Belfast Telegraph

The game that lets you leave all troubles behind

The most heart-stopping final day of the English football season for decades prompts Henry McDonald to reflect on the transcendent power of the Beautiful Game

The last time I was inside Goodison Park watching Everton was the day when my mother was rushed into hospital. Sitting in the main stand of the old stadium towards the end of the game, with the Toffees trailing one-nil to Queen's Park Rangers, the text message came through from Belfast about Mum taking ill.

Although my flight from Liverpool that night was for Dublin Airport, I realised that I would be on the bus in the early hours of the morning up north. It was the first match of the season and I haven't been back there since.

My mother died a month after that text message, leaving us just over four months after my Dad had passed away in May. The end of 2011 and the first half of 2012 was unusual for many reasons, one of them being that I never returned to Goodison.

Part of my reluctance, I guess, was that being in the stadium will bring back those awful days in August and September when my mother's health went into steep decline. I am, however, half-way on the road to go back to Goodison, on the road to recovery.

I attended the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley last month, joining thousands of other Evertonians hoping (in vain) that we would finally defeat Liverpool in a Merseyside semi-final. Everton, of course, after scoring first, decided to go to sleep in the second half and Liverpool triumphed, thanks to a back-pass by the otherwise-reliable Sylvain Distin and a needless foul on Steven Gerrard that led to Andy Carroll scoring the winner.

On Sunday, Everton atoned somewhat for the semi-final loss by beating Newcastle United 3-1 and ending the Premiership season ahead of Liverpool. It was one of several sub-plots to be played out on the most amazing final day of the English football season for decades.

Over-arching all other dramas was, of course, the one acted out between the two Manchester sides, with power shifting in the space of two and a half minutes from United to City.

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Everton had played a bit-part in that drama a couple of Sundays previously, when the side fought back twice from behind to secure a 4-4 draw at Old Trafford. The Blues' performance in United's stronghold provoked the inevitable wave of 'if onlys' from the Everton faithful (ie if only the same side had turned up at Wembley the week before).

I have three reasons why I wanted City to take the title, two of them to do with friends. One of my oldest mates from childhood, Liam Murray, has followed the Manc blues for decades.

He supported them when they went down into the third tier of English football, so Sunday's incredible endgame at the Etihad is for Liam and all other City fans who stood by their team when United were winning trebles, including that victory over Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

Another of my oldest friends, who lives on the same road as me in Dublin, the novelist Ed O'Loughlin, is another loyal City fan with family connections to Manchester.

Rather than support the sides fashionable in Ireland to follow (United, Liverpool, Celtic) Ed, too, has stuck by City through the doom and gloom years.

Finally, it really was time for a change. While all authentic football fans have nothing but admiration for Sir Alex and United securing a 20th title, it is healthy that other teams (albeit with pockets bulging with petro-dollars) can challenge Old Trafford's hegemony.

Now, if Bill Kenwright can find a similar sugar daddy in the Middle or Far East to pump millions into Everton, things might get even more interesting next year.

At Wembley, I knew that the time was right to return to Goodison. I thought of the last time I brought my father over, when we had seats in the Bullens Road side of the ground.

He was captivated by a lady in her eighties wearing an Everton shirt and bellowing at the top of her lungs at the players on the park to "get stuck into them" as well as exchanging a few choice chants at the Middlesbrough fans in the away-section near the corner flag.

My father told absolutely everyone we met afterwards, from the pub to the airport, about this "brilliant wee woman" who has had a season ticket for more than half a century. He adored her spirit and her energy, in spite of her years.

Being at Wembley that day in April, even in spite of the result, was a turning point. I can now go back to our 'home' at the end of the summer and bring something to closure.

For millions around the world, the power of sport and the topsy-turvy experience of following your heroes has a healing quality.

Leaving aside the pre-match nerves, the nail-biting and the shouts of frustration that leave your voice hoarse, being inside a stadium 45 minutes each way, even on a dank November afternoon, can be an uplifting experience. It takes you temporarily out of time and allows you to leave your troubles behind.

This summer, entire nations will take time out from their collective worries when the European Championships kick off next month. In the Republic, qualification has given people a lift as they continue to endure both hardship and austerity.

Across Ireland, both north and south, rugby fans can look forward to the Ulster-Leinster clash, the North West 2000 and the start of the GAA football and hurling championships.

When I return to Goodison Park, I will try my best to get a seat in the Bullens Road side, near to the away section, and hopefully seek out that life-long Evertonian who cheered my Dad up so much on a freezing winter Saturday afternoon.

Because, for him, she represented everything still good about the beautiful game: loyalty, devotion, a sense of humour and undying passion.


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