“Aston Villa, they’re like Nottingham Forest, except with fans”
I can’t remember who said it, but it is a one-liner that has always stuck in my mind.
I don’t always remember things.
My name is Steven and I have brain damage. To be more precise I have a slight abnormality of the temporal lobe. Slight abnormalities of the temporal lobe are a heady combination of the confusing, frightening and disruptive when the effects are in the far extreme, yet upon the more je ne sais quoi days can be wildly entertaining.
If I take a walk to the local shop for a few items that total more than three in number then I require a shopping list. If I go to the shop with a shopping list there is still no guarantee I will return home with all the items on that list. You can tell me a secret and be safe in the knowledge that within 27 minutes, I’m likely to have forgotten about it.
Think of all those unforgettable Luis Suarez goals and game-changing moments? I can count on one hand how many I can readily bring to mind. I’ve already lost the vast majority of them, just as the exploits of Fernando Torres have largely long since slipped my mind. The goals of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler have been refreshed on a regular basis thanks to the repetitive nature of LFC TV programming, yet now that I’m expected to pay for LFC TV and indeed won’t be paying for LFC TV, the memory of goals by Owen and Fowler are slowly being eroded by a memory that struggles to retain basic day to day occurrences.
I’ll also never get the chance to see that David Speedie interview I intended to watch.
Aston Villa away and January 2015 in general marks a personal milestone for me. I’ve now lived for longer as an amnesiac as I have as a ‘norm’.
My life changed irredeemably on Saturday, 10 September 1994. I still don’t know exactly what happened as there are no known witnesses. I have a sister, a high achiever by the standards of my family, a family you could probably bracket as ‘could have done better’, which in turn essentially makes her the white sheep of the concern with her BA Hons in Latin. She once (only partly tongue-in-cheek, I suspect) speculated alien abduction, although it has to be disclosed this was the opinion of the same woman who went on to make the bold proclamation that elephants laid eggs.
I ended Saturday, 10 September 1994 in hospital with a head injury and a stubborn belief it was 1992. Two years’ worth of my memory was taken away from me in one fell swoop and my brain waves didn’t settle down again until mid-1996. Much of September 1994 to mid-1996 is also lost to the ether. Everything else since is a bit hit or miss. I own a very good memory that happens to be a little bit broken. I can recall goals from the 1987/88 season in fine detail, but ask me to recall the latest goal Liverpool have scored and I will struggle.
My main recollection of late 1994 is of going into a giant polo-mint for a brain-scan and being told not to follow the camera, only to spend half an hour or so following the camera until they managed to get the shots they needed. The other one is of me producing a litre worth of urine in a bottle from the inside pocket of my coat (very much in the style of someone selling stolen watches) as a ‘sample’, much to the amusement of a startled NHS employee.
I consciously resurfaced for a short while in the summer of 1995 only to disappear again until a year later. Everything has been a bit crazy paving since then. It’s only over the course of the last five years through the help of my partner Beverley that I’ve been able to find some sort of order to the chaos my brain was left to deal with.
Amnesia is nothing like it is when it’s being sold by Jason Bourne. I'm pretty certain I’ve never rendered any East European police officers unconscious on a cold and snowy night with an outburst of unexpected martial arts, and neither do I know of any safety deposit boxes stuffed with an array of different currencies and a variety of passports under a litany of different pseudonyms.
I’ve never once surprised myself by conversing in fluent Russian, while the Hollywood interpretation of ‘flashbacks’ are complete and utter bollocks. The real deal is infinitely more mundane, pretty bewildering, but mundane all the same. I actually quite like the Bourne movies and I can’t deny that I’ve got designs on being able to one day use the iconic line “Get some rest Pam, you look tired”. It is aesthetically b*ll*cks, though.
Football can be therapeutic. I’ve shared some of the best days of my life watching Liverpool Football Club with a small band of people to whom for the best part of two decades I didn’t once mention I am an amnesiac. Sue, Andy, Alan and Phil have unwittingly done more for me than they could ever possibly know. I can’t remember when I first met any of them. One day I didn’t know them and the next they were just sort of there.
By and large this was a set of people that didn’t know the singular biggest thing about me. The thing that defines and even excuses the way I am sometimes. I quite liked it that way if I’m honest, to not have that sympathetic tilt of the head which I tend to be on the receiving end of from those ‘in the know’ on days when my brain basically stalls. For someone who feels a bit detached from day to day life, as if watching it from arm’s length or though a shop window, it is invaluable to feel a bit ‘normal.’
I possess an episodic memory. I only remember things in snapshot images, rather than in any flowing manner. Some days my memory won’t retain a single thing, some days I’m classed as being ‘away with the unicorns’, while on other days I’m fine. There was no real follow up care from the NHS 20 years ago and I was never told what to expect in the future. I used to get massively frustrated when the mist of brain damage descended, but now I understand it better and, in the main, I can cope with it. I can also see the humour in it.
Snapshot images are better than having no images at all. Snapshot images allow me to remember a trip to Chelsea when, in a bid to find a way around a major traffic accident at the foot of the M1, we ended up ploughing over the cattle-grids of Woburn Safari Park on what was a dark winter night, with a convoy of other road users who’d followed us under the mistaken impression that we knew where we were going.
Snapshot images allow me to remember being stood at the side of a mountainous road answering the very loud call of nature on the outskirts of Istanbul, only to look over my shoulder to see that the green bus I’d climbed off was slowly starting to disappear up the steep incline of a deserted road in the middle of nowhere, leaving me on the cusp of Asia without money, passport and, more importantly, my match ticket.
From being stranded I managed to beat the bus and my travelling companions to the Ataturk Stadium thanks to a very enthusiastic and highly amused taxi driver who’d seen all this unfold. The others eventually stumbled off the bus in a vague panic, phones glued to ears in a bid to get through to me, only to confusingly find me sat on a stone wall at the side of the road asking what had kept them.
Snapshot images allow me to remember other occasions I’d hate to have forgotten. I’m allowed the memory of Alan vaulting over the advertising hoardings at Barnsley in a bright yellow coat to celebrate Steve McManaman’s winning goal while his son (who was probably under the age of seven at the time) enquired to the whereabouts of his dad as the police subsequently chased him back into the stands.
No amount of brain damage can also delete the image of Andy running over John Pearman's foot as we picked him up on the way to Charlton Athletic one season. The esteemed editor of Red All Over The Land just seemed to vanish from the back of the car in the blink of an eye before he’d had the chance to shut the door, or even get his trailing leg into the car. With Andy having lifted his foot off the brake pedal and not applied the handbrake, a degree of unexpected forward momentum was achieved, which left John flat on his back at the side of the A50 with only his ego bruised.
I can also recall ambitiously crowbarring Hayley, one of my very best friends, through the White Hart Lane turnstiles while she was eight months pregnant. The football often seemed incidental to the entertainment of getting to and from games in one piece.
Football has been therapeutic but it isn't necessarily the football that has done the healing. Since my head injury, Liverpool have been a pale shadow of the club I spent my childhood and adolescence obsessing over. When I ‘awoke’ the club had regressed to the point that it was almost as if I came to in a bizarre parallel universe, one where Liverpool were a mediocre mid-table side.
My brain and memory was spirited back to a time when a goalkeeper could still pick up a back-pass. You do realise Liverpool haven’t won a league title since the back-pass rule was changed? I don’t believe this is a coincidence.
The game as a whole has changed dramatically. More accurately, what surrounds the game has changed dramatically. I don’t feel an attachment to multi-millionaire football players, I don’t need to watch an endless loop of Sky Sports News to keep me updated on the trans-mundane of the ‘rumour mill’. I don’t need well paid ex-players sat in hi-tech studios to form my opinions for me and I don’t expect footballers to be role-models for my children. Football and the circus which orbits it is a strange, strange place.
It wasn’t pre-ordained that I had to be a Liverpool fan. I’m the youngest of my parents' three children and as my dad and my older brother supported the team in all red, a team that seemed to lift big shiny trophies on a regular basis despite an inordinate amount of bubble-perms per head, I was more than happy enough to follow suit.
I was taken to Anfield for the first time almost a year before I even started school. The game was Kevin Keegan’s return to Liverpool in a Hamburg shirt for the second leg of the European Super Cup. Liverpool won 6-0 and Terry McDermott ran a masterclass of a performance. I don’t remember much about the game itself and the main recollections I can summon up revolve around how small I felt amidst the crowds of people outside the ground, of being ‘treated’ to some dubious looking black peas in a polystyrene cup and being struck by just how bright the rectangular patch of grass seemed once we were in the ground.
If my mind’s eye has it right, we were sat up in the Main Stand, with the Kop just below us. I’ve always hated those uncomfortable wooden seats in the Main Stand, but I was pretty much hooked on Liverpool from word go. Liverpool
gave me a sense of belonging.
A sense of belonging. Since September '94 I haven’t felt like I’ve ‘belonged’ very often. I’ve been loved by family and friends and I’ve loved them back, but they've struggled to tune in to my distorted wavelength. My mind might be playing tricks on me but I feel I’m either awkward with people or I make people feel awkward themselves.
For a while I felt I belonged with Liverpool again and also with Sue, Andy, Alan and Phil. We were a little family unit and given we at one stage went to every single game the club played, I would see them more often than I would some members of my actual family.
Life happens to everyone, however, and an eclectic mix of relationship break ups, career changes, illness, parenthood, the death of loved ones, depression and escalating ticket prices means my little footballing family doesn’t congregate for every game anymore. We all pick and choose our games in a manner that would have been deemed ridiculous a few years back. Missing a game just wasn’t the done thing, but now there are sage and understanding nods from the others whenever any of us say we’re not going to this or that game.
That highly valued sense of belonging has faded a bit and that’s not the unacceptable prospect it might once have been because I have all the sense of belonging I need at home with my soul-mate Beverley and our three children.
As far as my little football family is concerned, other aspects of life were happening for all but myself and Sue on Saturday. Aston Villa is my favourite away day and it was just the two of us that made the journey to the city of Birmingham for this one.
There’s something brilliant about Villa Park. Of course, the fact we often come away from the place with all three points is a big plus, but it’s more than that. Villa Park is a proper football ground, with four separate and individual stands. There is a history and character there that you just don’t get at the soul-less Meccano identikit grounds. I like football grounds that are temporal anomalies, football grounds that have countless stories to tell. Places where you can almost see the ghosts of the past flicker on the pitch. At Villa Park they just need to take the giant TV screens down and it would be perfect.
Villa Park ticks the right boxes geographically, too. It’s far enough in distance to feel like an away game, but one that doesn’t completely wipe out the rest of the day. Anything north and inclusive of Stoke, to the west side of the country at least, never feels like an away trip to me.
In an entirely grown up and respectable manner, we were back handy enough to be able to take Sue out for her *tea (*northern vernacular in use: tea is an early evening meal) before she set off for home.
Liverpool’s main rivals for trophies during the formative years of my football-watching existence weren’t local ones. They didn’t emanate from London, either. The Midlands was where the challenge sprang from. Nottingham Forest rose impressively and annoyingly in equal measure to win some serious silverwear in the late 1970’s, putting Liverpool noses out of joint in the process. Once Forest fell by the wayside it was Aston Villa that seized the day, taking the title in 1980/81 and adding the European Cup in 1982.
The Forest phenomenon was just before I fully embraced football, although I was under no illusions that they and their manager Brian Clough were not to be liked or trusted. In contrast, early '80’s Aston Villa were an acceptable foe. We were out of the running when they won that title in '81, and we’d gone out of the European Cup in the quarter-finals when they went on to win it in '82. Villa didn’t directly wrong us when they won those trophies and then had the presence of mind to go into a marked decline that eventually took them to relegation in 1987.
Villa were far more respectful than Forest had been before them and we even won a trophy at Villa Park when we beat West Ham in the League Cup final replay in ’81.
Villa Park has been kind to me. Villa Park has been kind to Liverpool. So it proved to be once again and I was happy to take my allotted number of snapshot images from the game. Whether my memory will be able to develop this season’s snapshot images from Villa Park into lasting ones is another matter altogether. They already seem set to evaporate a mere 48 hours after the event. I write to remember, but sometimes I can’t write soon enough to record my faltering memories, and the fact I couldn’t remember who scored our first goal in this 2-0 win without looking it up doesn’t bode well. That celebration for the second goal by Rickie Lambert won’t be dislodged too easily, though.
There is something beautifully conductive about Villa Park when it comes to going nuts in celebration of a goal, especially when you’re in the lower section of the Doug Ellis Stand. It has nothing to do with the inoffensive opposition; I think it’s the seemingly shallow profile the stand has there. As Lambert turned to celebrate his goal the look on his face matched the look on our faces in the crowd, and it was the most natural thing in the world for the two entities to embrace. Lambert was essentially booked for the crowd going into him, rather than him going into the crowd. It reminded me of a similar celebration there for a late Torres winner in the snow a few years back.
Bouncing up and down while clutched within the bear hug of the three people in front of me, none of whom I’d ever seen before in my life, left me with a sense of something familiar but often elusive.
A sense of belonging.
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