More than just a game: How football saved my dad

More than just a game. It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to football.

Ask any football fan why the game means so much to them and each one will give you a different answer. Escapism, fitness, socialising, the list goes on.

For me the idea of football being more than just a game really hit home after my dad started to get ill.

My relationship with my dad was a fairly typical one for any young lad growing up in a fairly rough area of Manchester. Emotional moments were few and far between and any kind of lengthy conversation somehow found its way back to football.

If I had never taken to the game I honestly don’t know what we would have talked about. Thankfully, I did.

Football was always the strongest point of connection. I knew if I was ever in trouble for something I could tactically shift the subject by mentioning whatever game was on that day. A method my mum admittedly wasn’t the biggest fan of.

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No surprises then, that he had me kicking a ball before I could even walk, it was always going to be a huge part of both of our lives whether I liked it or not. 

As it happened, I got to playing at a half-decent level when I was younger. Though I think he always convinced the pair of us that I was better than I actually was.

Every Friday I played 5-a-side with him and a few of his workmates. If I’m being honest, that period was probably the closest we had ever been – by this point him and my mum had split, I was living with her and so it was a welcome routine for both of us. 

The whole thing was made that bit crueler then, by the fact it was one of those Friday nights that his health issues started. I turned up, he didn’t. For whatever reason, I didn’t think too much of it and just assumed he’d been held up at work.

On my way home, I got a phone call saying that he’d been rushed to hospital. Not one to cause a fuss, he typically put it down to a “funny turn”.

Only that funny turn turned out to be a stroke. In fact it turned out to be the first of six strokes in the space of two weeks.

What followed were some of the darkest times I’ll hopefully ever have to go through. On more than one occasion we were told we should prepare for the worst and for at least a couple of months, we were all convinced it was a matter of when and not if.

Miraculously, to the disbelief of every doctor and nurse who had cared for him, my dad survived. However the after-effects of a stroke can be vastly unfair and permanent, and not even he could escape them. Losing the use of his left side, struggling with his speech and memory – along with the constant mental battle that comes with adjusting to a different kind of life. 

Seeing the same person who would purposely clip my heels if I dared dribble past him, struggling to remember how to make a brew is a harrowing reminder of life’s fragility. 

Despite struggling with those mundane tasks, there’s one subject that still manages to get his mind going, the topic that can still get him excited the same way it always has.

Ask my dad what he had for dinner last night, he’ll struggle to tell you. But ask him about the 1989 Manchester Derby and he’ll somehow reel off every player who scored in City’s 5-1 demolition of United at Maine Road.

Even with the clear physical and mental struggles, talk to him about football and in the blink of an eye, he’s back, at least some part of his brain working like it used to, debating and arguing with all the stubbornness that would drive me insane as a teenager.

That’s why for me, and for so many others, football being more than just a game isn’t just some old cliche. It’s irreplaceable, it’s something that can offer a glimmer of familiarity and hope in even the bleakest of circumstances.

Of course, it’s impossible to say for definite – but without it I’m pretty certain my dad would be in a much worse place than he is now.

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