The Beautiful Game

Submitted into Contest #190 in response to: Write a story about a fandom... view prompt

21 comments

Coming of Age Funny

It was heart-warming to greet everyone outside the crematorium before the service, but to say we were a close family was a stretch. My father’s remaining relatives only communicated by annual greeting card or whenever there was a wedding or funeral. It was so long since I’d seen most of them; I struggled to recognise their faces, let alone remember their names. I’m embarrassed to confess, but I resorted to strategically mumbling my appreciation when they offered their condolences. As they clutched my hand and promised me their undying support, I wondered if my father’s departure had reminded them of their own impending mortality. In this respect, it must have been a comfort for them to encounter a young relative to call upon for assistance, should the need arise. I was fine with that notion. After all, nobody wants to be left alone to hold the broom and lock the door. Glancing behind as I took my seat at the front of the chapel, I discovered these dear souls occupied a mere two pews, despite gathering here from around the country.

   The whispering congregation assumed a reverential hush as soon as the vicar cleared his throat and began his tribute to my father’s life. I smiled when he described him as a loving husband and dedicated parent who worked hard to provide for his nearest and dearest. Subsequently, the eulogy neglected to mention anything else about immediate family, skipped through my father’s teaching career, concentrating on his lifelong passion for soccer and staunch support for the Bury Football Club. Mister Treadwell concluded his testimonial by saying my father was clearly a decent fellow and keen sports enthusiast, and he regretted not meeting him in person prior to his cremation. It’s a funny thing to admit, but at that moment I wondered if I knew my father any better than Mister Treadwell. My father preferred to remain silent during family meals and ignored any attempt at meaningful conversation unless it concerned “the beautiful game.” 

I’d given up trying to initiate a dialogue, only to have it extinguished with a monosyllabic response. There were entire weeks of my childhood that passed in awkward silence; it was as if someone had died. Maybe he was preparing us all in advance for his sad demise; God only knows what he was thinking.

    Dad was from a distant era that observed a simple set of rules; wives were housekeepers and husbands went to work. It was an immutable contract that made little provision for his involvement in family life and child-rearing. During most weeks, my father returned from his job, expected to eat at precisely five-thirty and then withdrew behind his newspaper for the evening. There was nothing in the arrangement that said he should take an interest in his progeny’s homework, leisure pursuits, or engage in light banter. As far as he was concerned, he’d fulfilled his side of the deal by going down the aisle with my mother. Weekends at home followed their own particular pattern, especially during the soccer season. My father spent every Saturday afternoon either at the local football stadium or glued to the television set, watching “Grandstand’s” live match coverage with its blow-by-blow commentary.

   I was unlucky enough to be a girl and therefore he didn’t expect me to take an interest in soccer. When I was a youngster, ladies’ football wasn’t the norm, and a professional career in the sport was unimaginable. The highlight of his Saturday evenings was “Match of the Day”, which was an all-male affair and there was no coverage of women’s football matches. 

   My mother tried to understand his love for soccer and I remember her sitting beside him on the sofa during a couple of televised matches, however he frowned whenever she got too excited; kicking her legs as if she was playing too and shouting encouragement. He rarely showed any emotion during the proceedings and never invited her to home games for fear that she might embarrass him by cheering too much or ask too many questions about the off-side rule. My mother learned to curb her excitement in his presence and in private was often scathing of his fanaticism. She’d retreat to the kitchen during Saturday afternoons and I’d help her prepare pastry, pies and puddings. You’re a smart kid, she’d say. Tell me what’s so special about watching twenty-two silly men in short pants, kicking a bloated pig’s bladder around a muddy field? I had no answer for her except that it kept him out of trouble. Her jaw dropped at my response. She laughed out loud and said, at least a bit of trouble might liven things up around here. 

   My mother spent her entire marriage tolerating the endless football coverage on television, and later in her life, I’d hear her muttering about his obsession as she prepared our Saturday evening meals. I’m sure it was hard being a football fan’s wife; she was practically a widow during the season, and I had a sense that she was at her wits’ end. One afternoon, I entered the kitchen and caught her wiping a tear from her eye. Is everything all right? I asked her, and she told me she was disappointed. My father had promised to look at a holiday brochure and consider taking us away for a break. He’d glanced at the pictures of cheerful people on sun-soaked beaches and remarked that the photography was excellent. When she asked him if any of the vacations appealed to him, he said yes. He thought they all looked fantastic, however he’d satisfied his urge for a holiday now and said that he felt as if he’d been there, just by browsing through the illustrations. I gave her a loving hug, and she kissed my cheek and told me not to worry. I’m fine, Poppet, she whispered in my ear. It’s just those damn onions, she assured me. Honestly, love, I’m perfectly fine.

   My father never travelled to away matches, because he wasn’t keen on crowds of rowdy football fans. In his mind, football was a solitary sport, a cerebral game played over many decades at weekly intervals. He saw it as an ongoing series of smaller battles that contributed towards a greater war; a bit like the life-cycle of an ever-evolving organism that grew, lived, breathed and withered as its various constituent parts bloomed and atrophied again. For him, football was almost a religious experience and dominated his life to the exclusion of everything else except fellow fanatics. If you weren’t a proper fan who loved the intricate details of the game, he wouldn’t bother making conversation. My father had a couple of pals who’d come round for a cup of tea before a match and they’d discuss football. To anybody who didn’t know them, it was as if they all spoke a foreign language. They could converse for what seemed like hours; exchanging and comparing their football facts prior to donning their scarves and trudging off to the stadium. For those rare moments of conviviality, my father appeared to be content and enjoying life to the full. However, I suspected he’d regret excluding his closest family members from his private world. Sure enough, in later years his addiction to football left him isolated after his pals died and his health failed him. He dreaded emptying his catheter in the stadium toilet; it can’t be the most dignified of activities and his pride stopped him from attending any more matches by himself.

   I never got the football bug. However, I understood enough to know his team was out-played most weekends and then recovered sufficiently to face more punishment a week later. Listening to my father, you’d imagine Bury FC were regularly pulverised, but most seasons they drew enough matches to bob about and hover half way down the league. He never admitted they were a “middling” team, and he always talked about their past triumphs, despite their glory days being well before his early childhood. He’d recall when there was standing room only on the terraces and after they scored, his uncle would hoist the lad onto his shoulders to prevent him from getting squashed in the melee. 

My paternal grandfather wasn’t much interested in sport and it was my father’s enthusiastic uncle who encouraged his interest. I imagine he’d be surprised to see how nephew’s passion had developed into an over-riding obsession. I’m sure my great-uncle enjoyed the beautiful game but had no head for endless statistical analysis. Besides, there was far less to remember just after the war; smaller leagues with fewer teams and a shorter season.

   Since my father’s sad demise, I wondered if he gave up following football when Bury FC went bankrupt or whether a lifetime of disappointment was as much as he could stomach. After the club went into liquidation, I broached the subject of following an alternative team; maybe a big one in the Premiership? He torpedoed the idea and said he was too honourable to change allegiance on a whim. He despised the top flight teams and everything they represented; greed, elitism, as well as their opportunistic and mercenary behaviour. 

   He told me, in football’s early decades, players earned a pittance compared to today’s wages, and there was a team spirit and sense of fair-play that defined the sport. As far as he was concerned, the beautiful game had spiralled into rows about wages and players moved to clubs that offered the most money and showed no loyalty to the fans. The ethos of football had faded away just like his health, and neither was the same after that spark had been lost. 

   I visited my father every other day after my mother passed away and made sure he ate properly. However, it was sad to see him sitting in front of a blank television screen, twiddling his thumbs and short of something to do. The old place was looking neglected and there were minor jobs that required attention, however he hadn’t much idea how or where to start. Basic maintenance was my mother’s domain. He must have missed my mother in his own little way, but mainly because all those basic chores around the home just happened. As if by magic, his clothes were cleaned and pressed, carpets vacuumed and meals appeared twice a day and three times at weekends. I’m sure he didn’t take it for granted and he was probably grateful in his own peculiar way; you’d just never know it because he showed precious few signs of appreciation.

   I learned all about how to maintain a home during my early teenage years. My mother taught me how to fix and mend stuff around the house. If a light bulb ever failed, my father would give a little cough by way of announcement and say, we really need to think about replacing that bulb or it’s dark in here with only one light. My mother would look at me, rolling her eyeballs and I’d scuttle off to her supply cupboard and produce a spare or make a note and buy a new one on our next shopping trip.

   After my mother died, my father was too proud to ask for help around the house. If I offered assistance, he was reluctant to accept, saying that nothing mattered and it could all wait until tomorrow. In the end, it was easier to do the chores rather than argue or debate it for hours on end. Even thinking about it gave him cause to be upset. 

   My mother’s stoicism was without comparison and doesn’t exist in today’s world. I don’t know how or why their marriage lasted. The poor woman’s loyalty was remarkable because she must have endured tedium beyond measure. She lived for her family and in return received all the love and help I could offer her. We learned to cope with life together despite the brooding ogre in the front room watching his relentless sports channels, with a silent passion that defied understanding.

   I think he wanted a son who was into football. A daughter who liked the arts would never get any attention unless I’d put on a pair of boots and got covered in mud, or remained by his side and kept quiet while he enjoyed his sport. I use the word enjoyed in a general sense, because you’d never know he derived any pleasure from it. He showed no emotion when Bury FC scored a goal; he’d enjoy moaning when they lost and seemed to be surprised if there was a victory. It was a fluke, he’d say, or it’s about time they pulled up their socks. 

   It’s surprising what thoughts occur during a funeral service. However, I left the chapel with a smile on my face. My father’s choice of music during the committal was a popular football song from his youth and coming from a man who said so little, it was appropriate for him to have the last word. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the lyrics. 

How does the song go? 

It’s something like this - 

“Oh, he’s football crazy!

He's football mad!

And the football, it has robbed him o'

The wee bit o' sense he had…”


The End




March 25, 2023 03:37

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21 comments

Kathryn Kahn
14:53 Mar 31, 2023

What an interesting and sad story about what happens when a fandom becomes an obsession, when an interest in one specific thing separates a person from the rest of the world. Very moving.

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Howard Halsall
17:47 Mar 31, 2023

Hey Kathryn, Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. The idea of innocent pastimes becoming obsessions is an intriguing concept, especially when taken to the extent of an addiction. Moderation is a quaint notion nowadays, however there are potentially alienating habits that develop into destructive behaviour patterns in so many areas of modern life. I guess those ideas about restraint make sense after all :) Take care HH

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Kevin V
23:19 Mar 30, 2023

Hi Howard, This certainly qualifies as a fandom all right! I didn't really find it funny, though, as tagged. To me, it was a bit sad that, at his funeral, the only thing to really bring up was his love of sports. And this seems like he and his wife existed during the time where most couples 'stuck it out' if you will. I wouldn't doubt if married today, his wife would be long gone! The daughter seems to have it right in, if I recall, the family really lost him long before he died. I found this as a strong portrayal of an absent father, a ...

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Howard Halsall
06:46 Mar 31, 2023

Hey Kevin, Thanks for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. Take care HH

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Martin Ross
17:56 Mar 30, 2023

I’m admittedly not a sports guy (high school baseball bat boy was the closest I ever got), so many, many elements of this story really struck a chord. My dad also never loved sports, but so many classmates were clearly pressured to play by their families. The best coming-of-age stories have a specific focal point of interest, and you pulled that off marvelously. The ending’s beautiful.

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Howard Halsall
09:08 Mar 31, 2023

Hey Martin, Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my latest submission. I’m glad you enjoyed it and appreciate your positive feedback. Take care HH

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Glenda Toews
16:03 Mar 30, 2023

I enjoyed this a lot Howard perhaps because it was really real? I loved the ending!

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Howard Halsall
16:14 Mar 30, 2023

Hey Glenda, Thanks for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. Was it real, you ask? Surely nobody in their right mind would tolerate a football addict…. :) Take care HH

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Anita M Shaw
13:58 Mar 30, 2023

My dad wasn't into sports, but he loved horses - a love he passed on to us girls. My brother didn't care all that much for horses, and my mother became a horse lover's widow, especially when we finally left off renting them to own our own. She was fine with it, apparently. She had her books. She wasn't much of a housekeeper. And neither cared all that much for vacations, or visiting anyone beyond my mother's younger sister and her family. I had to smile a little at your description of the supper table. My father said very little if anythin...

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Howard Halsall
14:18 Mar 30, 2023

Hey Anita, Thank you for reading my latest submission and sharing your family story. It’s strange how happiness can manifest itself as a form of compromise and mutual acceptance. It sounds as if your family had a wonderful sense of togetherness, which I imagine derived from your parents’ quiet appreciation and love for each other. I can understand why you miss them so much; they sound like a positive and powerful influence. Take care HH

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Michelle Oliver
11:51 Mar 30, 2023

A father who was unable to connect with his family due to his total absorption in the football fandom. I like the stoic way you presented the mother in this situation. -I don’t know how or why their marriage lasted. The poor woman’s loyalty was remarkable because she must have endured tedium beyond measure. The entire paragraph about the mother’s disappointment regarding the lack of interest in the holiday was so heartbreaking. -It’s just those damn onions.

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Howard Halsall
12:08 Mar 30, 2023

Hey Michelle, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. With regards to your comments; I understand that many young women in the late 50’s and early 60’s generation married “for better or worse” and merely accepted the outcome. However, I agree with you; she must have bored to sobs and just kept herself busy around the house to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects of the so-called partnership. God knows how she kept sane; her life must have been relentless…. HH

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Irene Duchess
02:58 Mar 29, 2023

good read *thumbs up* :D

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Howard Halsall
08:30 Mar 29, 2023

Hi Lilah, Thanks for the ‘thumbs up’. I’m glad you enjoyed my story :) Take care HH

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Irene Duchess
12:28 Mar 29, 2023

You too :)

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Howard Halsall
12:36 Mar 29, 2023

:)

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Stevie Burges
08:01 Mar 26, 2023

Beautifully observed and written. I was taken back to Saturday afternoons with 'Grandstand' blaring in our sitting room. Like your main character, dad was obsessed with football - but very quietly - rarely went to live matches and must have been heartbroken to be blessed with three daughters! I felt the observations were really wonderful and totally captured and relayed how things were. Good story, Howard, thanks for writing.

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Howard Halsall
08:19 Mar 29, 2023

Hey Stevie, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’d forgotten about Grandstand on Saturday afternoons and then I suddenly thought about the score draws list, and the sound of the teletext machine rattling out the numbers. Do you remember listening to that voice reading out all the matches that ended without a win? I think that has disappeared; wasn’t it all about betting on score draws or something? It must have been tough to have been a football supporter’s daughter in those years, however I assume/hope that your mothe...

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Lily Finch
13:15 Mar 25, 2023

Howard a sad tale of an overly done obsession that takes precedence in the father's/ husband's life so much that he basically had no relationship with his wife and daughter. An addiction manifests as something that steals time from real-world responsibilities so much that the person cannot function in most other areas of life. Our protagonist gives us her first-hand account and explains justifying why she feels the way she does about her father. Speculating about how he thought their communication suffered long after the team went bankrupt...

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Howard Halsall
08:28 Mar 29, 2023

Hey Lily, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. Indeed, it was a sad tale, but I hope you enjoyed the humour too, despite its dark nature. It’s amazing how people survive the influence of their parents and, as you point out, how they remain faithful to the idea of happy families in spite of ongoing evidence to the contrary. I suppose people aren’t programmed to react negatively towards an ignorant relative and it takes a strength of character to cut them out and move on. Take care HH

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Carly Arden
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