I’ve seen the Elysian fields.
I’ve seen the Elysian fields.
What a week its been for the romantics and others likewise soft in the head. At last, in dying, Alan Ball led me by the hand to that magic football upland and pointed out those Elysian fields – that summer’s day, back in Sixty-six when youth met glory, when we were lifted up forever – at last I understood. All those summers gone by and lost, drifted before my eyes; a man drowning in Bobby Charlton tears.
That was as good as it gets and ever likely to get, a truth I never quite grasped.
Alan Ball seemed to personify for me, those far away years – L.P.Hartley’s other country. You dare not say it about a race, no matter how well meant, but I’ll say it about that tribe of joyous gingers, I have known down the years – they are different and always bring something special to the game. In fact, any game, for many I have known seemed to treat everything as such, from the sports pitch to the factory floor. Spontaneous passion: the fair, fearless and freckled.
Looking at those photos of him in his pomp, reminded me of my friend Martin ‘piggy’ Platts, a lad of unsurpassed sporting passion, who died suddenly in his prime. Was Peter Pan a ginger, I wonder? For it always seems that that brightness and effervescence, which so characterizes the tribe, is some kind of essence of youth. And that other well known trait of Alan Ball’s – his piping adolescent voice – was an unavoidable reminder that he was always a boy at heart. We can’t help but weep for our many dead boys: the lads of infinite jest.
When Frank McClintock, recalled his happy memories of Alan, he spoke of him as a charming boy of 61. When the lantern-jawed Scot choked as he struggled to utter his brave sentiment about a life well-lived, drawing the sting of death, you knew that there was no consolation, none whatsoever, just that visceral blow, that his much loved friend was no more. The poignancy of that moment made that summer day in ’66, all the more precious – life’s great moments are fleeting and are gone quicker than we ever know. Those who buoy us up, fade and fall like blossom
And just to prove that footballers, despite their wealth and celebrity, are the working-class geezers we sometimes forget they are; the soundtrack of their funerals are as predictable as for the rest of us. In fact, Alan’s choice of music and even the choice of Kipling’s If, was quite a revelation and probably said more about him than any number of eulogies could manage. How, I kept asking, could a guy who was twenty in 1966, the absolute height of Sixties brit-pop, end up as a Tony Bennett fan? But, know a man’s record collection – know the man.
Take one game at a time, Over the moon, Sick as a parrot, I did it my way – simple men of simple sentiments, getting the job done. Douglas Bader loved Mantovani.
Knowing and feeling all this, the unwanted knowledge of a certain age, it becomes a habit to imagine everything in future decrepitude. Like, I can remember reeling from the shock of the new, back when there was life on mars, and saying to my dad, that I thought the Cortina Mk3 exuded so much of a sense of newness, I could not imagine it as an old rusting wreck. I didn’t have to wait long to witness that event, as they tended to rust before your eyes but it was a measure of that time exactly. These days, things look old as soon as the registration number changes. These days, I can’t look at Rooney without imagining him as a bald fat old man, defying some future generation to believe he could even kick a football, never mind be considered the great white hope, of the whole nation.
Rooney might not have been looking old this week but he certainly looked fed-up. Fergie did look his age though and United’s defeat came as much as a surprise to him, as it did for me. I had been so certain that their counter-attacking style would bring a win that I was considering adding a bet on United to my investment portfolio – it seemed that certain. But that was an assessment, based as much on my admiration for the quality of their play, as my total dread that it would actually happen. Three-nil has left me feeling a bit shell-shocked and reminded me that betting on football is a mug’s game. Even though commentators never tire of telling us how they would bet their house on this or that striker scoring, it seems there are few certs in football, which is a huge consolation to those who consider themselves outsiders, these days.
The other semi-final was one of the ugliest games I have seen for a long time and whatever mystique there is supposed to be about the holy grail of European football, was totally lacking. It was more GBH than 4-4-2 but you have to hand it to Benitez, two finals in such a short time is some going. I am not much of a fan of Liverpool but I must say that the idea of former Villa favourite Crouch getting a CL medal does have its appeal. It only seems yesterday that I was praying that he would get a single England cap and now he’s on the brink of pocketing one of the rarest medals in the game. Remarkable is just not in it.
In the meantime, Villa seem to have found a touch of form for the end of the season, and while teams like Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Man City, seem to have lost a bit of motivation, Villa are pushing on in the hope of promotion into the top half of the caption. With nothing much to play for, except a few bob by finishing a place higher, it seems to indicate that the right atmosphere is beginning to build around the club. Winning is never a habit, too soon or too late, to get into, and something that can sometimes be carried into the next season. The resignation of Allardyce has definitely shifted the balance of power in next year’s Premiership race.
Surely, if we are to see the Elysian fields again, Villa need to start making winning a habit, rather than the recent novelty.
By Steve Wade