Sunday 26 May 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: In which football is a matter of life and death


Illustration: Ben Hickey
Illustration: Ben Hickey

We're in the gap between the football and the football - the end of the Premier League and the start of the World Cup. It's a horrible time of the year. The sun is sometimes out and the world is friendly and gorgeous. But I hate it.

I've hated the summer, and the threat of the summer, since I was a kid and I decided that Manchester United were my team until death. I even cut my thumb with my brother's penknife and put my mark on George Best's forehead and swore my loyalty to him and the club. It was my brother's poster and he nearly killed me when he saw the blood dribbling down between George's eyes but I didn't care and I felt no pain. I was Man U forever.

I was only a little lad and I didn't understand that the football stopped for the summer. I got up beside my father at the kitchen table one Saturday morning and asked him to show me the football fixtures in his paper.

- There aren't any, son, he told me.

- What?

He explained it to me: the season was over and the players had gone on their holidays.

- They're lounging around some swimming pool, he said. - Slugging their cocktails.

I didn't want to cry but I couldn't help it.

- Ah, now, said my Da. - They'll be back in August.

But August was years away; I couldn't imagine it.

I don't cry anymore at the end of the season but I always feel like it.

But not this year.

I don't know why not - there's something missing.

But that's not true. I know exactly why the football doesn't seem to matter.

Your marriage might fall apart and your heart or your hips might need replacing but your team is your team for life; divorce and surgery aren't options. Through thick and thin, relegation and heartache, you live and love your team. It's a basic test of character. I knew a chap who emigrated just so he could stop following Leeds and start supporting Arsenal. And he thought he'd get away with it, the eejit. Word got back and he's been known as Arsène Quisling ever since.

But I knew another chap too, Mick Sweeney. When the rest of us were opting for United or Liverpool, Mick announced that he followed Huddersfield. He stood there for a solid hour and endured our laughter. And years later, Mick was shaving and married and still in love with Huddersfield. They were relegated and relegated again; they kept dropping through the divisions. They'd never been in colour on Match of the Day. Poor Mick thought their jerseys were black and white until he went over to England to see them.

- Jesus, Charlie, he said when he got home. - I was walking around in a Newcastle jersey. I thought they'd kill me.

Anyway, Huddersfield won the Championship play-off final last year, and I thought of Mick. They were on Match of the Day - in colour - on the first day of the season, and I thought of Mick.

I hadn't seen him in years. He'd moved to Meath after him and Sheila had their sixth kid.

- There's no room in Dublin, he told us. - So we're after buying a field in Ballivor.

- Where's that, Mick? Mongolia?

- Near enough, said Mick. - The kids will be going to school by camel.

But he seemed happy enough - Mick always seemed happy.

I was watching Huddersfield play their second-last game of the season, at Chelsea. They drew, and that meant they'd be in the Premier League for another year. I watched the team celebrate, and I thought of Mick. I thought of Mick watching exactly what I was watching. I could see him kneeling in front of his telly, crying, laughing - kissing the screen.

I stood up.

- I'm phoning Mick, I said.

There was no one else in the room, but it didn't matter. I didn't have his mobile number but I found his real number in a notebook beside the phone in the hall. I reminded myself how to use the phone - it had been ages since I'd used it.

Anyway, I phoned him.

I waited.

- Hello?

It was a woman's voice.

- Is that Sheila? I asked.

- It is, yes.

- Sheila - howyeh. It's Charlie. Savage.

- Ah, Charlie…

- Is Mick there? He must be going mad, is he?

- Mick? she said. - Charlie... Mick…

- Yeah?

- Poor Mick died. Last year.

I said I was sorry for her troubles. I asked her how the kids were - I pretended I knew who they were. I told her I'd come down to see the grave. I told her to look after herself. I put the phone down.

Huddersfield will be on Match of the Day again next season. I'll be thinking of Mick.

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