A year ago to the day I found out my best friend had died.
He was also my dad.
Inside it seemed like my world was ending, but it’s strange that human grief, and in my case, anger at losing somebody is kept under wraps. I kept the lid on my grief and my anger, with an increasing sense that it was about to spill over.
The new football season arrived a few weeks ago. My first season without him. I longed for his texts about fantasy team selection, his poor jokes and even poorer puns.
‘Carlos Pujol, looks like a Barnsley lass, so how many pints to take her home?’
‘Have you heard the new hit from The Alan Smiths? This Charming Emmanuel Petit.’
But this year they never arrived. Their absence triggering a bubbling over of the aforementioned grief and anger.
Sport, and in this case football, is an integral adhesive in any father-son bond.
But for the first time in my life, this season, I didn’t care. I could comfortably say I wasn’t interested. I was completely indifferent in hearing how much Chelsea had spent, how much Arsenal had not, and nor was I excited about the fireworks coming from Manchester with the return of Mourinho and the arrival of Guardiola. Strange, given a longstanding passion of mine has to been write about sport for a living and one which now I’m happy to say I’m fortunate enough to do.
Football for me and my old man was something different to most dads and lads. We were not ardent terrace-dwellers driving miles in the pouring rain to try out the pies at Carlisle, or the greasy spoons of Crewe. We were observers and anoraks, content to be on the periphery, quizzing each other on the most obscure facts and stats, watching and listening closely.
The best time to listen closely, was of course Saturday afternoon at 5pm.
We’d wait, poised to hear the scores with Sports Report’s theme music – Out of the Blue – corralling us from the radio. Before the tune faded and the impeccable James Alexander Gordon took to the mic, there’d be a collective hush. We waited for the broadcaster to deliver the classified football results with his usual poetic timing.
‘Queens Park Rangers 2, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1.’
It was the same sense of fever pitch on a Saturday afternoon when the World Cup or the Euros came around in the summer.
Dad would point out the obscurer things as I poured over my Panini sticker album. He’d tell me why Senegal’s win over France was a great victory for anti-colonialism, how England had not won in a penalty shoot-out since Euro ’96, why Gazza was the greatest footballer England has produced and how we’d never want to draw zee Germans at the knockout stages.
It’s apt to mention Paul Gascoigne, because in the first instance Dad had a soft spot for his footballing talent, but secondly in many ways I think he was a bit like Dad.
On the face of it the two of them were vastly different. My father was a university-educated professional, while Gazza was just a lad from Gateshead chastised by the media.
But like Gazza, Dad was intelligent, witty, and misunderstood. The Geordie had his magical feet and daft gags, while Dad’s skill was with his brain and dry sarcasm.
The common ground they shared is that they were both alcoholics. And that’s where the misunderstanding creeps in.
It wasn’t until I’d become a teenager, as I dragged dad to his bed after two bottles of gin, that it dawned on me just how bad his problem was.
My mother had been the manager in his life who had shown patience for too long, before finally agreeing to terminate the contract of this dressing room disruption.
His clangers came as often as those of Robert Green, his alcoholism, spouts of anger and recklessness becoming mainstay.
When he separated from my mother it was like he’d been sent to train with the youth team, but in reality it was her resigning out of frustration.
Her frustration was twofold. Firstly self-rapprochement for her inability to coach, cajole or coerce this unmotivated squad member into sticking to the game plan of bringing up three kids and paying for a mortgage.
And secondly through bearing witness to the lengthy demise of her rock at the back, star striker and exuberant goalie all moulded into one.
Many would see that as a springboard; an opportunity for self-resurrection and to show, what Iain Dowie termed ‘bounce-back-ability’. But in my father’s world, this was him winding down his contract.
His job soon disappeared after his erraticism creeped into his professional life. He found it impossible to maintain consistent periods of sportsman like conduct with myself me and my two younger brothers.
The drinking deepened, the money dried up and he took to wondering the streets of our neighbourhood during the day, much to my embarrassment. Imagine reliving a last-minute cup final own goal, over and over again. That was my teenage years.
When he passed away last year, I didn’t think of the impact of his death in the long-run. But now it seems appropriate to talk, write and be open about it. As Gazza once quipped: ‘I’m going to do things, when they are right for me.’
If I’m honest I’m still waiting for my phone to go ‘ping’. A text or call. Be it the latest song-based puns such as It’s a Vard Day’s Night and Smoke on the Drinkwater or a ‘WTF has happened at Stoke City this year?’ message. The fever pitch for this season hasn’t hit me yet, but as the grief and anger subsides I’m hoping that very soon, it will.