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Dad is gone, but thanks to football I know how much he loved me

In my quest to make it as a professional player, my dad was my biggest critic, champion and companion. Now that he is gone, I appreciate even more what he left behind.

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This article first appeared in Issue 23 which was published in March 2022.

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I remember sipping on Lucozade as we laughed together, heavily and genuinely, and I had the feeling then, in the passenger seat of his 15-year-old Volvo, that he loved me and was proud of me.
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If I was offered all of our car journeys, the communal euphoria of youth cup finals and our many disappointments together, or ten years of fame without him as a Champions League player, dear reader, you know which I would choose.

For those of you who have had cause to clear your father’s belongings after his death, you will be familiar with the tsunami of nostalgia that comes companion to the task. While I have never known a person to have so little in the way of possessions – objects and things simply did not matter to him – there remained some evidence of my dad in the family home, with each little discovery provoking a pause, a laugh and more frequently, some throat-clogging emotions.

Who knew that a handkerchief embroidered with the initials of an 80-year-old man could render his offspring emotionally incontinent, or that the scents of coats and sweaters hanging in a wardrobe could momentarily take the breath away?

Perhaps this is how grieving is done, I don’t know, this is my first rodeo in the bullring of bereavement, and I’m not too proud to confess that this matador is out of his depth.

There is a battered leather box in his room and I ponder a few old pictures of his siblings, who predeceased him. There are some prayer cards. Underneath these are copies of the schoolboy forms I signed with Partick Thistle in 1995, paperwork I haven’t seen since the day we shared in the boardroom with Murdo McLeod, the Thistle manager at the time.

He kept these? In an instant I am on the floor, unable to stem a tidal wave of tears that would flood the Firhill pitch in seconds…

My dad died in July and the weeks and months that followed have been a kaleidoscope of fragmented memories. All the emotions one might expect would accompany the passing of your best friend and mentor.

As the gathering clouds of ill health engulfed him, he was aware of his impending death. He imparted his love tome along with some other requirements that were on his mind. He stopped short of telling me to move the ball quickly instead of taking too many touches, but I suspect I will hear this advice in my head for evermore.

I find myself unable to disassociate the beautiful game from 80 per cent of my memories and recollections of him. He would bristle at this, as he was a man who knew the limited importance of football in the “greater scheme of things” and would occasionally chastise me for me being as obsessed with the game as he was, a criticism my mother never understood (he left their wedding breakfast to attend the 1975 cup final, returning to the reception later in the day).

We bonded through football

He wanted to encourage my siblings and me to have a broader view of life but football was undeniably the gateway to our relationship. No matter how much he would emphasise education, or becoming proficient in DIY – which we were equally hopeless at – the unspoken truth was that we bonded through my modest footballing journey.

It is only now he has gone that I realise how special my attempts to become a professional player were to him. It was my pleasure, and good fortune to have him by my side. In truth, it was always a shared endeavour.

Don’t be whistling the ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ just yet though, as often it felt like I was playing 11 opponents and my father. My strong conviction is that he is responsible for my inability to convert penalty kicks, having spotted him shaking his head on the touchline when I missed in a shoot-out, aged eight. My subsequent record between 1988 and 1999 when I stopped playing competitively, was seven misses from seven penalties taken. I’ve resolved to unpack this phenomenon in counselling!

Even as I progressed through the boys’ clubs and attracted attention from senior clubs I could emerge from a dressing room anywhere in west central Scotland to find my dad wearing the expression of a man in a traffic jam, on his way for root canal treatment. Inevitably there would be a debrief in the car, where he would showcase his full repertoire of flaws, before apologising and explaining he was only critical because he knew how good I could be. Then we’d watch Sportscene or Match of the Day together, and all was well again.

Once, aged 13 and having scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 victory, playing right back, I asked him how he thought I had performed. “Chris, if you want compliments, you are going to have to ask your mum. I thought you tired a bit towards the end!” His remark was offered with a huge smile, which I quickly reciprocated, and the gesture cemented the understanding between two kindred spirits. I remember sipping on Lucozade as we laughed together, heavily and genuinely, and I had the feeling then, in the passenger seat of his 15-year-old Volvo, that he loved me and was proud of me.

He could be critical and harsh, but only when I didn’t offer 100 per cent. Youth football bears witness to some heavy scorelines and always will, and youngsters with all the ability in the world can become disenchanted. However, the smallest hint that I had “chucked it” at any stage of any game was anathema to him. Poor crosses or missed chances were tolerable, effort was non-negotiable. “If coaches are volunteering their time, the least you can do is try!”

He was a principled man and deeply religious, which sometimes caused embarrassment to me as a teenager. He would insist to many of my bewildered coaches that they ensure I attend Mass during tournaments in England and abroad, and they always made good on their promise, even in the days before the internet and Google Maps. It amuses me to remember things like that, coaches taking me to find a church in backwater little towns in Holland, even when they didn’t share our religion, and then my dad shaking their hand and sincerely thanking them for doing that on their return.

Little moments of respect between grown men, observed by children, are extremely powerful.

Dad made me better

The flip side to training and playing in front of a parent with high standards and expectations was immeasurable in my development as a young footballer. A thumbs up after a successful dribble or a decent cross, or a clenched fist after a significant tackle, was enough for adrenaline to flood my veins.

I was acutely aware by ten years old that I was a better player for my dad being on the touchline. And he was always on the touchline. Ever present except for illness. Saturdays and Sundays were not for the pub. They were for church and family and taking me to the games. For an extended period of my youth it felt like I was always in a car with my dad. Conversations, silence,
occasionally music if the radio worked.

I’ve heard it said that these are the places where the parenting is done, in between the cracks of the big moments in life. Maybe now, as a father myself, I see some wisdom in this notion. He ran old cars for a year or two at a time, or as long as they lasted. Finances were always a consideration for parents with four children and I knew that petrol costs could be a source of stress, but I don’t think I ever missed a training session anywhere in 12 years.

My dad would talk to anyone and a preseason friendly between Partick Thistle and Aston Villa still makes me laugh and cringe in equal measure. They brought the big guns and some youth team players were with the squad that night. At the end of the match my dad was somehow, inexplicably, outside the players’ entrance with Gareth Southgate, Andy Townsend and Stan Collymore, explaining that his son was a great young talent for Thistle. One of them asked what position I had played on the night when my dad was compelled to advise that I was actually in the stands and hadn’t made the bench, but one day you’ll know his name!

Fleeting interest from Rangers was a curious phenomenon for a Celtic man who attended the 7-1 League Cup Final in 1957 and countless games thereafter, but he was of the opinion that if a professional club thought highly enough of you to invite you to training then you should do them the courtesy of turning up and doing your best. He was impressed by the set-up at Ibrox, though no offer to sign ever came. Truthfully, I was not at the level of some of the young players there at the time. We went on the road to Clydebank, Kilmarnock, Ayr and of course Thistle as well, though offers from Fulham and Ipswich Town were dismissed out of hand – I was not leaving home at 16. End of discussion.

You may have deduced by now that my endeavours to become professional were not successful. However, I played lots of games at youth and reserve level and my dad was able to share in that. I often wondered if he felt let down that our efforts did not yield us fame and fortune, and I put that question to him on more than one occasion. Imagine my relief when he laughed and said that following me from the back garden to public pitches and, briefly, to Firhill had been the time of his life. I retain a crystal-clear image of him smiling as he answered and will hold it forever.

If I was offered all of our car journeys, the communal euphoria of youth cup finals and our many disappointments together, or ten years of fame without him as a Champions League player, dear reader, you know which I would choose.

Some psychologists argue that young men should make decisions as though their father were already dead, in order to become their own man. I see the logic in this, but it’s not for me. I wanted my decisions to meet with the approval of the type of man who has a set of beliefs and attitudes that have taken a lifetime to form, though inevitably there were many, many disagreements.

He left little in the way of belongings, but I know from the time we spent together, that I belonged to him and he belonged to me. We belonged together and remained best friends all of our lives. I can say with certainty that our shared love of football accentuated the beauty of our father-son relationship. Perhaps some Nutmeg readers are embarking on journeys in the rain to take their sons and daughters to training and games this winter, when occasionally the couch may seem more inviting. Based on my own little odyssey with my dad I don’t think it is ever time wasted, so enjoy the journey wherever it takes you; it’s over before you know it.

If your kids are anything like me, you will be remembered as their heroic companion through the greatest time of their lives.

This article first appeared in Issue 23 which was published in March 2022.

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