When things go bad on you, you need distractions. Thankyou Chasetown, for getting an entire weekend’s worth of perfect distraction underway:
Although Cardiff pulled it out in the end, Chasetown set the tone. This was one of those Third Round weekends. I don’t know which I enjoyed most. Havant and Waterlooville, who sound like a Napoleonic killing field? Coventry, a city I’m fond of in any case, knocking seven bells out of, of all teams, Blackburn, who you’d have fancied to be immune to this kind of thing? Sheffield United, recouping a little late justice against Bolton?
I thought the BBC coverage – both on TV and Radio 5 – was excellent. In particular, it was interesting to see footage of a merely middle-aged Stan Matthews, played just before Stoke and Newcastle compared styles on Sunday afternoon. How good he was, and how good just to think that, without wanting to do my usual thing and plonk it all into historical context and a diatribe about football clichees.
After the hypertension of Sky, BBC live coverage is like a big comfortable old sofa. It hasn’t really changed since the ’80s, a feeling made stronger by the Championship sides and their lower-league cohorts with their surprising wealth of British players. I half expected it to cut to the wrestling and the racing results. I half wish it had. What would you do, if you could go back and start again from (insert year), but knowing what you know now?
Aston Villa v Manchester United, and then Match of the Day, and then Burnely v Arsenal and Luton v Liverpool (how 80s Kenilworth Road still looks), and then Stoke v Newcastle, and then the final whistle and the comments, and then reality pushes its face back into mine.
With Havant perhaps having a trip to Anfield if they can overcome Swansea, it might not be over yet.
This is not the first time in my life that sport has given me time off.
I was mugged in late ’92. I was outside my front door with armfuls of Byron biographies and thus my assailants caught me at an unusually defenceless moment. I’d been planning to write a Byron biography myself. But my book lay under a gypsy curse. First, I had the front of my head kicked in – the resulting fracture of my frontal lobe was too dangerous to operate upon, so I haven’t headed a football in fifteen years. Secondly, I’d been given the chance to discuss publication with John Murray himself – the descendant of Byron’s own publisher. But waiting for me at home was a letter from him in crabbed handwriting apologising that he was about to go into hospital. He died there, and my former tutor and mentor who’d arranged it, Angus Macintyre, would himself die in a car accident 18 months later. I’d given up before then.
Immediately after the attack, I found that sunset brought on immediate, intense, inexplicable terror. I remember it happening once when I was safe in a car surrounded by family in the middle of the Berkshire countryside on my way to a birthday meal. But nonetheless I was determined not to let criminals change my life, and I kept my same route home and my same habits.
Two weeks later, I ran into the same gang – and, without waiting to see if I’d been recognised, scarpered, all bravado stripped and gone. I ended up in a nearby shop, panting and whimpering at the counter. There was no sign of the shopkeeper, and the shop itself was empty. My ears picked up the sound of a radio.
Football commentary. Manchester United against West Ham: Pallister, Hughes, Bruce, and it was the last few minutes. We had them under siege.
Sometimes you just need to lose yourself in a greater cause. The shopkeeper came back, and we stood together listening. A teenage couple came in, then an old man, then a small boy. No one said a word. We stood in a little group with our lives suspended. Manchester hit the bar, then blazed over it. West Ham cleared their lines. Then a free kick, sent back into the mixer, chaos, then the ball ran clear again. A throw-in, and then the final whistle.
The spell broke, but not before we exchanged shakes of the heads and rueful expressions. I left emptyhanded, walking out into a bright Gospel Oak evening, my head cleared of fear and the gang quite forgotten.
Earlier that summer, a run of bad luck had ended for me in a mad dash to catch an Olympic event on the radio which was all I had then. Hard now to describe how much anticipation and concern centred on this one ten second snippet of one man’s life, but the country stopped to acknowledge… this: