My Everton #52: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

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It’s 2.50am and I’m sitting next to my grandfather. Every breath he takes is a struggle, as his failing body fights desperately to stay alive. It's tough to watch and it’s been just as tough watching a once proud man slowly deteriorate.

It’s times like this that bring out our sentimental nature, as we search our minds for memories that will provide a small modicum of joy in the most traumatic of times.

As I wrack my tired brains for those tiny glimmers of joy, I find myself thinking of the most treasured memories and inevitably that involves football.

For better or worse, my grandad introduced me to Everton. There was no father in my life and the brilliant man who would marry my mother and eventually adopt me was still not yet on the scene. I don’t remember my first game that much but I’d been bought a season ticket with my grandad for the 1982/83 season and the first game was against then European Champions, Aston Villa, and I know now that the Toffees thumped them 5-0!

Memories of that time are virtually non-existent but I remember my uncle - a Red - taking my kit off me and putting me outside in what I recall as Arctic conditions (in reality it was probably just a bog standard cold wet November afternoon!)... Anyway, he refused to let me back in the house until I admitted that Everton were rubbish. I steadfastly refused and he became more frustrated, then my grandad saw what was happening and quickly let me back in.

It would be a couple more years before I became more aware of the Blues, and it happened just before the 1984 FA Cup Final. There’s a photograph of me decked out in that wonderful Le Coq Sportif kit, pennant in hand and an Everton hat on. That picture was taken just behind where I now sit - in the garden of the house that I then lived in with my mum, her sisters and my grandparents.

I stand straight-backed looking like the proudest kid in the world. This was my first kit, the kit that whenever I see the name Everton springs from my subconscious. I think the photograph was taken the day before the game and unless my mind is playing tricks on me I received it on that very day in a green box.

It’s 3.30am now and the sky is beginning to brighten as I look towards the east. Faint tinges of slightly lighter blue are starting to creep into the navy sky. I look at the frail, resilient and incredibly strong-willed form of my grandfather, the man who indoctrinated me into this Blue way of life. I feel helpless - there’s nothing I can do other than be here for him, holding his hand and reassuring him that I’m here and I will look after him.

Tears prickle in my eyes as he stirs and open his eyes. He says something I can barely make out. I squeeze his hand, force back the tears and reassure him that he’s okay.

This is the man who for most of my childhood years took me to the game. I’d wait at his house for him and at around twenty-past-two I’d see his familiar figure walking along the road. My memory conjures up images of him wearing his grey coat and, as his figure slowly got closer, I’d shout, “Grandad, grandad hurry up we’re going to be late!”

We’d walk along the road until we reached the junction of Stanley Park and Sleepers Hill, then we’d walk along Walton Lane and that glorious sight of the ground filled my view.

Those walks to the match with him were golden moments.

My child brain was unable to process the feelings and thoughts that I am now able to articulate.

The excitement of going to the game, coupled with the enjoyment of being with my grandad who’d fill my head with the memories of those players he loved who’d donned that famous Royal Blue shirt.

His early heroes, like Wally Fielding and T.G. Jones, "The Prince of Centre Halves”, to the idols of his mid-to-late twenties names, like Bobby Collins - “He was tiny but you didn’t dare mess with him” - and Roy Vernon, the majestic Welshman who took a penalty better than any other.

My early childhood saw us become a major footballing force and those title wins and trophy presentations will live with me forever. I spent those with him and no amount of money can buy those memories.

Those memories offer solace at a tough time. They remind me of the man he once was and the boy I once was. The blackbirds are singing their dawn chorus now and I’m trawling through my memories for those magical moments that we shared.

We’re fortunate, in many ways, some of the best times I spent with my grandad were at Goodison were with my grandad... The famous Bayern Munich game in 1985 was a sensory overload for a six-year-old like me, but I remember being sat in he Main Stand alongside my dad and grandad and it felt like the noise would at times blow me away. I remember walking through the park with them that night, excited in a way that only young children are - and with the hardened belief that not only could we win but we would win.

Fast-forward six years and the golden days are long gone, the famous names of the '80s were mostly gone and the ones that remained were not what they once were.

It’s February 1991 and an FA Cup fifth-round replay with 'that lot' over the park is in play. My nan had made me one of her famous scotch eggs for the match and I was sat next to my grandad and my auntie. In those days we sat behind the away dugout and I had no idea of the amazing game that was about to be played out in front of my eyes, nor of the tumultuous aftermath.

We all know how the game panned out - a 4-4 draw and the shock resignation of Kenny Dalglish the following day. For me, though, it has a more significant meaning. Due to our position behind the dugout we were sat behind Dalglish and as the news played out we kept seeing our faces on the TV screen. At that time it gave me some attention at school with people constantly pointing out that I’d been on telly.

Now, however, it has a more poignant resonance. The sight of my youthful self alongside grandad provides me with a lasting memory of him as he was when I remember him best - 60 years of age and still full of vitality and strength. Never ageing and never weakening and, thankfully, preserved for posterity.

There are tears in my eyes as I write this.

I can see him ebbing away. He has a matter of hours left, rather than days, and a horrible heavy feeling sits in my stomach. It’s been almost five months of suffering and pain but for my grandad the brave battle he has fought is almost over.

It was Dylan Thomas who wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage,rage against the dying of light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had no forked lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My grandad didn’t go gentle in the night. He fought and he raged against death and his strength amazed us all. He passed away at around 7.45am the following morning with his wife, daughters, son-in-law and myself with him. It was an honour and a privilege to spend those final hours with him.

A man will be measured by the depth of feelings he leaves behind from his loved ones.

It’s painful in the moment but those memories are a comfort.

Despite the relative unimportance of football as we get older, it leaves an indelible mark on us.

It isn’t just about the glories. It’s a shared experience a heritage that is handed down from father to son and despite the gentrification of the game it’s still, at heart, a working-person's sport.

And that’s what my grandfather was - a working-class man, one who indoctrinated his first born grandson into a faith that has been difficult and, at times, painful, but one that I wouldn’t swap for any other team's heritage and history. It’s a family tradition, one which in my case goes back to the first game at Goodison Park and it’s something others will never understand.

Thanks, grandad.

By John Wharton, Evertonian

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