The (Thick and) Thin Blue Line
Football, family and fatherhood through three generations of Goodison faith and godly misfortune.
“In the beginning, Bartholomew Cubbins, didn’t have five hundred hats. He had only one hat. It was an old one that had belonged to his father and his father’s father before him.”
Dr. Seuss, ‘The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins’.
With a first flash of blue, Damian opened his eyes.
It wasn’t the sixth hour of the sixth day of the sixth month.
The Jews never bothered to zip along to Zion.
No comet shaped like a bright star could be seen soaring through the skies over Speke.
If the Holy Roman Empire had attempted to rise, then it must only have been a fleeting effort at most — a ‘rising’ as lacklustre and limp as Liberace’s lilting lob-on when he was asked to lewdly rub up against Aunt Harriet’s arl bingo arse in that rubbish episode of Batman ‘66 in which he starred as ‘the great Chandell’.
No armies could be seen amassing on either shore and the Treaty of Rome was still over twenty-five years away (despite the ‘straight-talking’ delegate from the Netherlands demanding it be signed by the end of the current season, otherwise the consequences would be swift and dire).
Sighs of relief all round. Premature sighs of relief.
‘Premature’ because there was one obvious portent of perpetual woe that the piss-poor proofreader of the Book Of Revelations must have bumblingly overlooked: Everton having the season from hell and finishing bottom of the fucking league.
It was May 3rd 1930 when he first popped his head out of his mother’s (most definitely non- jackal) mound.
May 3rd 1930. The day Everton were relegated from the First Division for the first time in their history.
Hardly the most auspicious of beginnings for a bare-arsed babe who would go on to become head of an all Evertonian household.
Mere coincidence or a predetermined confluence of events setting the two parties and their descendants on a tumultuous course that would see them together take in several soaring highs, separated by long, seemingly never-ending swathes of soul-destroying, shit-eating lows?
Well, that’s kind of a question for later.
Whether the satanic hand of Lucifer, some lads he happened to know, or simple happenstance of locality lay behind his selection of club, it took nearly the span of a full decade for them to truly sink their claws in. The shiny allure of a Championship trophy, combined with the stylish aesthetic of an Everton side later described as the most ‘scientific’ of the lot, ultimately sealed the deal.
Basically, he was a bloody ‘silent generation’ glory boy. Yet, who could blame him?
T. G. Jones striding forward from the back, slaloming past opposition players in his own box and spreading the ball about the pitch like a specialist playmaker. A proto-Franz Beckenbauer, or John Stones sans the costly slip-ups and jittery cries of “just sodding hoof it!!” coming from the stands. An obvious class figure in the days when defensive instruction mainly consisted of “go out and deck the fucker”.
Excellent in possession, unparalleled in the air, prolific in front of goal, and able to silently suffer a broken beak brought about by a tumble better than Emu after Rod Hull suggested the pair go take a proper look at that tatty old aerial; Tommy Lawton became the First Division’s top scorer for the second season in a row.
The immense performances of the slight but brave Ted Sagar, putting his body in the way of shots, plucking balls off the head of ogre-like strikers and racking up eighteen clean sheets en route to the title.
The bow-legged brilliance of Joe Mercer, a tough-tackling trooper to whom no lost cause was beyond turning around. Getting his boot to balls that not even Mr Fantastic would bother stretching for and bursting forward before his challenger could figure out he was connecting with nothing but fresh air.
Then there was his first true favourite, Torry Gillick. Less heralded than others, but a rapid livewire capable of leaving defenders tearing their hair out on his day.
These were the players who first captured his youthful imagination. The swaggering, all-conquering side he snatched welcome second-half glances of on a match day, when the crowd of skint kids gathering outside Goodison were gratefully ushered in for free.
Yet, having caught the bug late in the day, by which time the blues already had the title all but locked down, he couldn’t help but feel an exiguous twinge of regret that he hadn’t tagged along to the ground with his more experienced mates a few months earlier. No matter, he was now fully on board as an Evertonian and he couldn’t bloody wait to savour every single moment of a full campaign, from kick off to inevitable cup-lofting culmination. As far as he was concerned, August could not come soon enough.
Three games into what was to be the boy’s first full season as a fledgling Everton supporter and fire began to fall from the skies.
Emboldened by the Anschluss annexation of Austria with Nazi Germany, the occupation of Sudetenland and the ensuing encroachment into Czechoslovakia, Adolf Hitler ordered the German invasion of Poland on the 1st of September 1939. Operation Wasserkante saw groups of German bombers battling fighter pilots of the Polish Pursuit Brigade as they sought to bombard Warsaw from the air. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany two days later. Conscription, combined with the cogent threat of impending air attack and a governmental ban on the assembly of large crowds, led to the Football League coming to a close.
Mounting international tension finally reaching tipping point didn’t mean too much to his cosseted young mind at that stage of his life, but the curtain hastily coming down on the chances of following his new heroes as they were surely set to continue their recent success? That felt like a swift, crushing blow.
Wary of support for the war effort potentially waning, the government saw fit to promptly offer up an insipid morsel of escapism to a morale-sapped populace. No sooner had full-fat competitive football been swept from the table, than the sop of a nugatory semi-skinned substitute was set down in it's place.
Permission was granted for clubs to play friendly matches, provided — in the interest of public safety — that the attendance rose to no more than 8,000 (later revised and increased to 15,000 for league games in more sizeable stadia). The restructuring necessitated by the imposition of a fifty mile travelling restriction resulted in the Football League being carved into regional areas. As a consequence of hundreds of professional footballers being pressed into service with the armed forces, clubs found their squads left severely depleted and were often forced to draft in guest players just to eke together a ragtag starting eleven.
Line-ups would radically alter from game to game and clubs in a 'prime' locale — in touching distance of an army training centre, perhaps — were provided a convenient, propitious, boost when it came to borrowing the biggest and best rent-a-stars. Players could turn out for a particular team one week and then take to the field wearing opposition colours to try and get one over on them the next. Continuity, competitiveness and the previously commonplace connection between club, player and fan, were all conspicuous by their absence in a pale imitation of 'proper' football cobbled together and pushed out front and centre in a concerted effort to prevent public spirit from flat-lining completely.
For Damian, it was a case of Phoney Everton going hand-in-hand with the ‘Phoney War’. All part of some nefarious plot, designed and implemented purely to piss him off, by a Nazi Ming the Merciless with a more meffy tash whom he had never even met.
As one of his idols, Tommy Lawton, later told it in his autobiography: "Then came the war and, with it, the end of my career or so I felt. Surely there couldn't be room for a professional footballer in a world gone crazy? I, of course, being a young, fit man of approaching twenty would go into the services. Meanwhile, in the leisure time I had left I wound up my personal affairs, cursed Hitler and all his rats and occasionally sat down to think of what had been and what might have been."
Despite his tender years — and the fact the only fighting he himself was likely to witness first-hand in the immediate future was the tubby ginger kid from round the block taking a weak blow to the gut from a more svelte prospective outfielder, if he stubbornly refused to fill the goal with his rotund, ball-repelling bulk one more bloody time — Damian could definitely relate. The Goodison pitch he had been so looking forward to surveying like a pint-sized Caesar, as the blue gladiators he had personally granted the big thumbs-up tore apart all challengers to their title under his baying gaze, had been pulled out from beneath him post-haste. His short career as a rabid Everton supporter rudely interrupted in it's embryonic stage by an encumbrance of earth shattering proportions, perhaps never to recommence.
His bad mood during that period certainly wasn’t improved when he was swiftly carted off to stay with his reclusive uncle in Wales — just as soon as the crafty schicer had figured out he could shove a 7s 6d a week bunce in his back pocket, simply for letting a short-arsed Evertonian evacuee bed down there for a bit. Although time in residence with the rural Rigsby of Ruddlan, near Rhyl, tended to run laggardly, his short stay still managed to feel positively Linekeresque compared to the seemingly limitless, Morgan Schneiderlin paced purgatory of life without any meaningful competitive football for a child to latch onto.
Similar to the spiel from a tatty one-sheet desperately trying to sell a tawdry sub-par sequel to a mildly successful slasher flick, 'he spent six long years, silently watching, waiting, biding his time, never deviating his focus from the day he would finally be able to return home to the scene of his greatest triumph' and, when that day duly arrived — like a tawdry sub-par sequel to a mildly successful slasher flick — what he found himself watching was watered down shite in comparison to the far superior original.
The youthful pre-war team who, up until that point, had remained preserved in their pomp as past triumphs were perpetually replayed in his mind’s eye, were now finally free to revive their careers...under the caveat of reality. Like a mass episode of missing time, once peerless players found themselves returned far past their prime, while others soon parted ways with the club they had brought such success to the last time they had cause to pull on boots in a season that actually counted for something beyond courting morale.
For the duration of the great war, Damian had dreamed of nothing much more than football returning once hostilities ceased, but he never envisaged how different ‘his’ Everton might be at the dawn of this new era. Torry Gillick relentlessly ‘MEEP MEEP’ing his way past less than Wile E grocks after making the move back to his first love Glasgow Rangers; Tommy Lawton turning out for Chelsea amid claims his wife had taken ill and was in dire need of continued exposure to the purifying, elixir-like, properties of the wondrously unsullied South West London climate; and, most bizarrely, the great Joe Mercer left juggling melons in a jointly owned grocery store before jumping ship to the Gunners, following a Mexican stand-off with long-serving, but legendarily mulish Everton manager Theo Kelly.
“We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when”? Didn’t know we’d be on different sides either did you, Vera? Plus, it was pissing it down when the Toffees took on Tommy’s new lot at Stamford Bridge in December ‘46, so you can shove your ‘sunny day’ up your derrière as well love, because dark clouds were due to be looming over Everton for a lot longer yet.
Naturally, new faces would arrive at Goodison to replace those lost or grown weary and lined. Tommy Eglington. Peter Farrell. ‘Jock’ Dodds. Damian continued to offer loyal support to all who pulled on the royal blue jersey but, try as he might, he could never seem to replicate the same rush of investment and enthusiasm he had experienced as a boy first coming to realise his true religion.
Disillusionment, a troubling descent down the table, and the turn from a merciless ‘Tech-Noir’ Terminator of a team to a flaccid ‘Dark Fate’ shadow of their former self, didn’t factor into it. He still went to the game, cheered on the players, obsessed over the results. Success was not what was lacking from his post-war support. Rather, it was a sense of wonder he had naively expected to persist, only to come to realise it had been ripped away long before he was ready to let go. The last time Damian had watched Everton in ‘Football League Division 1’ action he was hardly out of short pants, the very next game he was approaching his late teens and those same keks couldn’t be pulled past his knees, never mind cover his arse. He felt cheated, some might even venture to say ‘bitter’.
Though this gnawing feeling of being surreptitiously swindled — of kismet cruelly snatching away what could have been — would eventually subside, the blue blood pumping through his veins would not do so with it’s former ferocity until a few years later, when he found himself on the verge of taking his own son to his very first game.
Married young, with a surprise pregnancy providing the decisive shove toward sudden matrimony, Damian and his partner settled for doing what was deemed ‘decent’ and ‘proper’ with little doubt or protestation; the product of their union was now the sole priority.
This particular birth did not coincide with confirmation of Everton Football Club’s relegation from the First Division for a second time, but rather preceded it by a full six days. With the Toffees needing only one point from a final day clash with Sheffield Wednesday to survive, Damian was sure the timely emergence of his son was a sign Everton were destined to beat the drop. The 6-0 slap in the face that followed suggested it was far more likely that the little scream factory’s arrival somehow sealed their fate.
Any despair was soon dulled by the new daily routine of dirty nappies and sleepless nights and an unshakeable certainty that the blues would be back where they belonged before too long: dining at the top table with his descendant already training in readiness to take up his seat.
The thought of standing side by side with his son at the game saw his heart swell with pride and his head positively spin at the many possibilities the shared path ahead might be paved with.
From the moment the boy could crawl, a football was never far from his grasp. His bedtime stories were not tales of princesses, castles, and beanstalks, but of centre-forwards with metal plates in their foreheads meeting crosses with the force of an express train. Names, facts and figures were devoured and memorised, cheers, chants and groans given voice. The club rapidly became the centre of the child’s very existence.
All the while, his father looked on approvingly. Passing on important life lessons. Guiding, nurturing, advising. Like Vito to his Michael, Jor to his Kal, Atticus to his Scout, Lone Wolf to his Cub, or Harry Corbett to his Matthew Corbett.
As for the boy, the Golden Vision was his idol. Just the very next week, it would be Jimmy Gabriel. On occasion, while strolling toward Goodison, bag of greasy chips in one hand, glass bottle of coke in the other, he might deem fit to grant the title to his dad.
This wasn’t simply football. It was sacred family time. The game, the ground, the pubs, the people. They were the welcome, raucous background noise, the bit-part players in a bi-weekly paternal bonding ritual.
Twenty years passed in the blink of an eye. They weathered the bad times and revelled in the good. They got to witness two great title-winning teams together and for years after would argue the toss over which iteration was greater. Countless things changed; on- and off-field fortunes fluctuated, but the ritual remained the same.
Forever the same.
Going the game.
With ‘our lad’.
With ‘me dad’.
The joyous announcement of a first grandchild on the way acted as a further adrenaline shot to Damian’s ardour for all things Everton. A new impressionable mind he could impart the club's rich history upon. Another fresh blank canvas on which he could bring to life legends painted in blue.
At least, that was the plan.
It was on the way back from a disappointing FA Cup clash that their car was forced off the road by a (later to be revealed) drunk driver and came to a thudding halt, ferociously hugging a tree. Fortunately, both father and son survived the collision but, for the former, things would never be the same again. Multiple broken bones and a lacerated spleen would mend, but the after effects of the massive impact to his head would endure and eventually worsen. A coup-contrecoup brain injury, basically cock-blocking his concentration, comprehension and coordination, would severely deplete his ability to cope by himself from thereon out.
Though rehabilitation and re-education would enable Damian to function, the man he once was could never fully return. To his grandson, it was as though he was forced to lead his life with his wits watered down, whilst the missing part that would have made him whole watched on, self-aware and simmering with frustration at being no more than a mere spectator marooned the wrong side of a murkily smeared window. Like General Zod, some part of his grandad’s psyche had been permanently sentenced to The Phantom Zone, but unlike the bearded Kryptonian war monger it would forever be denied the opportunity to break free.
He would enter a pub in short sleeves and, even before polishing off his first pint, would begin fidgeting and fervently perusing all four corners of the room, looking for a coat he never came in with. Whenever anyone would point out his bare-armed entrance, he would look back at them like they were the one who would struggle to pour piss from a shoe if told step-by-step instructions were printed on the sole. “I left it here last time”, he would say, “For safekeeping”.
Next pub along on the pre-match route, he would begin patting whoever happened to be in reach on the back with great urgency before gesticulating at some random bloke perched at the bar, a "cheeky bastard" he couldn’t believe was brazenly wearing ‘his’ coat. He would find himself physically restrained from approaching the accused and instead have to settle for simply sitting there, staring daggers at his new nicely attired nemesis, while providing an annoying, parrot-like, accompanying soundtrack every time the poor sod unfairly pegged as a coat-purloiner squeezed his arse past on his way to the khazi.
“That’s a nice coat".
“Where did you get that coat?”.
“I like your coat”.
"Got any Juicy Fruit in your pocket? I left my last pack in my coat. Left-hand pocket, take a look. Don’t need the lovely Debbie Mcgee for that trick, do ya, lad?”.
After a while, he would eventually quieten down and seemingly return to a state that came reasonably close to qualifying as normalcy—until someone in his squad would happen to turn around three pubs down the road and realise he was standing in the doorway suddenly rocking a fucking ill-fitting parka.
Dragged back into the boozer under duress, he would lament the injustice of the situation as his newly acquired outer garb was wrested from his back and slung quickly (and quietly) onto the nearest seat. “I’M JUST GOING TO LEAVE MY COAT HERE, LOVE” he would shout to the barmaid whilst being bundled out the door, “FOR SAFEKEEPING, LIKE”.
Once safely ensconced in the ground, with the game unfolding in front of his eyes, he always seemed eminently more at ease. Finally able to fully focus his wits, with any unwelcome slippages into momentary befuddlement being kept almost entirely at bay. Following the play intently and imparting words of wisdom to his grandson, Damian would often point out little tweaks to tactics the two opposing gaffers were making in order to swing the momentum of the game their teams way. Only at times of extreme agitation would he suddenly be moved to make an announcement likely to invoke a mocking snicker from those situated round about him and, more often than not, it tended to be the same one: “Get Torry Gillick on!!”.
Whether pinpointing a genuine paucity of width or merely piping up with an irony free precursor to the “Get Preki on” shouts that would soon permeate around Goodison in times of Everton being extremely pish, his grandson was oblivious to the proper reasoning. He just presumed the old fella had either finally progressed to speaking in tongues, or was randomly spewing forth stupid fucking Hobbit names (“Guttory Gillicorn”) from those boring arse Tolkein books he was forever trying to force him to read.
Over time, his mental state gradually deteriorated further. His ‘moments’ occurring with greater frequency and manifesting in a more fearsome manner. He stopped going to the game. He stopped doing much of anything that meant going outdoors, to be honest. Instead, preferring to hole himself up at home, studying The Silmarillion and ordering ‘useful’ mail-order items out of the Sunday papers, such as ‘stylish’ slipper mops and a ‘technologically advanced’ tv viewing aid that was basically a big magnifying screen on a pole that could be attached to the arm of a chair and manouvred in front of an old codger’s face when Midnight Caller came on.
Until, finally, he flipped out completely and charged wildly around the house on a radge redecorating rampage, armed with a wooden axe. Dead similar to The Shining, but set in a semi-detached.
In later life, his wife would swear blind it was Everton drove him to it.
Things got so bad that he couldn’t remember the names of those closest to him half the time. To his grandson, it seemed the sole, semi-reliable, way to reel him back from raving loon to reasonably lucid was to steer the conversation round to the Toffees. When such a tactic was employed, a glint of recognition rapidly became evident in his recently glazed-over eyes, and tales of his time supporting Everton would soon begin to roll from his tongue. Yet, it appeared the only results he could recall were reverses, the only performances piss poor. As if all the good memories had been the first to flicker out, while the bad clung on for grim life, dirty fingers dug deep into the cranium, kicking and screaming in a last-ditch attempt to evade Alzheimer’s encroaching erosion. The only blue memories to linger were those he would have most dearly loved to forget.
Dead fucking Everton, that.
“They’ll always let you down, son”, he used to say.
END OF THE FIRST GENERATION
[To be continued]
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