As the eminent Welsh comedian Max Boyce most eloquently put it, “I was there”. Somewhere, out of the darkness, came a flash of dazzling light. With a combination of character, mental strength, belief, courage and desire, our boys from Stoke Gifford United FC had done it for Ben Hiscox. They had done it for Ben and most of all they won it for Ben. Stoke Gifford United FC: Champions of the Bristol and Suburban League.
We took a large crowd of villagers to Cossham Street in Mangotsfield last night. A large and very vocal crowd of villagers, in each half standing behind the home team’s goal, trying to suck the ball into the net.
Our boys needed a draw or better to win the league, Mangotsfield Sports needed to win. After a blip that saw the team’s fortunes dip, before and after Ben’s passing, a large part of me thought the season might just fizzle out. I had no doubt that we had the best team in the league, but I would not have blamed them if they had just played out the rest of the season, going through the motions. They could have easily gone that way after losing their special friend. But they didn’t. Drawing upon reserves I’ll bet many of them didn’t even know they had, they started winning again. Not always playing at the very top of their game, often doing just enough, but sometimes reaching the heights. None of us wanted to go down this road of tragedy and upset, to see the lives and dreams of so many good and decent people shattered by a one in a million accident, but somehow Stoke Gifford, its team and its community clung together in a loving embrace, and made the seemingly impossible possible.
The game, played on an horrendously wide and terrible pitch, against a team who gave it their all, was not always the best in terms of quality and we rode our luck once or twice. We even found ourselves a goal down in the first half but these boys were made of sterner stuff. In the second half, they rose above their mental and physical exhaustion and put in one big effort, culminating in a great run by Cheesey which ended with him being brought down in the penalty area and the seemingly nerveless Geraint Williams – G to those of us who can’t spell! – slotted the ball home in front of, it must be said, wildly celebrating villagers. But if we thought the stress was bad before, it was nothing up to what we were feeling now. In the closing minutes, the home side bombarded our goal and we all feared they might score and snatch a title victory from the jaws of defeat and although the referee gave them every chance to do so, unaccountably adding some nine minutes of stoppage time, they couldn’t make it. The celebrations began.
I made a token brief appearance at a raucous post match dressing room, only to be semi-drenched by some of the contents from a Champagne bottle. I congratulated the boys for winning the league and one of them said, “We’d have won it ages ago with Hiscox.” Anyone still doubt what Ben means to them?
The next action was at the Hilton Hotel in Aztec West where the great and the good (and 59 year old Stinky Turner) were gathered for an evening of drinking, dancing, general debauchery and of course award-giving. Unfortunately, my recollections are a little hazy as to who actually won what. I know that Ben Hiscox deservedly won the new top goalscorer award that is in his name and Guy Long won a series of awards – I think one was for worst ginger beard, but I had a few beers on board by then so I could be wrong – and which were, coincidentally I trust, presented to him by his own father. I was briefly distracted by whispered conversation at one point and found myself a tad surprised when Ben Bennett appeared to have been voted club player of the year, presumably on the basis of his heroic striking performance in last week’s tribute match at The Creek, but it turned out that he had actually been declared clubman of the year. In all seriousness, there could be no more deserving winner given his immense contribution to Stoke Gifford FC, off the field obviously, and no greater supporter of Ben’s family and the local community. Well done Mr Bennett, who for once managed to stay awake throughout the entire proceedings.
There were a few laughs and a fews tears too, not to mention a little physical pain, and at this point I must apologise unreservedly to Zoe for prodding her staggering new tattoo somewhat over enthusiastically, bringing forth a loud “Ouch!” There’s quite literally part of Ben in the tattoo in the form of his ashes. The word love is often over-used, but not here.
I loved the big screen that was erected and the many photographs we saw of Ben Hiscox and his team mates. Of course, there is huge sadness and the loss of great man and yet the pictures were full of joy and laughter. You cannot buy what that man had, but I’d sure as hell like to bottle it if I could. Carried away by the emotion and industrial quantities of Stella, I even found myself dancing in the style of a Pound Shop Patrick Swayze (this may be a slight exaggeration) to the epic Dirty Dancing tune Time of my Life. To be fair, in the dancing stakes, no one can really compete with Ryan ‘Moaty’ Edwards who was busting some serious moves on the floor and moving with far greater mobility than he usually manages on a football pitch.
And before we knew it, as the strains of Goodnight Irene faded out, it was all over. More hugs and cuddles and kisses and hand shakes – stand by for a very old joke, here – and that was only with the players. We were soon off into the night. Well, not all of us. To no one’s surprise, some villagers managed to take over one of the hotel bars and stayed until the early hours or when the beer ran out, whichever came first.
It was a fitting end to a wonderful day and to a long and traumatic football season.
I will finish by going back to how this piece started. I think I was in denial for a few weeks, or maybe I didn’t want to heap additional pressure on our players, because I told everyone who would listen that the players should try to win the league not just for Ben Hiscox, but also for themselves. I know now that I was wrong and I underestimated the way the village in general but the players in particular felt about Ben. Of course they won it for him. He was at the forefront of their minds during every step along the way.
As I left Cossham Street last night after the game, I looked across an empty pitch, still illuminated by the floodlights. In my mind’s eye was the unmistakable figure of Ben Hiscox, trudging off the pitch, wearing the most enormous toothy grin, gasping for that post match fag and a bottle of something cold. He’s truly here, there and everywhere. The indomitable, unstoppable spirit of Ben lives on, the flame will never be extinguished and the spirit of this incredible community that has laughed and cried together will be his eternal legacy. And what a legacy that is.
As I got in my car in the Cossham Street car park, I said quietly to myself, “This one’s for you, Ben”.