Its emotion and belonging time again folks, and how in the space of minutes I sprinted never mind ran, the full range of emotions and possibly discovered the preciousness of life itself.
Because whilst I was on Cloud Giddy at the Britannia Stadium on March 24th 2021, our worst-house-in-a-snooty-area, four-bedroomed semi-detached house was on fire.
I was at the match with George, who was eight at the time. Stoke City versus Manchester City, the title favourites. It’s nil-nil, as the game crawls uneventfully to the hour mark. My wife is at her mother’s house having tea (or dinner, if you’re reading this in the Westlands) with my eldest child Grace (then 12) and youngest, Archie (then 3). Ace kids, my three.
Back to the match, and Peter Crouch, our gangly ex-England international, then scores a goal of quite breathtaking beauty, technique, ferocity and uniqueness. Some things in life are so perfect that they don’t need dissecting. That’s why I despise the over-examination of the working-man’s ballet.
Crouch’s goal was replayed time and time again on the telly, which for me, slightly diluted the spontaneous beauty of the strike and subsequent unbridled celebration in the stands. When some great things happen they should then be left alone. It was possibly the greatest goal I’ve ever seen my club score in 40 years of watching them.
Other things that you can add to my short bloke-ish list of things that fill my perfection senses are:
That first date with the woman you’ve spent months of spade work in getting to like you and whom will in years to come to marry; rooting through the racks in TK Maxx and finding an ace Maharishi wax jacket for under twenty quid; seeing ex-Education Minister Michael Gove slip over on ice on YouTube; driving over Biddulph Moor as dawn breaks; cradling that first pint at the Ty Coch Inn at Porth Dinllaen on the Lleyn Peninsular, as the kids play merrily on the beach in front of you; listening to the radio in the car as the opening strains of Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished sympathy’ streams through the airwaves; walking out of Wembley after winning five-nil; getting a pair of jeans to fit you perfectly; the look of undivided and unbreakable love your baby fixes you with as it awakes at silly-o’clock; the neighbours cutting your lawn as it’s “not really any extra trouble” for them....
You get the picture.
All the above don’t need action replays. They don’t need ‘experts’ and camera angles. They don’t even need a commentary. They simply happen, they simply exist and we simply give thanks that we were there to witness, experience or live them. Time often goes into sow-motion mode when great things happen. God, I wish it had that night.
It was roughly 6.50pm when Crouch put us one-nil up. Unfortunately, it was about the same time as my family’s house was ablaze.
And so it goes that from an emotion of utter exhilarating bliss, to my family’s life changing to a despondency, despair and fear.
Its 7.26pm, in a Fiat Punto, 400 yards from the Britannia Stadium. My mobile rings: “I don’t want to alarm you, but when you get back from Stoke there will be a fire engine parked outside our house”.
That’s about as welcome a statement on a Saturday night for me as “In a moment it’s the new series of Britain’s Got Talent and that’s followed by Take me out.....”. A bit more surreal though.
She was wrong though. There were two fire engines there. And lots of firemen. And a crowd of neighbours, too. Nosey gits!
“I go to the match and when I get back you’re in the house with twelve men in uniform”, I would have said later if I wasn’t choking back tears and various fumes.
The drive back from the ground had taken forty-five long minutes, sat in silence, interspersed with intermittent updates from my wife. The overriding emotion now was pure helplessness as I sat in a car, in a traffic jam, four miles from home, whilst our home smouldered. At least I had the ultimate comfort blanket of driving back home from the match knowing my family was safe.
During the crawl home, my personality-mode was switched from the usual glass half empty self to a rather more upbeat, “I bet it’s just a small kitchen fire and we’ll just lose the microwave and a few pots and pans”, way of thinking. Perhaps if I had stayed true to my usual cautious self at that time I would have been more emotionally prepared for what I eventually saw.
From elation to devastation in such a short space of time.
I won’t go into detail about the fire, but it was extensive enough to have caused tons of damage, bewilderment, loss and heartbreak. Indeed, we lost virtually every possession we had.
And this is where being a stupid, stuck in his ways bloke comes into it: I will now forever associate Crouch’s goal not with beauty, but with destruction. Because people who like football, as poignantly pointed out by Nick Hornby in ‘Fever Pitch’, associate key life moments with their team. I expect non-football fans reading this to be in total bewilderment at that last sentence. I understand that.
I arrived home at 8.14pm and the fire had been vanquished thanks to our wonderful local Fire Brigade, and we were left with virtually just each other and the clothes we stood in.
But when almost everything is lost then you are left with the few things that truly matter in life: family and friends. And that is why football is more important than virtually everything else in life apart from health and loved ones. Its pure emotional escapism. Doesn’t everyone need that?
Possessions may have been burnt or horrendously smoke-damaged, but flesh and blood weren’t, hence the reason I can still smile and still laugh at myself and the world. Life went on, surreally, and in amongst all the tearful days we had as a family, I was still the pig-selfish bloke who still needed football. It’s incredibly immature, but it’s in my DNA. I wish it wasn’t, especially when I close my eyes at night and still sometimes have the smell, THAT vile repugnant smell, in my nostrils.
Which players Stoke City buy in the summer will still matter to me; where Stoke City finish in the league will still matter to me; They have to.
Bill Shankly, one of the most famous football managers of all time stated that “football is not a matter of life and death. It’s far more important than that”. I’ve always thought and known that to be utter rubbish, and it didn’t take the sight of my family stood by blue flashing lights to confirm it. But football matters to folk like me, it truly does. It’s our escape from the treadmill of the working week, a glistening shard of escapism in an often crappy “have you put the bins out yet?” world.
Since the fire, my memory has waned and my sanity has been negated somewhat, whilst constantly hosting thoughts of losing things that are special to me and my family alone. You see, photographs never really mattered to me before. They were just something the wife liked to hang around the house. Well, they were to this clueless idiot. We got by on autopilot, as you have to, don’t you? But only now do I really take in the enormity of what did happen, and what could have happened.
I will always crave the best for my family, and the uncaring, destructive beast that is fire won’t change that. Those who know me will knew that they needn’t have worried about treading on any eggshells about the fire. I witnessed any number of hand-over-mouth responses to phrases such as “I bet you’re gutted, eh?”, and the estate agents telling me they have a number of “red-hot properties to look at!”.
I simply refused to lower the needle on my banter-o-meter (lord, I detest that word, ‘banter’), even when we were referred to, quite rightly, as “homeless” in The Sentinel newspaper on the Monday. But at times like that, do some people feel that they too wish they had something in their lives like I have with my football club? Something that for a tiny fragment of life can take you away from your problems? Any problems.
The bottom line: I’m still here, my family are still here, my mates are still here, thankfully alcohol is still here, and Stoke City are still here. Do I need any more than that?
…and training shoes are still here.
A week after our fire, we went up to The Lake District for a few days. It had been booked weeks before, and despite my wife’s protestations, I felt that the insurance were doing their bit and there was little we could do. We needed a break. We also needed stuff to wear.
This is where my love of a bit of retail therapy kicked in.
We had next to nothing to wear. Basically, what we had on that night and a few bits and bobs arranged through the insurance to tide us over. Extra Value ten-pairs-for-a-quid pants from Tesco, that kind of thing.
We travelled up and stayed in a bargain £23 Travelodge room near Kendal. We were so skint at that time that we were having to go into KFC to lick other people’s fingers, hence the uber-cheap hotel room and also the chance to stock up trainers at ace prices. So we drove through Kendal and headed into the tiny village of Shap – a surreal place for trainer heaven.
Because that’s where New Balance has an outlet shop. And I adore New Balance, always have done and I have an innate knowledge of where certain brands have their outlet stores and sale shops. The Shap outlet had three lovely ladies working in there, and it was really late in the day - nearly 5pm, and they could have shut up early or done some tutting.....
I’ve always been a trainer-spotter. It’s my one indulgence, and whilst I don’t profess to ever go on Mastermind about Boston’s finest, I love their stuff. Needless to say, I was in trainer heaven…..and after chatting to the lovely ladies who worked in there, they soon sorted out some stock to look at that was in their upstairs stockroom. "Everything in here you can have for £9 each", they said. I was in heaven.
We were in there for two hours, nothing was too much trouble for them…….and when we were done, our boot was full of NB – footwear and clothing. It wasn’t just that we had managed to replace a load of stuff for very little money; it was the kindness shown by these ladies that shone through. They were also hysterically funny, and I imagined that they’d be like that with everyone who walked through their front door.
When I got back to Stoke I instantly wrote a piece on the shop and the staff for The Sentinel newspaper, and vowed to return.
A year later, and return we certainly did. Those lovely ladies recognised us and it was more akin to a family get-together than an hour’s shopping. We went armed with the piece from the newspaper and some chocolates and wine for them. Yet again, it all ended up ship-shape in Shap.
The same lovely ladies who looked after us last time we were in the shop yet again, and once more came up trumps. I didn’t realise that Stoke City’s (then) new kit suppliers, Warrior, are part of New Balance (or vice-versa), but what a lovely surprise it was to get the kids Warrior football boots and trainers for just £10 a pair in there, too! Me? How delighted was I to see that most NB’s seemed to come in UK size 9.5 – my size. So it would have been rude not to have bought a few pairs. A couple of pairs of deadstock 574’s were added to two pairs of the rarely-seen CT court shoe series. Add on a jacket for my eldest lad, a sweatshirt for me, socks, and running bottoms for my daughter – all for just over what you’d pay for a home ticket at The Emirates Stadium.
What is has done is to make New Balance trainers feel even more personal to me. From 1500’s to CT’s to 575’s, I’ve always worn and adored their trainers. After our experiences in Shap, I feel an affinity with the brand that I don’t really get with others. Like football, New Balance now has an emotional attachment for me.
It’s soon time to go visit those ace ladies again!