On a beautiful spring evening, with the sun blazing from unbroken blue skies, I drove the short distance to Cossham Street to watch my Stoke Gifford United boys take on Mangotsfield Sports in the cup semi final. For the first time in my occasional forays to this tidy little club, I actually managed to obtain a space in the car park, instead of trundling down the nearby estate and having to avoid parking across someone’s drive.
The bar was open and Gifford apartheid had been firmly established. The young guns in one corner of the room, the old codgers, obviously including me, in the other. The conversation was much the same as the ones we’ve been having in the Beaufort Arms since Ben Hiscox left us in such tragic circumstances. It is hard to put into words what is going through the minds of Ben’s friends and family. As a low grade wordsmith, I’m finding it very tough to articulate whatever it is I am feeling. What is 100% certain is no one is ready to forget. It feels like we’re in a kind of bubble at the moment, waiting for it to burst and then everything will return to normal.
The game passed by with the Gifford losing 2-1, thanks to a last minute penalty for Mangotsfield. I’d like to say, “Well, so what?” but for an instant, a stupid, ignorant, clumsy instant, I somehow begrudged Mangotsfield their win and looked disapprovingly at their celebrating supporters. This wasn’t supposed to happen: we were supposed to win. It passed. My absurd reaction suggested that there was somehow a notion of fairness and justice in the world in general but football in particular. Many things are not meant to be. It’s how life works.
As the sun began to set, my eyes kept straying towards the skies. Not for any spiritual reasons, you understand, but to view the endless succession of jet aircraft that were nearing final approach to Bristol Airport and then, when darkness had fully descended, the few stars and planets that were still visible, no thanks to the dreadful city light pollution. How small we are in the grand scheme of things. A small, spinning planet in a universe that, for all we know, goes on forever. The only one in our solar system that is capable of supporting life. And ours is but a fleeting visit in time.
Some of the players looked utterly crestfallen at the end as silence took over from the cheers of Mangotsfield supporters. There was no point in me telling them that the result didn’t matter because, to them as footballers and, more importantly, friends of Ben Hiscox the result did matter. It’s why you play the game. No one remembers a loser but my Gifford boys have been the winners since Ben’s accident. You are not talking about a bunch of lads who turn up once a week, play a game of football and then go home again until next week. Many of them are the sons and brothers of village footballers and cricketers and together with their wives and partners (and sisters and daughters, of course!) they bridge several generations. They play together, they socialise together, some of them even live together, in a purely platonic sense, I am sure! And, more importantly, above all else, they all look out for each other, especially in this most difficult week.
I wonder at how they have managed to get through two difficult football matches within a four day period, one against the top team in the league and the other in a cup semi final. Did anyone seriously think they would be 100% right, physically and mentally? Hardly, when many if not all of them have not been sleeping properly and mental exhaustion can be every bit as debilitating. Not the ideal combination for a so called important football match, especially as the team had plainly put pressure on themselves with their desire to win.
It’s about perspective, really, and the ability to compartmentalise different aspects of life. Winning a game of football is important because, as I said, it’s why you play the game and it’s okay to feel different types of emotion before, during and after a game. In a way, I was pleased I was disappointed with the result, if you know what I mean, but I’m more pleased at being able to differentiate a game of football from the things that really matter in the game of life.