Why Groundhop Week means something to me
This is a true story about Atletico Madrid, Athletico Beerbarrel and the deterioration in health and eventual death of my grandmother. With such disparate strands forming one narrative, it almost sounds like the basis for an admittedly offbeat novel. I haven’t got the time, inclination or talent to write a novel though. And besides, there’s time running out to write this as it is. It has to be now.
There’s another main focus that ties all of those things together – four blokes driving around the country visiting 165 football grounds in 165 hours for charity. They are doing it at this very moment. Before their challenge ends, I wanted to write something about why their self-imposed mission means something to me even though I don’t know them.
Because although I don’t know them, I do recognise one of them from the pictures on their website. He played for Athletico Beerbarrel and I played for Deportivo Lack Ability. They won 11-0, but that’s not important right now. Another of that team is the editor of the excellent Northampton Town fanzine HotelEnders, which regularly features a column written by my flatmate. We had some tussles at five-a-side, most of which they won and some of which we won. When Deportivo first formed, we were dreadful and I was one of the better players in a pretty awful team.
That 11-0 defeat was fairly representative of the first two or three seasons we endured. Then some of the poorer players left and some better players joined until I realised I was one of the worst players in the side. This coincided with an upturn in results and left us on an even footing with Athletico Beerbarrel, who changed their team name each season. For some reason, that’s the only one which sticks in my mind. I eventually gave up five-a-side when I realised I much preferred watching football to playing it and that there was no shame in that. After all, I wasn’t getting any fitter. I was just making myself hurt for half an hour every week.
It never made me ecstatic and it never made me cry either, no matter how many goals sailed past our increasingly frustrated goalkeeper. Watching football has made me cry – once.
It was 30th September 1997. My team, Leicester City, had just been eliminated from the UEFA Cup following a 4-1 defeat over two legs to Atletico Madrid. There was a lot of emotion that night – it was the first time I, and many of our fans below a certain age, had ever seen us play in a European club competition and Filbert Street was packed. The referee sent Garry Parker off after giving him a second yellow card for taking a free kick too quickly – a rule which still baffles me to this day. With a 2-1 deficit to overturn, Martin O’Neill encouraged our players further and further forward until we were effectively playing a two-man defence of Pontus Kaamark and Neil Lennon. Atletico picked us off twice late on to add gloss to the aggregate scoreline and dash my dreams of an unlikely passage to the next round. After the final whistle, I suddenly burst into tears.
The cruelty of the result brought it to the surface but it had been bubbling underneath all evening. In truth, those tears were 1% to do with football and 99% to do with the recent passing of my grandmother. When I think about her, I remember that evening. I also think about the time I visited her in a nursing home and she sat and listened to me ramble on for ages about a 2-0 win over Liverpool. For a few years afterwards, I found it incredible that someone would be willing to listen to so much about a topic they had very little interest in. As I got older, I began to realise that she hadn’t been interested in what I was saying so much as the passion and enthusiasm I had for it. Maybe all she wanted was for me to be sat with her at that time and I could have talked about anything without any danger of boring her. What I didn’t know at the time was that she had very little life left to live.
Another nagging regret I had for years afterwards, which has also disappeared with experience, was the shame that two events so closely linked to football should dominate my memories of my grandmother. Why couldn’t I remember a birthday or a celebration? Why did it always have to be about football? Over time I grew to recognise that not all of my memories of her were linked to football. As I’ve got older and football hasn’t seemed as important as it did when I was a teenager, other memories have come to the forefront of my mind. When my younger brother was born, my grandparents were looking after me at my parents’ house and there was a telephone call. My grandmother answered it and began to cry. I was only 7 years old and I thought something bad had happened. She told me they were tears of joy. I’ve never forgotten that phrase and any tears of joy I see now bring that memory back as if I was stood in the hallway of that house once again.
I also remember the first time that I saw her shaking. She was sat next to my mum on the settee in my grandparents’ last home. I was sat opposite and I noticed that she was shaking uncontrollably. I didn’t understand it at the time but I was soon told all about Parkinson’s Disease. I got used to seeing her shake, but I never accepted it fully. It always made me a little bit angry that someone could have their control taken away from them like that. She started to find simple tasks impossible to do. I enjoyed helping her but hated that I had to do it in the first place. We visited her in a few different nursing homes and she always sat and listened to me for hours, probably rambling on about football for the most part.
Then one day I came home from school and my mum answered the door with tears in her eyes. As so many people find when the worst happens, I didn’t even need to ask. I knew they weren’t tears of joy. I learned that it was cancer that actually took her from us, not Parkinson’s. It was a lot to take in for a 13-year-old. I remember my own tears in the immediate aftermath, the time I had to leave an art class at school because I suddenly had a flashback to that time I got home from school and the tears that came shortly after the final whistle at Filbert Street that night too.
So when I heard that four blokes from Northampton were planning on driving around the country, visiting 165 football grounds in 165 hours, raising money for Parkinson’s UK and Cancer Research UK, I felt like punching the air. What a stupidly brilliant, brilliantly stupid way to make a few quid for these charities, both of which I feel something for as a result of the last few years of my grandmother’s life. Just seeing the names of those charities brought all kinds of memories flooding back. Some good, some bad, but all leaving a smile on my face when they eventually faded away again. And all of sudden, I was glad that they beat us 11-0. They had earned it.
You can find out more about Groundhop Week and donate to the two charities on the Groundhop Week website.
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