There’s plenty of space for a few stragglers at Old Trafford. So long as it’s not a match day. Or Christmas day, when they close. There were 22 tours on Wednesday, when we visited. A very quiet day apparently. On busy days tours get going every 10 minutes. You get the sense of that as you walk through the taped off barriers leading you to the long row of cash registers in the megastore. You leave the shop through the bank of exit-only doors, this being something of an assembly line operation. But before you could be getting too cynical about the crass commercialism of it all the tour begins and as you step out onto the terraces to take in the sight of the pitch with all those ghostly stragglers along with you, you’re struggling with an unexpected sense of emotion. Something of the cheer of the crowd, something of the atmosphere and something of the big dreaming that goes into bringing a place and a concept like this into existence gets a hold of you.
Hugo stands there open mouthed. You can barely look at him, afraid that lump in your throat is going to erupt. He is 11 years and one day today and you and his sister are here for him, to give him this birthday present. In his bag is the new pair of football boots he got yesterday. They’re going to be his luckiest ones ever, he thinks, they would have to be…bought in Manchester, taken along on their trip to the epicentre of it all for him. I ask the tour guide if he can take them out of his bag, slip them on, try them out on the pitch. I’m not put out as she explains why he can’t. Looking at the rows of solar lights assembled on panels over the grass you get a sense of the magnitude of tender nurturing that goes into keeping this dream alive.
I was here before. In less than tender form. Conducting a voxpop in the wake of a very big match…So what’s the big deal about this soccer lark? I asked one after another fan, wondering as I progressed if I was going to survive the assignment intact. It stopped short of me being spat at, but there was a lot of snarling, a lot of neon dazzling language. I have a memory of a very red cheeked, red scarved, red everythinged man moving very close to my face. His fists were clenched if I recall. Only, he said, taking a deep breath…only a woman could ask that question. His rage was real, but bordered on something else as he shook his head and walked away. I’m only just starting to get it these days. Life teaches you unexpected things sometimes.
I’m new to the soccer mom thing. Soccer mom, athletics mom, swimming mom, hockey mom, cycle mom. All of my children are competitive and active in their various ways. Abigail blows me away with her staying power, her ability to keep coming back to a thing, to stick with it until she quietly conquers. James would think nothing of cycling 50 miles to get a can of beans, just for the joy of being on the bike. He was never into the more conventional sports though. We sometimes recall an early training session on those gatherings where these sorts of things come up. He was about five. He disappeared. Was found afterwards by a panicked coach, curled up in a hollow of a tree. He’d decided to have a rest, didn’t get what the fuss was about…all that running around after a ball? Later his sporting confidence saw him volunteer to represent the school in swimming when no other candidates were forthcoming, a move which says something about his character. His character was certainly in evidence when the race started. The ghosts of that precious memory come to me at old Trafford. The race was two lengths of the pool. At this stage in his swimming career he had barely swam one length. He was halfway through his first length when the other competitors had finished the race. The spectators started to talk amongst themselves, thinking the race had finished, then noticed him, struggling to finish his first length. There was silence as he faced into his second length. The second length was torture. Slow. Slow. Stroke after sloppy, exhausted stroke. A lifeguard approached him with a lasso on a stick, offering to rescue him. James shook his head. Continued splashing along. A slow clap started. He finished the race, staggered over to me at the sideline. I did it, he said. I did it Mum.
I’ve always espoused the do your best mantra. I’ve always believed it’s not about the winning, it’s about the taking part. I still believe that. Hugo has put me through the wringer on this philosophy though. He’s the most conventionally sporty of my three, and for him it’s not just about the taking part. I’ve had to change my parenting tack, hone my philosophical musings and learn to respect his opinion. My children are the best teachers I’ve ever had. We are all different, they have taught me, and my notions of how things should be can’t be one size fits all in a household that strives to be open. Hugo wants to win, you see. It’s not about just taking part to me, he has had to rather forcefully explain. It’s about the winning. Of course, when you have a child who burns with the desire to win, who works hard at his various sports, is sometimes in the medals, sometimes not, there’s a lot of nurturing, supporting, taxiing and comforting needed. It has been, and continues to be, a steep learning curve. You want to do the right thing. You want to be encouraging. You want to be supportive. You want to meet his needs. But you also want to be able to recognise when you have to step in as a parent and make adult decisions about what you think is best for him, even when he might sometimes feel otherwise. Those are the times when you cross your fingers, hope you’re on the right track.
My Granddad Tim was one of the ghostly stragglers along with us at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Another wave of emotion rose as he came into my thoughts there at the dugout. He left Ireland in the 40s, along with his then girlfriend Peg. They had to leave. But behind him, in his pursuit of the practicalities of forging a new life, earning a wage, rearing a family, I reckon he left some dreams. I can only assume this. He wasn’t one to feel sorry for himself. Bits of information gleaned over the years, a precious few surviving medals. We had always heard he was a great sportsman in his community, but possibly didn’t quite appreciate just how good he was. A few years ago some of my London family came over to celebrate the 80th birthday of his sister. It was several years after he had passed away himself, and over 60 years since he had left Ireland. We were in a pub in Bantry, on our way to the home village of Kealkill, when we were approached by a stranger. Ye’re obviously Tim Hourihan’s crew, the man announced. He didn’t know anyone there, but recognised the strong family resemblance that Grandad Tim’s distinctive looks have stamped on the generations. He went on to talk in wonder at Grandad’s sporting achievements. It was a pity he left, he said, he had a great sporting career ahead of him. Over the next few days, one after another person approached my aunts and uncles, congratulating them on having such a great sportsman, mourning his loss, reminiscing. Great sporting careers are a rarity and a privilege. My grandfather had no regrets I think. He was a roguish, beloved father and grandfather. He had a good life, and left many happy memories behind.
I wonder about my own young competitor. There is, statistically, little chance that sport will become his chosen, or fated career. But that doesn’t take from or diminish the current dreams or aspirations or hopes he might have. In the here and now he is living the dream, dealing with the highs and lows, learning to cope with winning and with losing. At Old Trafford the tour guide told him to take out his soccer boots in the dressing rooms. She told him to sit beneath his favourite Man U player’s jersey and we all sang happy birthday. Then we all went into the tunnel. She switched on a recording of the roaring crowd, and what could have been a slightly tacky moment produced another wave of emotion as she told Hugo to stand on one side of the tunnel, where he was going to lead the team out. She called on the other birthday boy in the group to stand on the other side of the tunnel. The beaming 80-year-old looked over at Hugo. They led their teams from the tunnel, to the edge of the pitch. The tour-guide again reminded me that Hugo couldn’t actually go onto the pitch, but he could stand so close to it that in a photograph he would look like he was standing on it. Hugo pushed back as close to the barrier as he could get. As I snapped away he moved one of his legs behind him, gently brushing the pitch with his new lucky boots. As we moved towards the exit from the pitch he picked up a tiny little tuft of stray pitch grass that had blown onto the path. This is for Milo, he explained, referring to his best friend, a super-talented young footballer who might just be one of the rare ones that goes all the way. For me it was one of those job-well-done moments, that reminded me of what it’s all about. Milo certainly deserved to be in Hugo’s thoughts at his own special moment. When Hugo was devastated after not being able to run a race a couple of years ago, Milo, who had won a coveted medal in the race, immediately came to Hugo, lifting the medal over his head as he approached and offering it to Hugo. Hugo turned it down of course, but the gesture was incredibly moving and appreciated by us all. I may be correct in saying it’s not about the winning… but sometimes it most certainly is about the winning. But it’s never that simple of course. Sometimes it’s about losing, sometimes it’s about winning, and sometimes it’s about winning with real grace, and an instinctive knowledge that things like friendship and loyalty and kindness matter even in our most triumphant moments.