April 18 was supposed to be Swindon Town’s last home game, when the team were crowned League Two champions after a magnificent season. It was also supposed to be a day we paused to remember, as just before the kick-off the names of those supporters who’ve passed away during the year are read out.
Each year is different, and each year is the same. It might be a meaningless mid-table meander, or maybe more significant; either way, within 10 minutes I’m moaning about a throw-in here, or applauding a deft pass there. I’ve moved on from thanking my lucky stars that while I may know some of those names, none of them carry my surname.
I’ve had a fairly typical football supporting life. I followed my dad and mum, uncle Jasper, old friends, new friends. I caught the bug, lived the obsession. We cheered together and moaned together, from the bottom tier to the Premier League and back again.
So for me, when the time came, following this parenting model was obvious enough. And I had three children to refine my approach with. First, Niamh, happy for a day out and dad time. Her obsession, though, was saved for horses. I knew her footballing race was run when she excitedly asked whether the police horses deployed pre-match to control Millwall fans would be doing show jumping on the pitch after the game. They didn’t, and she never came back.
Her brother Euan was different. Fortunate possibly to be afforded his first taste through hospitality, he has never looked back. When Swindon were in financial ruin, and the end of our world felt nigh, explaining that to an eight year-old Euan felt the hardest task imaginable.
Finally, there was Patrick. He made his County Ground debut for a potential promotion clincher aged two, a planning and logistical masterpiece I’ll forever be proud of, only marred by the traumatic effect that meeting mascot Rockin’ Robin had on the toddler. Patrick followed his brother’s lead, grew slowly into the hand-me-down shirts, demanded his own, recreated the goals as he held my hand walking back to the car and developed his own love for the club.
Together we enjoyed and endured the modest joys and just around the corner disappointments of a pretty average club through a succession of owners and managers. Whether Dennis Wise or Paul Sturrock, Danny Wilson or Paolo di Canio, we did our bit, each game, each hope and each despair tightening our ties to the club, and imperceptibly, to each other.
Recent seasons had been grim; turgid David Flitcroft fare, then the aimless, befuddling meanderings of Phil Brown. And still we went, out of a sense of habit, of loyalty, of defiance, as the crowds and moans around us turned into empty and silent seats. We went because we had a fiercely competitive family prediction league to fulfil. We went because we just did. Sometimes we didn’t seem to agree on much; sometimes we put more effort into getting there than the players gave on the pitch; sometimes it was simply dull, insipid and miserable – but it was our precious misery.
Dad hadn’t been at his best through the last summer. The extent became clear when he was less keen on attending pre-season friendlies. When he did, we joked that his characteristic calling card – “get up, your mum’s watching” – seemed rustier than usual, as we watched yet another brand new Town XI tentatively tiptoe through a friendly.
So it was a relief of peculiar sorts when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. While the long-term prognosis was not good, it was something to work with. But we knew there was a fair chance this could be his last season.
Come September, rare circumstances meant I was alone at the County Ground an hour or so before an evening game. It was a still night, with the first fresh feeling of autumn in the air. I walked and reflected how much our matchday rituals have been a constant, game by game, year on year, for literally decades. I became acutely aware, in the moment, of change. As I wandered streets I’d never seen, peered at shops I’d never noticed, ate chips from a newly discovered delight, felt matchday slowly creep into life around me, I knew that my life was changing too.
I felt a melancholic awe at the mighty privilege I’d had, 45 years of sharing a football-supporting life with my dad. My mind raced back and forth, being that four-year-old terrified of the steepling steps into the rattling old Shrivenham Road stand, tightly gripping his hand in fear of falling through the gaps. Of the afternoon I had an interview in Warwick, and we just looked at each other and drove to the evening game… at Ipswich. A sentimental energy pulsed through me. Of enough overwhelming feelings
Patrick made his County Ground debut for a potential promotion clincher aged two, only marred by the traumatic effect that meeting mascot Rockin’ Robin had on the toddler and sensations and memories to be able to fill a book in five minutes. At just how bloody lucky I was to be able to do this with my own boys too.
In time they had set out on their own adventures, to Grimsby, to Oldham, towards lifetime commitment. You can understand how happy that made me, proud father mission accomplished, thank you boys, so very much.
And so this season’s arc was set: Mum and Dad would attend the occasional home game; me and the boys would do those plus plenty of aways; the team would canter to that destined triumphant championship. Indeed, after years of grim, underachieving mediocrity, the team, the club had come alive.
Our away days were incredibly special: bumping into Exeter Cathedral, singing on Leyton High Road, climbing the hill at Forest Green, getting a parking fine at Cheltenham, meeting a friend at Port Vale. We kept winning and we kept coming home to dutifully report to Mum and Dad that, yes, this team, this adventure was the real deal. Our private sense of destiny was being fulfilled.
On 14 January, Patrick went to a football game and never came home. He’d had a wonderful, happy evening watching Tottenham against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup with his brother. A cheeky boys’ trip to the capital, because they could. Full of dreams, full of smiles, full of being 15, he collapsed and died as they walked through Marylebone towards the train home. For Patrick, the league table would be frozen from that night. Swindon Town top, champions elect, in eternity.
Somehow Euan and I knew we had to go to Newport away a few days later. It might be cathartic. It would be what he wanted. We would meet an old friend for remarkable, unforgettable comfort. We did. Yet it was a cruelly brutal reminder of how life goes on around us. We stood, outsiders, alone, in tears, desperately missing Patrick as a dreadful match played out on a terrible pitch. The rancour, the stench, the abuse around us was offensive. Our precious team were bullied into meek defeat. “Football comes in many shapes and sizes,” I said, and we drove home.
Dad died the next week. His purpose had unravelled desperately quickly. As his consciousness faded, he had tried and tried to name all of Swindon’s League Cup-winning team from 1969. Given that I was born just three days after that Wembley triumph, it’s a date and occasion that is etched inexorably into my being, and now Dad was before me, his life draining away as he strained to recall who was No 8 on that spring day 50-odd years ago.
The day after, Swindon were at home to Exeter, first against second. Bizarrely, it was a 13,000-plus sell-out, our first in years, and a gloriously vibrant riot of noise, colour, of life, hope. It felt extraordinary, like they’d all come for us. It was absolutely the sort of day Patrick yearned for, deserved, yet wasn’t here beside us for. It was surreal and beautiful and heartbreakingly unbearable at the same time. We wept and sang and wept some more. The guy next to me casually remarked that it was a shame to have an empty seat on a day like today. “Yeah,” I said, “my son’s died, and my dad too.” He was right, it was a shame. And soon, too soon, we were disagreeing about the linesman’s decision.
Football generally, and Swindon Town specifically, have shaped and guided our family existence through generations. And now, through tears and grief and mourning, we go on. We go on, every day feeling like the four year-old me terrified on those rickety steps. Every step is a success, and every step is a step nearer to the top, and to the next game.
Until Covid-19, and there were no more “next games” either. Patrick’s sudden death remains unexplained. One of just a handful of such teenagers each year. This year, there is coronavirus and no last game of the season, no 18 April, and no chance to pause, to reflect or to argue about the referee.
And now of course, this most memorable, ghastly season limps towards a farcical mess of an end; quite absolutely in contrast to the vibrancy of hope, passion and expectation we had, and ultimately, of that life being ripped away, finitely, forever.
• SUDC UK raises awareness of, and supports people affected by, sudden unexplained death in children.
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