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?
Bad people had been letting off bombs in England, he said. We had to be careful or otherwise certain people might think we were there for things other than football. It stumped me, but I stayed silent. I curled up in the seat and watched the fields whizz by. England wasn’t very green. There were lots of big towns and chimneys.
Grey smoke poured across the sky.
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My mother had packed ham sandwiches for us. My father had a flask of tea. We sat back and ate breakfast as the train thundered across the country. The world was so entirely new.
– Dad, d’you think Gordon Banks will save a peno?
– Of course he will.
– Do you think Terry Conroy will score?
In London we stopped at a Wimpy. I had my first ever hamburger. It was strange and thrilling. I washed it down with a Club Orange. We got a bus out to Highbury. We moved down backstreets, past red-brick houses. Hush, he said to me again. We still didn’t want anyone to hear our accents. Soon enough there were rivers of people. Songs. Chants. Arsenal wore red also. It was a sea of moving red-and-white. My father held my hand tight.
– Careful, now, he whispered, don’t stray.
– Son, he said to me.
All he needed to say.
Gordon Banks bounced out on the pitch.
– Banksie, Banksie, Banksie!
I was sure Banks heard me. I was sure the whole world could hear me. This was football, after all, the world’s greatest game. Banks threw his gloves and hat into the corner of the goal, turned to take a practice shot. He caught it. Even from a distance his hands seemed huge. Nothing could get past him.
My father didn’t shush me. He didn’t tell me to be quiet. He said: Go ahead, son, and shout.
Gordon Banks was English. That didn’t matter. He had nothing to do with bombs or dead bodies strewn across my country
Gordon Banks was English. That didn’t matter. He had nothing to do with bombs or dead bodies strewn across my country. He was the world’s greatest goalkeeper, that was all. He had even made a save from Pele.
I could shout as much as I wanted. I wasn’t interested in bombs either.
– Gordon, Gordon, Gordon!
I wrapped my arms around my father.
The whistle blew.
The world began.
That was football.
That was fathers.
That was long ago.
London was peaceful. It was very, very peaceful. Even when we lost, one-nil, it was peaceful, and my father took my hand, and we started the long journey home.
We were Irish. We were going home.
The bus, the train, the boat, the sea, the land.