Seven years old. The boat pulled out from Dún Laoghaire. Dublin faded in the distance. A choppy sea. Huge and grey. I wore my Stoke City scarf and shirt under my blue anorak. My father guided me down the steps into the hull. Some men were arguing over a bottle. Thick Irish accents. They sat under a blanket of cigarette smoke. Others intent at the slot machines. The boat tilted and rolled.
We were on our way to London to see my hero, Gordon Banks, play for Stoke against Arsenal. Everything was new to me. The smoke, the roar, the leaving. I could feel my heart thumping in my striped shirt. I pulled the scarf tight around me.
My father had booked a berth. We climbed into bed for the eight-hour crossing. He had taken this boat many times before. Towards England. He had been a goalkeeper in the 1950s. For Charlton Athletic. For other teams, too. He never talked about it much.
Everything was new to me. The smoke, the roar, the leaving. I could feel my heart thumping in my striped shirt
– Dad, did you save a lot of goals?
– Go to sleep now, son.
– Did you ever save a penalty?
– Were you as good as Gordon Banks?
The boat pitched and rolled. The sound of the slot machines filtered through the air. Shouts rang out. Fighting. Laughter. Dreams. I don’t know if I slept, I can’t recall, but we got off the boat at Holyhead with the rumour of light already in the sky. It was the day of the game. We boarded a train to London. A man in a railway hat blew a whistle. I pitched from seat to seat.
– Dad, look, look, he’s got a red flag. Maybe he’s a Stokie.
– Be quiet now, son, don’t speak too loud.
– Why, Dad?
– Some people don’t like our accents.
– Why not?
– Just because. Quiet. Good lad.
– Because we’re Irish?