My dad's tearful tribute to Sir Tom Finney
I'm back at the family homestead in Preston this week, where the entire town is in mourning for the famous footballer Tom Finney (also known as 'The Preston Plumber') who died last weekend. Not least my dad, who knew him since he was a boy and had the fortune of calling him a friend.
Dad is in his 80s, and when you get to that age deaths become a sad fact of life. Every time I speak to him he's either just back home from a funeral or on his way to another. Whenever I visit, the pile of Mass cards for the dearly departed (that he stores next to the telephone so he can remember to tell us next time we ring) has grown that bit higher.
Although this may seem grim, dad's regular brushes with mortality don't seem to depress him too much. He and his ever-decreasing circle of friends treat funerals like social gatherings and talk about them like we younger folk talk about birthday parties.
"Well that was a great success, wasn't it? We gave him a good send-off alright!" is the type of thing he'll say on his return, cap and Order of Service in hand.
But somehow I instinctively knew that the passing of Mr Finney would be different. This wasn't just a family friend or acquaintance. This was the end of an era; a true symbol of bygone days when things were so much simpler and true heroes really did exist.
This was George Best without the sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Just a normal fella who lived just like the rest of us, holding down a regular job, and staying faithfully in his home town ... except for the fact that he also happened to be a world-famous footballing legend.
He was also the best plumber this side of the Pennines.
As Dad and I sat and watched Everton vs Swansea on Sunday afternoon and the entire stadium plunged into a reverent one minute's silence, the floodgates opened and Dad wept.
I decided to cheer him up by asking him to tell me his favourite Tom Finney story. Everyone from Preston has a favourite Tom Finney story. The day he bought everyone a drink in the entire pub ... the day he joined in with the school soccer team when he just happened to be walking past with his dog ... the day he was fixing someone's washing machine and had to stop halfway through to take a call from Des Lynam ...
But this was dad's story, about the day they first met. I'd heard it so many times before, but it still always made us laugh heartily.
"Well, I was about 13 at the time. Tom Finney had just come back from the war to play professional football (he was about 23 then) and one of my friends pointed him out in Preston town centre.
"See that fella over there? That's Tom Finney. He gets paid at least £30 per week for playing football at North End, plus his wages as a plumber, too. He must be completely rolling in money and yet he's still really down to earth!"
And again we laughed. Thirty quid a week and yet still down to earth! What a sign of the times that was. And what a lovely bloke, who'll be greatly, sadly and sorely missed.
A true gentleman, in fact.
Meanwhile, in other news, Premiership footballer Wayne Rooney had his contract renewed for £300,000 per week. Remember him? He's the sulky one with the scowl.