In life and death, a football club is an anchor, a conduit for connections | Soccer

I read Marc Stears’ book, Out of the Ordinary, this summer and recognised much of what he said in my own experience. The thrust of his argument is that our politics has become intellectually abstracted from how most people live and derive meaning in their lives. We have lost sight of the “everyday”, the joy that it offers in connection and community.

I moved away from Grimsby at 18 and built an itinerant life, studying and living abroad. I eventually settled to work and build a family in London until my children started to develop “cock-er-ney” accents and I had to get them back up north “right quick”. Over those decades my love of Grimsby Town Football Club and the home game schedule created the gravitational force for my increasingly rare visits home. In the last two years I have much improved that frequency, being part of the ownership structure with Andrew Pettit. Aligned with the articles I have written for the Guardian, my presence in Grimsby has allowed me to engage with the questions of purpose, connection and identity as a more consistent part of my hometown community. Importantly and more personally enriching I have spent much more time in the town with my mum, family and friends.

Stears’ words spoke directly to the last two years of my life – being physically and emotionally present in my hometown and a rediscovered ability to “share a deep and abiding love for elements of life that many had previously dismissed as utterly mundane”. Football serves as an alibi for intimacy, an excuse we sometimes need to be together. The matchday rituals represent certainty, comfort, and hope in an increasingly complex world. We can orient ourselves and sometimes anchor ourselves by sharing the same experiences and spaces. It’s a chance to do something and nothing together for a few hours each week. The first day of the season reminded me of the first day back at school – people greeting each other like they hadn’t seen each other for years, animated by familiarity and excited about the renewal that the space of six weeks has opened up for us all.

Within those six weeks, my mum died. Most of the people at the funeral were the family or friends I had shared my childhood with, and the people I see at Blundell Park for games. I had a not entirely unusual childhood in Grimsby – a single parent, a council estate, three brothers with different dads (mine unknown), an undercurrent of alcoholism, and casual violence; basically a full house on those recently-minted social deprivation indexes. And although some will find it contradictory, my childhood was full of love, largely from my maternal grandmother, and the sense of community, largely derived through playing and watching football.

In the relative ease of my own life, it’s hard to imagine the outer and inner lives of my mum and her parents, the dreams they allowed themselves while living in the shadow cast by the second world war. It was only in my late teens that I found out her own dad, Henry, killed himself when she was 12, leaving her with a stoic and largely silent mother who never spoke about that seismic event that clearly shaped her outlook on life and family.

Mum once told me she was proud she never handed me and my brothers to social services. At the time, I thought that was not the high watermark of parenting, but I understand what she was saying when you look at the outcomes of kids brought up by the state. Today, I see it as a hell of an achievement for a single mum of four boys in the 1970s. Those four boys carried her coffin. Four sons with a corner each. Her weight distributed perfectly between our shoulders, and our arms locked solidly together, the knowledge of our fathers now impossible, extinguished with her last breath. Yet in that image, oldest at the front and youngest at the back, we were as close as any family could be, faults and poor judgments notwithstanding.

We all went to the first game of the season against AFC Wimbledon the next day, a continuation of her wake and happy to be together. I imagine the sadness people feel has some equivalence to the space someone filled in your own life and the absence their death represents. I’ve lived with that absence and dealt with the complications of my own upbringing for years. First by moving away, then through counselling, and most importantly through the love of my wife and kids. Understanding my mum’s story and slowly rebuilding my relationship with her felt as good as it would get. I imagine for some, the absence is the weight of a small planet. For me, it fits in one pocket like a smooth, small stone. It’s there but easily carried and mostly forgotten. I am sadder about that if I am honest.

A couple of weeks after my mum’s death, I went to see James Graham’s play, Dear England, with my wife and loved it. It’s the story of a nation and a team transitioning from an identity rooted in fear and crippled under the weight of the past to one of love and connection. I couldn’t help but think about the arc of my own life in relation to those themes. I am thankful that football ownership brought me back to Grimsby and a chance to reconcile with my own mum.

There is something uniquely powerful about football and the connection it creates with the people and the place I love. Those connections and relationships are the essence of life and, for me, represent the most positive use of our time. As one of the characters in the play says, it is “all about time and what we do with the bit we have”.

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