The Greatest Gift

The Greatest Gift
May 5, 2009 Paul Tomkins

Sent this to the official site, but will use it here too. Very personal piece, and explains why I may be writing a bit less in the coming months, and possibly not updating the blog very much.

Sanguine’ is a great word. It can be a colour – blood-red – and it can also mean cheerfully optimistic.

The Newcastle game marked the end of a difficult week that has led me to think of this particular word.

Having had to drop out of attending a couple of recent games at fairly late notice, I was all set to take my place at Anfield for the visit of Newcastle.

Then, just before the weekend, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I’d like to say that football paled into insignificance, and that I lost the heart to travel up to the game from the Midlands, but on this occasion I took a leaf out of his book: life goes on, and it’s there to be lived. Perhaps it’s an attitude that can be labelled ‘sanguine’.

If he wasn’t going to let it get him down, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see old friends and revisit old routines, and to meet some new faces, in the blood-red world that floods Anfield and its surrounding streets. On this occasion, football offered a chance to celebrate life.

Because of all the things my dad has given me, football is perhaps his greatest gift.

Borne of working-class parents, both of whom were from keen footballing families, my birthright was a game whose beauty I find ever more beguiling. Not for me some silly sport.

It’s a decade since I was last able to play (and still nothing gives me the escapist joy that that used to), but even just this weekend, with other things on my mind, the breathtaking beauty of Barcelona and (while not quite as awe-striking), the super-slick pass-and-move of Liverpool, brought home to me just how good for the soul a good spectacle can be.

I’m no footballing snob, and often baulk at the notion of it being “played the right way”, because, providing it’s within the laws, teams have to play the way that gets them results.

At different stages of a side’s development it has to play in different ways; it has to be improved in stages, with the resources at hand. And sometimes great drama alone makes for a great match, with ‘good’ football out the window.

But when it’s technically good, and there is passion and commitment, it lifts the spirits. It elevates.

Times change, bad habits creep into the sport, and it is not without its dire games, but at its best it is incomparably majestic. And it was given to me at a young age; I didn’t have to go search it out. Football was in my blood.

As supporters we can get caught up in the result-at-all-costs, the rivalries, the culture of being a fan – and all of these things are important parts of the sport’s rich tapestry. But the game itself is beguiling.

I fell in love with football at around the age of seven (the age of my own son now), and at the time, with no concept of glory-hunting, I was seduced by the best team of the day. Now, by proxy, my family are quasi-Liverpool fans, because of what it means to me. My mum is more nervous than I am during games.

My earliest memory of football is of Kenny Dalglish leaping over the advertising hoardings at Wembley in 1978. I can still recall how I found his celebration more fascinating than the goal itself, and needing my dad to explain the preceding beauty of what looked, to me at least, like one man simply kicking a football past another.

As the years passed, I came to appreciate the subtlety of Souness’ reverse pass, and the skill – and calmness – required for Dalglish to dink the ball over the keeper, with total control: just the right amount of lift, just the right amount of pace on the ball to see it over the line.

But it was the thought of “where’s he going?” as this delirious man in a red shirt, with the broadest smile I’d ever seen, ran <i>away</i> from the pitch that made the impact at the time. Crazy!

There may have been others, and the ticker-tape showers of Argentina 1978 sticks in my mind, but the next game I recall sitting down to watch with my dad was a year later, as Arsenal, leaving it close to the final whistle, came back from 2-1 down to beat Manchester United in an incredible FA Cup Final. Seductive stuff.

But by then I had my club; I had the Panini sticker album, and pride of place was Liverpool’s badge.

As illustrated by the difference between the seven-year-old version of myself and the older, wiser (and balder) version regarding that 1978 European Cup Final goal, our perceptions, and appreciation of the game changes at different stages of our lives. We learn more about the sport, but also about the human elements that underpin it.

We better understand success and failure, and the rewards of putting in the effort for what it gives in return. We better understand psychology, whether consciously or not, and how our attitude affects what we achieve. And unless our heads are full of cement, we will have learned from innumerable mistakes along the way.

As a kid who started out playing on the wing, my dad was always telling me to stay out wide, find space. But all I wanted to do was follow the ball, be involved.

I thought that I’d be isolating myself, withdrawing from the game; instead, I would have made myself a viable option for a pass. But I felt I knew better. (Of course, it might have been nice had my dad not tried to shoot me with an elephant tranquiliser every time I wandered infield, but that’s another story.)

I’ve said it before, but the years unravel the threads of everything I thought I knew, to leave me feeling more ‘philosophical’, more humble.

Every new thing we learn opens a number of pathways to our own ignorance; it’s one new thing we understand, but which makes us aware of lots more things we don’t – like entering a house, and familiarising ourselves with the hallway, only to then be confronted by five mysterious doors. Each door we then open leads to five more.

And in this piece, which I guess above all else is about the circle of life, and the generational DNA transfer of football, I am led to think of the young, fresh-faced players starting out in the game at Liverpool now; those already making first-team appearances, and those ready to contest yet another FA Youth Cup Final.

I think of myself at that age, and shudder at how horribly unprepared I would have been for what it would have thrown at me (had I been anywhere good enough, of course). I grimace at thoughts of my 19-year-old self; and yet now, at twice that age, I expect kids, with maturity beyond their years, to deliver me my weekly or bi-weekly football fix, as do millions of other fans.

I think that it is only now, as I near 40, that I am somewhere close to being mentally prepared for the life of a professional footballer. Unfortunately, my body gave up on that dream many years ago.

I finally feel mature enough to cope with it all; it’s just a shame that it arrived several years after most players have retired. It’s a bit like the mechanics finally getting the wheels on the Formula One car, but after the race has finished.

And yet I ask a lot of this next generation of Liverpool players, who are ever more adrift from me in years. Not so long ago, every player was older than me; now, with some of them, I’m old enough to be their father. I’m a whole generation older than the last time Liverpool won the league. Eek.

And as I edge closer to my 40s, different things have become important to me; I’ve grown beyond the superficialities of the game. Skill alone is not enough.

The character of Liverpool players seems ever more important to me, and in this sense Rafa Benítez has assembled a near-faultless squad.

It’s often something a lot less visible than a great goal or clever trick that youngsters will view on Youtube – we don’t see countless replays of a great covering run, or a player <i>not</i> getting involved in a silly scuffle 30 yards away. Character can often be something you feel, something you sense: the collective spirit of a team, rather than disparate parts out for themselves.

With the Reds needing to win the remaining three games, I can rest assured that nobody will go flying two-footed into a needless challenge that curtails his season there and then, and risks the limbs of an opponent.

Players may get sent off (although rarely under Rafa), but 99.9% of the time they keep their heads; we see personal responsibility mixed with a team ethic. It’s no coincidence, no accident.

Players who continually transgress are not indulged by this manager. It doesn’t mean that they are all therefore inhuman or robotic, or that they won’t err in some way, but there is a basic honesty to their football, for each other, and on behalf of the fans.

So I can identify with this team, perhaps more so than any during my adult years. Yes, it’s now playing some beautiful football, and has scored three or more goals for five consecutive games for the first time since I was first beguiled by Kenny Dalglish three decades ago, but even before this recent run, I could sense it was on the right track in its approach to games.

The right attitude is at the heart of it all.

We all have choices relating to how to view a challenge or a setback.  We all decide how to face up to bad luck, or an unfortunate situation. We can bemoan our luck, but self-pity is no help; we have to move past that, and be constructive.

Without having M.E., I’d never have met my girlfriend, a fellow sufferer. Had I not had the ‘bad luck’ of losing my design job due to ill health, I doubt I’d have had the courage to follow my dream of becoming a writer; I needed to lose everything to have the opportunity to start afresh.

Do I wish I was cured today? Of course, not least because I could make more use of what I’ve learned, and put more energy into being a father.

But I also wouldn’t change the past few years, because it has brought non-material rewards I wouldn’t swap for the world. And I may still be learning from the experience. I’m not perfect, but I’m a better person for it.

Do I wish my dad had been diagnosed with something treatable? Of course. But he feels he’s had a good life, and seems intent on celebrating that fact for as long as it now lasts. I respect that. It’s not about giving up, but accepting what cannot be changed, and making the most of what can.

And whether it be sanguine, or philosophical, or any of the other words used in this piece, it’s an attitude I hope I now have too. It may not have been mine at 19, or 27, but at 38 I’m shaped in a different way.

And so, as I try, as ever, to apply this thinking to football, I reach the following conclusion:

Win the league or not, I’m proud of the virtues of this team: fair play, collective spirit, hard work, refusal to capitulate, and a desire to play football to the best of their ability. Thank god I’ve was lucky enough to be born into a situation that allowed me to appreciate it.

Postscript: thanks for the emailed messages of support, they are greatly appreciated. I may well end up writing plenty of pieces in the coming weeks/months to keep myself occupied, if I have the energy, but I wanted those who regularly check the blog for updates to know that I may not feel like doing so.