I always seem to start my pieces with something negative, and let it go downhill from there. It's not intentional. I suppose it is just who I am. In fact, I wasn't going to write this today at all. It's alarming and depressing to note that my blog quadruples in popularity when someone dies.
But there's a bigger picture here. Today marks the 14th anniversary of the death of Paul, a man oft-mentioned on these pages, and I want to mark the occasion. This is the best way I know how to do it. And rightly so that he should be mentioned because he was a great man in so many ways, and was taken cruelly and inexplicably from us at just 26 years of age back in 1999. So much has happened since then. Often I think about this. What would he have made of everything that has changed in the intervening years? How would he have felt about the sad loss of Jo a couple of weeks ago? As I write his team, Manchester City are 4-1 up at half-time against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League. At the time of his death they had not long since won promotion to the second tier of English football after a barely credible play-off comeback against Gillingham at Wembley. It's hard to imagine City playing against Gillingham again any time soon, cup draws notwithstanding. And he would have loved that. That and Wigan's Grand Final and Challenge Cup double this year, the first time any team has achieved that since Saints in 2006. I can assure you he would not have thought very much of that.
Which takes me back to Easter 1996, the first season of Super League summer rugby. Until then we had spent far too many an afternoon freezing our proverbials off at either Knowsley Road or Central Park as all the important fixtures took place in the winter. It's strange to think now that I actually went to Central Park with him on numerous occasions. I'd never go and watch that wretched mob now but at the time it seemed like a natural and sensible thing to do if Saints were playing away. How very old fashioned. Paul probably talked me into it. We both loved our rugby and so the opportunity to go along and cheer on our hated rivals' opponents on any given day was one we relished.
But back on that April day in 1996 we were both at Knowsley Road legitimately supporting our own teams. The only obstacle to a good day being had by all (aside from the result inevitably about to put someone's nose out of joint) is that we were rip-roaringly drunk before we got within half a mile of the ground. I remember spending more time than is reasonable before a game in the Bird I'th Hand pub on the corner of the road where the old ground used to be. I was only going to get worse. We arrived at the ground to find the very limited disabled area three deep. Paul used to joke that half the Wigan-watching disabled public spent every hour at the ground watching the grass grow, so it was no surprise to find them occupying their seats already. And it wasn't as if we were early. Nowadays I can get into the new stadium five minutes before kick-off and still be guaranteed my space. Which is how it should be in a civilised world where I have paid in advance for a ticket. But in those days it was first come, best dressed and we were stark bollock naked. Metaphorically speaking.
So I left him there. You would think that as the one on enemy territory Paul would be the one to bolt, rather than sit behind the crowded mass of people trying to squint between gaps to catch a glimpse of the action. But no, it was me. I left him there on his own and went back to the pub, a lone impostor who had only got into the ground so late because I was somewhat prolific at suggesting we go for a beverage before games at St.Helens. To be fair he rarely argued about it, if ever. Anyway, somewhere in the midst of my unbridled joy at the 41-26 Saints victory (Danny Arnold scored a hat-trick and blew a kiss rather pretentiously at the Sky camera which I loved at the time) I gazed into my pint and felt some sympathy for him. I knew he would be fuming, insisting that none of the Wigan players get their wages this week, and questioning the parentage of the referee.
I'm afraid that the post-match celebrations back at the pub are a bit of a blur. If he was here now I doubt he would remember them any better because he was busy drowning his sorrows with some enthusiasm. It wasn't until a few weeks later when we were at another game at Knowsley Road together that we happened to notice someone familiar in the match programme. They were running a 'face in the crowd' competition, the winner of which would receive a prize from the Saints club shop. To the disgust of both of us we looked a little closer to find that it was him. He had been photographed at some point during Saints derby win, looking tipsy and quite glum. I was affronted at the idea that a Wiganer had won the prize, and he was affronted by the very notion that he would ever touch, much less wear, any Saints merchandise.
But he did. It wasn't a replica shirt or even anything noticeably peppered with Saints logos. Instead it was a rather smart and almost neutral looking blue sweatshirt baring the name of our sponsors at the time, McEwans Lager. For months, maybe a couple of years afterwards he wore it regularly for basketball training, a constant reminder of the day he was the 'face in the crowd' at a ground he talked quite happily about burning to the ground most of the time. In jest, of course. He was a peaceful man at heart. All of which seems to me to be a good deal more ironic than a black fly in your Chardonnay, and above all a great memory.
'Maybe you're the same as me.....we see things they'll never see......you and I are gonna live forever.......'