It is impossible at the start of my familiar journey north by train not to think of the same journey, attempted last July. Now, I have a ticket and a seat for a journey I have planned for several weeks. Then, I rushed to the station, panicking after the telephone call from my father, barely able to breathe deeply enough to state my destination at the ticket office. He had called me just as I arrived into work, saying hesitatingly that, perhaps, I ought to come back sooner than Friday after all. It was Wednesday morning and I had been home since Monday afternoon. Now, it is a suddenly beautiful, sun filled late afternoon in an unseasonably cold and rain filled June. I sit in an air conditioned carriage with other urban workers, bunking off early on a Friday afternoon to make the most of the weekend. Then, I stood on a train from Manchester to Blackpool, the quickest way north being to get as far as Preston and change onto a train to Scotland there. I wedged myself into a bulging, sweating carriage of mothers and grandmas and school-holiday-children with buckets and spades, picnic bags and even two dogs, heading for a day at the seaside. Then and now, the trains leave the City quickly, the landscape outside the window quickly turning lush and green. This June, I have a book and an iphone and a coffee. Last July, I have nothing to do but stand and stare out of the window, willing the train to go faster. I wanted to be able to pace up and down, but had to content myself with constantly shifting position, wringing my hands, turning around on my small portion of allotted space near the door, as a panting dog’s tail periodically thwacked onto my foot. Now, the train powers through the improbable leafiness of Wigan North Western and surges forward towards Preston. Then, somewhere just past Wigan station, the train started to slow. It stopped entirely for a couple of minutes, then made occasional spasmodic progress for the next ten. I checked my phone for the time continually, conscious of a connection I needed to make in Preston. The thirty allotted minutes for the transfer were ticking inexorably away as the children got restless, a ball was thrown and the mothers remonstrated with a pair of overheated, sullen pre-teen boys. I told myself I could still make it. I visualised the dash through the station I would be obliged to make – probably up the Victorian steps, across the bridge and down to the other side. It was doable. And then, last July, after nearly half an hour of stop-start jerks taking us no more than a couple of hundred metres, the platform in sight from my window, the train came to a complete standstill, just outside Preston station. A politely apologetic intercom announcement referred to being ‘held’ because of an ‘incident’ in the station. The minute for my connection ticked past, as I frantically googled the next train out of Preston to Scotland. As my phone struggled to make the internet connection, a ring cut through and my father’s name and grinning picture flashed up. She was gone, he told me. It was, finally, peaceful, he told me. Your sisters didn’t make it either, he told me. He had thought she would have a little bit longer, but he had been wrong. I turned off my phone with difficulty, hands shaking and sweating, chin wobbling, as the day trippers continue to snack and bicker and moan about the waste of a sunny day. I started to cry, properly, noisily; I rang my husband and said out loud for the first time that she was dead. No one said a word; the children stared, the adults averted their eyes. A few minutes later, the train lurched forward and disgorged us into the heaving, chaotic station. I walked around in circles, not sure what to do. A young woman approached me, saying ‘I was on the train, are you ok?’. ‘My mother just died and I don’t know what to do’ I say. ‘I know’ she said as she stroked my hand, flagged down a station guard and asked about trains to Scotland for me. It turned out that my train had not yet left after all. I ran up the stairs, across the bridge, down to the other platform. I jumped on the train, in wild-eyed hurry and flung myself into the one available seat I could see. A man opposite asked me where the fire was, there’s no hurry, he’d just been told there were no trains travelling north for the next few hours at least. A man was up a tower threatening to jump and no trains were going through. I got off the train again and tried to speak to the guard. He said there was little hope of getting to Scotland today. He said he would advise anyone with non-urgent travel to try to rearrange – can my journey wait? I said I suppose it could now. I walked back up the stairs, back over the bridge and down onto the first train back to Manchester. Then, I finished the journey, blinking into summer-bright sunshine at Piccadilly station, aware that my vision was starting to go and a migraine would shortly follow. Through the haze, I saw the top half only of my husband’s face as he took my hand and led me to our car. Now, I continue my journey north, sailing through Preston and beyond, arriving many hours later at the small, achingly familiar station in the middle of fields, the village of my childhood summers to my left, the town of my mother’s last years to my right. I have been travelling to this station all my life but I know that this is the last time I will make this particular journey, for my father is moving. I get off the train and see him coming towards me through the last glimmers of a long, Scottish June evening. He is little bit greyer, a little bit smaller, than last year. He takes my bag and leads me to his car for my last weekend stay at their house.
Monthly Archives: June 2015
No.1 son’s team capped off a season in which they won every league match with a cup run. The final was played on a bright, blustery spring afternoon – cherry blossom swirling across the pitch to give a brief wintery feel. The venue was a local non-league club ground, several steps up from the public park environs the teams normally play in, with their undulating fields, haphazard grass-cutting and careless dog owners.
The match fulfilled one of the cup final archetypes that all football fans will recognise. The stronger team (‘our’ one) dominated possession, created chance after chance, but couldn’t score against dogged, determined opponents with a hero-in-the-making in goal. Mid-way through the second half, the archetype shifted. In a rare break out of their own half, the other side’s lone striker ran past ‘our’ central defenders and struck the ball firmly past the keeper.
The match reverted to type, with no.1 son’s team piling on pressure and with ten minutes left, equalised from a corner kick. More chances were saved or missed before full-time. The game re-started with 20 minutes of extra time. Despite the rolling substitutions, the size of the pitch had tired both teams so that a sustained attack was beyond them. Penalty shoot-out.
“This will end in tears,” was the conclusion my touchline pal and I reached as the players gathered in the centre circle for the penalty prelims.
No.1 son’s team were to maintain their perfect season, winning the shoot-out 5-4. The image at the top of the post shows him driving his penalty into the top left hand corner of the goal.
The other side’s second penalty taker steered his shot wide, lifted his hands to his head and walked slowly back to the centre circle without showing his face. There he sat, staring at the grass, amongst his teammates, who were presumably offering their support. His miss, as he must have feared, as all of the boys dreaded for themselves, was the difference.
I question the value of a penalty shoot-out in a junior match, where the result has no further consequences. Earlier rounds in a knockout tournament do need a winner for the competition to progress; I’ll return to that subject shortly.
Having joint cup winners is to me an entirely legitimate result for the teams that cannot be separated over full and extra time. The trophy can be shared; the individual statuettes would just need ‘finalist’ inscribed on them all, instead of one-half; both teams can celebrate. I see nothing to be gained from spoiling one or two young lads’ days, as almost always happens in a shoot-out.
I imagine proponents of a definitive result arguing that youngsters should not be sheltered from the harsh truth of life and its repeated sifting into winners and losers. I think kids know that well enough. Everything they do is imbued with competition: school, gaming, appearance, getting noticed by girls. Why not, in these rare instances when the score remains tied, show magnanimity and recognition that the contest, not the result, is all important?
“They don’t take it that seriously,” may be another rebuttal of my idea. Many, I agree, probably don’t, and can stride on after a penalty shoot-out miss, walk tall in the playground on the following Monday and savour the opportunity for another chance to take a penalty. Others, though, do not. The coaches, I observed, selecting their five penalty takers, are not overwhelmed with volunteers. It’s a stress that many boys (indeed, professional footballers) prefer to avoid.
Several weeks after the final, I took my younger son to play a cricket match. There were puddles on the pitch and storm clouds overhead. The game would normally have been called off before bedtime the night before, but this was a cup-tie and a definitive result was needed. The method used, a bowl-off, is cricket’s equivalent of the penalty shoot-out. Bowlers deliver a single ball at an undefended set of stumps. Whichever team hits the stumps most often wins the tie-breaker.
The situation was tense, the boys were anxious during the match. One team was delighted and the other disappointed at the end. There was a key difference to the penalty shoot-out that made it less likely that a single player would feel the burden of responsibility for defeat. Instead of each team fielding five players (as in a penalty shoot-out), all eleven in each cricket team had to bowl. The greater number of competitors and efforts means that the margin between teams is a lot less likely to be a single point. The individual is a smaller part of the team score and gains protection. With all players participating, it is more of a team event.
This should be the model for penalty shoot-outs in junior football. Involve the whole team. Do less to isolate individuals. Try not to spoil one young lad’s day.