Monday 23 September 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: The greatest show on earth


Illustration by Ben Hickey
Illustration by Ben Hickey
Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle

Officially, according to my birth cert, I'm well into my 60s. In fact, I'm just less than 16. Because, like every other football lover, I measure my age in four-year instalments - that is, the gaps between the World Cups.

I know, the World Cup isn't what it used to be and Ireland won't be there this time, battling the midgies in Siberia or whatever Russian paradise we'd have ended up in.

Every time the World Cup comes around I tell myself and everyone else who'll listen that I'm not really bothered this time. But then I end up colonising the couch for the month. I survive - actually, I thrive - on Bovril and bananas, and I watch everything. RTÉ shows all the matches and I'm with them all the way. The only exercise I get is shouting at the telly.

- Gobs***e!

I hear the wife calling from the kitchen.

- Is that Dunphy you're shouting at, Charlie?

- No, it's that stupid ad for f***in' Carlsberg!

- Ah, I like him.

- I know!


I remember watching the 1966 Final with my father. My little brother, Pat, was standing on the telly holding the rabbit's ears up over his head because the reception was so bad that day.

- What's happening? he kept asking.

- Don't worry, son, said my father. - We'll let you know if anything happens.

I was sitting on the floor, beside my father's legs.

- Are we up for England, Da? I asked him.

- Not quite, son, he said.

- Why not?

- It's complicated.

- Why is it? I asked him.

- Well, they shot my Uncle Harry, he said.

- Did Bobby Moore shoot Uncle Harry?

- Just watch the match, son, and we'll have the history lesson after.

We might not have been up for England but we still went mad when Geoff Hurst scored his third goal. When I think of the World Cup I can feel my father's arms around me as he ran out to the back garden after the final whistle, carrying me and Pat, and he yelled, "They think it's all over!" And Mister Kelly next door yelled back, "It is now!"

By 1970 I knew everything about football - everything. It was my Da who was asking the questions.

- Where's El Salvador, Charlie?

- Central America.

- Good man.

- Between Guatemala and Honduras.

- Oh, good. That's nice.

- Their main exports are coffee and cotton.

- There's a corner now, look it.

I knew there'd been a war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 - the Football War - after El Salvador beat Honduras in a World Cup qualifier. Madness - but it made complete sense to the boy I was in 1970.

By 1990 I had kids of my own, and I was walking one of them, trying to get him back to sleep, during the penalty shoot-out against Romania. The scream I let out of me - the poor lad claims he hasn't slept since. He's only joking but he still gets the jitters whenever he sees a picture of David O'Leary.

I'm skipping 2002, and Saipan. It's still too raw and too painful. My cousin, Eddie, stormed out of the house and we haven't seen him since, even though he only lives up the road. He never came back for his jacket. (Eddie, if you're reading this: you were wrong, Roy was right, and I gave your poxy jacket to the Vincent de Paul - but they wouldn't take it.)

Anyway, we fast-forward to 2006. We watched Italy beat Germany in the semi- final the day we buried my father. I can remember nothing about the match but I remember loving everyone in the room watching it with me, and I remember my brother, Pat, shouting "They think it's all over!" every 30 seconds.

So. Here we go again - another World Cup. In Russia this time, the country that gave us Tolstoy, Trotsky and Trump. There'll be no daylight for me until after the Final's final whistle.

I have to admit, it's hard to get excited. There'll be riots, there'll be racism, the football will be tedious, Thierry Henry will be even more unbearable.

But I've the little grandson beside me on the couch. We've got the popcorn and the Ribena, and we're all set to watch England's first game, against Tunisia.

- Are we wup for England, G'anda? he asks me.

- Not really, love, I tell him.

- Why not?

How do you explain Brexit to a three-year-old? How do you explain Thatcher and Cromwell, 1916 and colonialism, the Beatles, the Stones, the football, democracy, Dusty Springfield, Morecambe and Wise, the Famine, the border, Meghan and Harry, the best and the worst, the strange love-hate, hate-love, hate-hate, love-love relationship we've had with the noisy neighbours for the last 800 years. It's too much; it's way too complicated for a three-year-old.

So I tell him the truth.

- Bobby Moore shot your great-great-great-uncle Harry.

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