It was the 20th October 2019, and my mum asked me if I had time to speak to my dad. I didn’t have time to speak to him, but I agreed anyway. It was the day before I went back to work and I had a lot of shit to prepare. But there was something about my parents getting older (mum in her 60s, dad in his 70s) that just rarely made me ever say no.
My dad came on the phone and as always we went straight into football. He was predominantly a Manchester United fan, though he, of course, liked Celtic and he had a soft spot for Real Madrid. His modern football opinions were basically shaped by TV: the Man Utd of the 90s being the focal point of the early ITV Champions League coverage, of course, ensuring that my dad became an instant fan.
He always said that he was a fan of good football, even going to a Rangers game at one point when they played Tottenham in a friendly or a European match or something. He loved, like most of us, watching players of skill, players that could dribble. He fetishised left-footed players and always had a theory that they were much better penalty takers. He just liked to see good football played. For that reason, Man Utd, narrated by Martin Tyler, became his footballing fixation.
We got Sky TV when he was in his late 50s and Real Madrid became a new infatuation. It was around the time of the Galacticos, Gerry Armstrong on the commentary, Sunday night Spanish football competing with Heartbeat in the McKay household. My dad loved to watch that Real Madrid team play. It was hypnotic to him.
Back to that phone conversation and my dad was bemoaning the Man Utd midfield. Even though the stars had gone and Ferguson had gone, he had been hooked by the club. He would watch every Man Utd game he could see, even knowing that they were not what they once were. He would TiVo Man Utd games against the likes of West Bromwich Albion if my mum happened to make him leave the house at the time a game was on. The terribleness of having to leave the house on a ‘super Sunday’ was increased if my profoundly deaf papa happened to mention the score to him. We were never sure if my papa was unwittingly winding my dad up or just at it. We suspected the latter.
Either way, my dad was fully obsessed with Manchester United. And right then, during that phone call, he was distressed by the state of their midfield.
I remember the call so vividly. I remember thinking that I had so much to do to get ready for work: the semester break had been about 3 months long and I had, as always, left any and all prep to the last minute. But his passion for football was infectious. So much so that before every call I would make sure I was up on all important scorelines from the weekend, just to ensure we had a meeting point, a handle on our relationship that didn’t involve any of that pesky real talk.
I remember his agitation that day. I remember him mispronouncing ‘Pogba’ as he always did.
The next day, on the 21st of October, he died; just extinguished from existence. He had been walking upstairs to the dental office in the local health centre and suffered what is known as a thunderclap headache. He fell on the stairs and an ambulance was called. He was conscious and spoke to my uncle when he got there. I can imagine the rage inside him at this point. He hated hospitals. He hated fuss. He would have wanted nothing else but to be transported back to his armchair in the living room, watching The Chase with my mum, maybe thinking about the Arsenal game that was going to be the Monday Night Football in a few hours time.
The ambulance drivers told my uncle that they thought it was probably a trapped nerve in his head. My uncle phoned my mum to relay the information and calm any worries. 10 minutes or so later, in the ride to the hospital, alone, apart from the company of the medical workers, he passed out from bleeding on the brain: an aneurysm that the doctors described as unstoppable even if he had been opened up on the operating table when it happened. He never regained consciousness and was dead within a couple of hours. A life that disappeared in the blink of an eye, with no forewarning.
And we were left with a rage. An anger that someone had lived their life with restraint: didn’t drink much at all, stopped himself (or was stopped by my mum, more likely) from eating too much bad shit, a life that was constantly aware of the big killers, constantly taking measures to hold off cancer and heart disease, constantly played the rules of the game, but was still wiped out. In fact, he even worked about 4 years after retirement as a digger driver, because he wanted both of them to be able to go a fortnight in Majorca once a year for a while longer.
Well done at looking after yourself, well done for playing the game. But no luck, your number has come up in a terrifying lottery that nobody and everybody knows is taking place.
And with the rage, the guilt. Not just the guilt of the things not done and the conversations not had, but also the guilt of raging against the unfairness of a man in his mid-70s dying when he had had a good life, with a family that loved him. He got his holidays, he got his dominoes on a Tuesday night at the local pub, he got his Sky Sports and BT Sports. He even got a trip down to Old Trafford as a present from my brother. So many people get fucked out of life so much earlier or after so much more pain, some don’t get to disappear in a nanosecond. But as Neil Young wrote: ‘just because my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away’.
And the sadness of what was left behind doesn’t go away. It stays with the wife that had been married to him for 50 years and would now have to find a new way to exist. It stays with the eldest son whose own wee boy is beginning a little kickers career and who undoubtedly wanted the footballing-obsessed grandpa there to see it. And it stays with the youngest son, me, who had big plans for 2020, who planned on having his dad finally see the finished renovation of his fixer-upper house in Germany and then celebrate his wedding in October. The tragedy is that no one gets to see the end of all of their loved one’s movies.
As I think back on my dad, our relationship and my relationship with football, then it is essentially one big Venn diagram.
He introduced me to Scotsport on a Sunday, he took me to training at Barrhead Boy’s Club, he took me to my first Celtic game, a Dundee home tie in the 90s where we watched from the terracing behind the goal, he took me and my brother to play shooty-in at the Cowan Park. And later we watched games on TV together, him slinking into my room to watch the football after my mum had chased him from the living room. My relationship with football and Celtic only exists because of my relationship with my dad.
For that reason, on the night of the 21st of October, after I had booked flights back to Scotland for the funeral, and after I cried as much as I thought possible, and after I had drunk half a bottle of cheap as fuck whiskey, I sat down and watched the Arsenal game on Monday Night Football. Because that’s what my dad would have done.