sounded.
A completely different eleven took the field for the second half. With the vast majority of play happening at the other end, I gave much of my attention to the first half players, now reclining pitchside. I couldn't place one familiar face, until Karen pointed out that it was Josh Lillis, leaving me to bring out the time-honoured excuse, "I didn't recognise him with his clothes on." On a similar note, I shocked one of Karen's friends by confessing to writing smut about Matt Godden.
Every so often, our discussions were interrupted by a smattering of applause from the fans at the other end of the pitch; turning to see what was happening, we would witness the ball being picked once again out of the Bottesford net. I have no idea how or by whom any of these goals were scored - in fact, I left it to cooler heads to keep track of how many there were.
At one point, I asked Karen the name of the new goalkeeping coach. She couldn't remember, so I called to Lillis, sitting not ten feet from us, and asked him. He willingly obliged, and I remarked that you wouldn't get that kind of contact with the players at Man United. Karen looked at me as if I'd sworn, and I protested in vain that I was using the redscum as a proxy for all the big and impersonal clubs that we so clearly aren't.
Bottesford did have the ball in our penalty area once. xCLP reacted with disappointment to the ball's failure to end up in the net, claiming that it was more exciting when that happened. I explained patiently that we were defending that goal, and although it might have added some excitement to the game, I preferred not to see us concede if at all possible.
I wasn't the only one struggling to keep track of the score. Estimates ranged from six to eight - although I was pretty sure there had been at least seven - when xCLP demanded a toilet trip. The single cubicle was occupied, and the players were leaving the pitch when we'd finished. Not wanting to hang around and summon up memories of last year, we said a swift goodbye to Karen, and headed out to catch a bus back into Scunthorpe and thence homewards.