I watched the game yesterday on an armchair next to Mum, I wanted to be with her at the match, as it were. She was in her preferred position, lying on the sofa. It was a great game, full of the brutal and tender poetry that footballers create in pursuit of the goal. Top end football is played at such pace now (leaving Kenwyne Jones aside) that it’s impossible for the officials not to get some calls wrong and there were more than a few of those, decisions that only a camera could have made correctly on the fourth slow-motion replay from the third available angle. Of course, we had access to all of that from our position in front of the television, and I rather liked it – what you gain in being at the match you sometimes lose in seeing what actually happened. Our crowd are beautifully one-eyed, seeing everything that happens against us and that goes unaccounted for while seeing nothing that goes our way that goes unaccounted for. You might think all football fans are like this, but they are not; say at Fulham, for instance, where they seem all too reasonable.
Mum was on the virtual edge of her sofa for almost the entirety of the match and on the actual edge of it as she fretted on her countdown to the full-time whistle from the very moment that the long-absent and out-of-favour (so far as any of us could tell) Danny Higginbotham smashed the second in on the 63rd minute. The victory was pure Tony Pulis, two set plays, two goals. He has his detractors, but not on days like these. I was looking at Mum’s arm from time to time, a tapestry of small purple bruises; What have they been doing to you? I asked, in that rhetorical way that sons find to speak to mothers in these circumstances. Bloody hell, duck, she replied. It’s a question of where they can find a vein now: all them needles, and this one last week from a transfusion, she said, indicating the biggest bruise. ‘He made a bit of a mess of that.’ I touched her arm, perhaps, and we continued watching and I started telling her that there was nothing to worry about, that this one was in the bag even though West Ham were having plenty of possession. Look Mum, he’s put on Whitehead to scarify them with his ghoulishness and to generally break up play, I said.
Five minutes from time Mum said, I could do with a fag, duck. And she even looked at me just in case I was packing the cigs. I only smoke when I move onto my second bottle of wine these days, and that not being the case at this moment (I was one glass of cranberry juice down) I couldn’t help. Mum’s husband, John, had been down the road to see his mate while the second half was on; he returned soon after the finish. ‘Did they win?’ he asked, ‘Yes!’ mum replied, ‘That’s given me a right lift,’ she said, ‘I even wanted a cigarette!’ John perked up himself at this news, as if desiring a smoke was a very good sign, which it was. The last time Stoke City were in the FA Cup semi-finals was thirty-nine years ago; that sounds a very long time ago to me, and it is. I was nine coming up ten, dotting about the back garden replaying goals from Match of the Day like we did while Mum was at something incongruous like sitting at the breakfast bar under a blonde beehive crocheting a poncho for my sister. A glass of champagne a day all the way to Wemberley Mum. Doctor’s orders.