Lots of screenwriting content in my next post, including WINNING a screenwriting award at a festival(!!), but first an article I’ve written for the excellent Blackwatch football magazine about the unrelenting fever of childhood sports passion. In my case it was Everton Football Club, but for you it could have been the Chicago Bulls or the Boston Redsocks…
Let’s go back to a small town in South Wales, over thirty years ago…
Tuesday August 22nd 1989.
‘Reckon we gave him too much potassium as a baby…?’
Mum and Dad, in the living room, worriedly peered out at me in the back garden. It was beyond dusk, but I was still carefully kicking a golf ball from the top of the lawn to the bottom, where a garden hoe was stuck into the ground, upright. Upon kicking the golf ball against the metal hoe head, I would pick it up, turn and head back to the top of the lawn. I had now been in this wordless loop for two hours, oblivious to my parents concern and in another world.
A white hot world of agony.
I had pulled the kitchen radio out into the yard as far as the lead would allow, and BBC ‘Evening Sport On Two’ was blaring up onto the lawn. My stomach was knotted. My mouth was dry. There was a moment, just seven minutes away, that could provide me with a flood of euphoria so pure that the entire world would be gold-tinted for the rest of the evening and all of tomorrow. Happiness so powerful that I would still have a spring in my step bounding down to pick up ‘Match Magazine’ from the newsagents on Thursday.
But this was no ordinary seven minutes. This was a distant seven minutes… It would unfold one slow, thumping second at a time. There would be moments of cold terror. But if we could remain unscathed throughout the adventures that lay ahead in this next seven minutes…
..we could leap over Coventry into 9th.
Chapter One – Ignorance Was Bliss
1987/88: Manchester United 2-1 Everton
Wednesday. I was stood on the high wall out in the back lane, being egged on by Peter, Jane, Leanne and Michelle. I pushed the seat of the rope swing (usual thing, just a firm stick) under my backside and looked up at the rickety oak branch 30 feet up which the swing was tied to. I gazed out at the distant mountain top with the row of sentry electricity pylons and wondered if I would travel far enough in my lifetime to find out how tall they were. Peter was stood by the stream, the one we regularly dammed up for fun and which would then, days later, flood the back gardens of the entire street. ‘Jump Phil!’ At 10 years old, I was the oldest of the group and so could not afford to show weakness. I jumped.
Thursday. I was so excited to pick up this week’s Match (Christmas Special edition!) that I was practically running down the hill into town. Katherine Maguire, two years older than me and so basically an adult, was sat on her front wall. As usual, I forgot to go the other way to avoid her. ‘Hamer! Going down for your Bunty?’ Her observation skills were lacking. It was the Beano. And I transitioned to Match months ago. ‘No!’ ‘Yes you are, you’re going for your Bunty! Oh that’s cute!’. I hate girls. Specifically Katherine Maguire.
So Manchester United. Away. Up until this day, playing in the back lane had always trumped listening to/watching the Everton match. Even the 1986 FA cup final. That day, Michelle called for me and I told her I can’t come out cos I’m watching Everton get on the bus. But once Lineker and co were safely boarded, I ran out to play and forgot the Cup final was happening til after the final whistle. A blessing, as it turned out.
Entire Saturdays were spent out in the back lane with Peter and Co, from dawn til dusk with just a nervous trip home to watch Final Score at 4:40pm. But today, I was expertly damming up the stream with assistant engineer Michelle at 2:55pm when I decided, out of nowhere and to Michelle’s consternation, that I would go home to listen to Manchester United v Everton on the radio.
1987/88 had thus far been harrowing for Everton. We went into Christmas in fourth, and to rub it in, Liverpool had morphed into a collection of super-robot-mega androids and were light years ahead of us at the top. However, Peter Reid had provided comfort in this week’s Match. ‘Tell the Evertonians it’s fine, we were in the same boat last Christmas but we won all five Christmas games and pulled everyone back to us. We’ll do the same this year.’ Phew.
Half time, Manchester United 0-0 Everton. Listening to Everton was hard. I just sat, white faced and clench-jawed, staring at the radio. Fifty minutes. Brian McClair scores for United. I actually listen to this happening. This new live action pain where Alan Green’s voice goes up through the octaves and then hits peak pitch, is excruciating. Robson… Through to McClair! IT’S A GOAL! But we can still do this. Seventy two minutes. Penalty to United. What? What a tremendous penalty, it’s 2-0! My blood freezes. No. This isn‘t right. Peter Reid said not to worry! Liverpool go 4-0 up against Newcastle. NO! HE TOLD US NOT TO WORRY! Dave Watson pulls a goal back for Everton. Something has happened to my body and my mind since half time and suddenly Everton getting an equaliser is the most important thing in the world. Not just my world. But THE world. Please Everton. Equalise.
An incredible moment at the final whistle. I walk silently up to my room, climb into bed and start crying.
Of course, within minutes the tears had stopped and I was left staring at my bedroom ceiling with this strange new pain of live-action defeat. Within an hour, the smell of home-made pizza baked from scratch by my Dad wafted up from the kitchen and brought light back to my darkened soul. Please let it be pepperami.
But that day something had begun. Something had come down and enveloped me.
Chapter Two – Saturday Night Fever
1988/89: Everton 3-1 Middlesborough
Thursday. I navigated the Katherine Maguire battlement receiving only a tame ‘Hamer boy! What’s happening flinthead?’ (My head was sort of long as a kid), and made it to Rowlands Newsagents intact. This place, with it’s floor to ceiling magazines, had become the centre of the world. Do you like cricket? Yep. There’s a wall of magazines on cricket. Like football? Do I ever! There’s a wall on football. Computer games? Wall. Golf? There’s a ceiling of golf magazines. And at 11 years old, I liked everything. I’m not sure if it was minutes or hours that I used to spend in Rowlands Newsagents on Thursdays, but Time, as a non-spatial continuum, ceased existence once I stepped into that golden Bazaar.
Middlesborough. Home. I no longer sat petrified, staring at the radio for afternoons of Division One football. My nervous energy was now released by kicking my little brothers sponge football repeatedly around the kitchen. In a loop. For two hours. From my parents perspective, it will have looked desperately worrying. But it was not aimless mental disintegration. It was a par three golf course. The ball starts by the back door. It must travel fully around the kitchen table, through the little gap, and then touch the cabinet under the sink. In three kicks. Par three. Doing this eighteen times constituted one round of golf (par 54). Doing four rounds of golf constituted a full tournament. Doing ten tournaments constituted a full professional season.
What my parents saw as me shuffling around the kitchen for two hours, kicking a sponge ball and muttering ‘…three under after sixteen, three under after sixteen, three under after sixteen…Yes! Four under after seventeen…’ was actually me completing an entire professional season of golf in the time it took for Everton, gloriously, to defeat Middlesborough 3-1 and move up to fourth! I was able to simultaneously keep score of my golf round and absorb every single word of Alan Green and Mike Inghams football commentary. Everton was not the featured match, but I developed the ability to detect from Ingham/Greens subtle change of tone that a score update from elsewhere was incoming. Please let it be a goal at Goodison… ‘Goal at Goodison!’ Sponge golf stops. My brain stops. My heart stops. ‘Rob Hawthorn!’
I put ‘fourth’ in italics above for very different reasons than in the previous chapter. By now, fourth was a cause for enormous celebration.
Saturday evenings spent basking in your teams victories are, as you know, delicious. It matters not that late Victorian powers-that-be recognised this, and decided association football would be a convenient opium with which to sedate the masses while they quietly pushed power structures onto us that would render us politically anaemic… we’d picked up three points at Coventry! And my Saturday evenings following Everton victories were particularly euphoric. Upon the final whistles, I would grab my leather bound pad and pull up a chair at the dining room table. By the time Sports Report kicked in at 5pm, I had begun the slow, delicious process of writing out the up-to-date league table.
By 6pm, the table would be complete. I would spend the rest of the evening staring at it. Since then, and right up to the present day, when I see a collection of three numbers my mind first goes to what sort of a season this represents. TV game show ‘3-2-1’… Hmm, three wins, two draws, one defeat. Decent start. You can’t win the title after six games but you can certainly lose it. Maths test in school… ‘What is 15 – 6 – 8?’ I’ll tell you what it is. It’s 51 points after 29 games and you’re probably nudging top five my friend. Hey Phil, let’s do the Welsh three peaks challenge, Snowdon, Cader Idris and Pen-y-Fan mountains in one day. How high are they? They’re 1,085, 893, 886. What do you think? I think that’s 4,148 points after 2,864 games and realistically you’re still in with a shot at UEFA Cup.
There would be a time from 6pm til 7pm where I would be in the early hours of my marathon ‘League Table Stare’, I would be eating platefuls of my Dad’s freshly baked pepperami pizza, Bob Monkhouse would be wise-cracking away on the tele and Everton had beaten Middlesborough… And I would be thinking… ‘Wow. I never knew the world could be actually perfect.’
Chapter Three – The Whiteside Newell Revolution.
1989/90: Everton 3-0 Arsenal
Thursday. Katherine Maguire looked up from her ghetto blaster as I approached. I should state here, ghetto blasters were already old hat by then so this isn’t just a razor sharp, zeitgeisty cultural reference. Katherine Maguire wasn’t at the cutting edge of anything. Her tongue was though. ‘Alright speccy! How you doing, four-eyes? Watch the lamppost Clarence!’ I’d been made to wear reading glasses cos my eyes were wonky and needed sorting out. I wore them down the newsagents cos I had 112 magazines to surreptitiously read while I was there buying 1. As I shrunk away from Katherine, I eased my specs off and put them in my jacket pocket, never to see daylight again.
Arsenal. Home. A new match day setup, first trialled against Spurs in August when we did indeed hang on for those seven long minutes and the world did indeed turn golden for days. Kitchen radio out in the back yard, Sport on Two blaring up onto the lawn. A hoe stuck upright into the bottom of the lawn representing the ‘golf hole’. Ten yards away at the top of the lawn, the Tee zone. Kick the golf ball against the hoe in three kicks for a par three. Repeat 18 times for one round of golf. Repeat this four times for a tournament etc…
From the incredulous first half commentary of Mike Ingham and Alan Green, it seemed like Pat Nevin, Kevin Sheedy and Norman Whiteside were dancing and thrusting through the reigning champions at will. However, it was only 1-0 (Nevin) at half time, and I was only level par after two rounds in the hoe golf. By now, a final tournament score of ten under had been written into the rules as a tournament victory, so I was miles off at halfway.
75 minutes. Still only 1-0 to Everton despite us sounding like Brazil 1970. It was wave after wave of attack. Ingham and Green painted a picture of the Arsenal players wandering around in a daze. Nevin sending half the team to the pie kiosk with a feint. Sheedy pinging it 60 yards to onrushing Ebbrell’s and McDonald’s. Norman Whiteside barrelling through gaping holes in midfield. What’s this… Cottee to McDonald… 2-0! As if quantum entangled with Colin Harvey’s charges, my tee kicks started landing within a yard. Three under. Six under. A hole in one! Mike Ingham was literally purring at the footie unfolding before him… Cottee, what a wonderful game he’s having… Onto Nevin, oh it’s beautiful… and Nevin scores!
Everton had dismantled the champions 3-0 to go top of the table, and I clinched tournament victory with a nervy par at the last. It doesn’t get much better than this. All the angst over the past two seasons and it turns out all Everton Football Club needed to reclaim their rightful place at the top of European football was Mike Newell. If we can just keep him til the ban ends…
Chapter Four – An ending and a beginning.
1990/91: Everton 2-3 Liverpool
The world looked different this morning. I noticed the greenness of the trees and the blueness of the sky. Really noticed it. But it’s not spring. It’s September. If anything it’s a time when colour is fading from the world. So what’s going on? Katherine Maguire is sat on her wall. It’s a warm day and she’s wearing her yellow cotton skirt and a baggy pink t-shirt. She looks up from her magazine as I approach, but she’s not loading verbal arrows into her quiver. She just smiles at me. ‘Hi Phil’. My neural pathways associate Katherine with humiliation so I am unprepared for this. ‘…Hi Katherine’.
I’ve never noticed before, but her skirt is just above the knee and so her lower thigh/upper knee, depending on whether you are a glass-half-full kind of boy, is visible. I walk on and feel a bit dizzy. Must be nerves. We’re playing Liverpool later.
Liverpool. Home. This is a different Merseyside Derby now. Obviously Liverpool are 1st. But we are 18th. The heavy branch that has been leaning on the roof since the Heysel ban has finally caved the ceiling in and the entire club has imploded.
To spongeball golf and hoe golf, I have now added spongeball free kicks. My little brothers tiny red table is at the far end of the living room and is a perfectly proportioned goal. The two little red chairs are formed into a defensive wall. I have to strike the sponge football with dip and swerve vicious enough to curl over the wall and into the empty goal. Through the course of this Merseyside Derby I complete over 400 free kicks, scoring 125. One free kick every 15-20 seconds for two whole hours, unbroken. By now I understand that my relentless, repetitive journeys up and down the lawn, or the living room, or around the kitchen, are just an outlet for the incredible store of nervous energy I produce during even the most mundane league fixtures. A mid table trip to Luton Town in November produces no less nervous energy than a cup semi-final.
Liverpool are toying with the forlorn shadow of what was once Everton FC. They go 2-0 up in a blizzard of attacks and all I can hear is Alan Green screeching ‘Beardsley, Barnes, oh BEARDSLEY!! They go 3-0 up midway through the second half. We have players called Ray Atteveld and Mike Milligan now. Atteveld is mentioned only for repeatedly scything Barnes down in dangerous areas. I have to check the papers the next day to make sure Milligan played as he is not mentioned once. Even our good players, the ones who used to thrust, and dance, and ping, and rove… They no longer do such things. It sounds like they mainly just gesticulate at one another. We pull two goals back, which briefly reignites my circuitry, but it’s not enough.
But this match is not included here due to my realisation that the ‘good’ Everton I fell in love with has disappeared forever. It is here because of what happened after the game. A home defeat to Liverpool is the most painful footballing outcome possible for an Evertonian. For those young ones with The Fever, the only thing you can do upon the final whistle is troop wordlessly to bed and stare at the ceiling for an hour. But today, on the final whistle I was able to walk past the stairs and out into the garden. I went up into the back lane and sat on the high wall. I gazed out at the distant mountain top with the row of electricity pylons. I looked up at the high oak branch with the remnants of the long removed rope swing. I looked over to where the stream once ran, until the gardens were flooded one too many times and the council piped it and covered it over.
But mainly, I thought about Katherine Maguires upper knee.
I’d had The Fever from the age of 10 to 14, but finally it had left me. It had been replaced by a calmer kind of fandom. Slightly less joyous but also less traumatising. Something that would enable me to carry on following and cherishing Everton, but also to exist outside thoughts of Everton, and league tables, and Cottee’s lack of chemistry with Sharp. There’s a whole world out there…
‘Phil… PIZZA’S READY!’
I hopped off the wall and sauntered down to my garden. Please let it be pepperami.