United With Dad

Last April, and a dimly lit hospital room at the end of a corridor. Dad was frail, spending most of his time sleeping. The batch of chemotherapy he’d undergone at the start of the year - a last attempt at prolonging his life - had failed. The cancer cells were spreading, slowly, the oncologist had explained, but at a rate which could no longer be contained. 

Dad was dying but the added complications posed by his dementia meant it was impossible to tell if he was fully aware of this fact. His memory had faded sharply; his speech had become garbled and difficult to understand. On that particular visit he thought he was on a boat and repeatedly asked when we were docking at the next port. He wanted to know why his parents - both dead for over 20 years - had not been to see him in the last few days. Most upsettingly, he didn’t seem to know who I was.

And then, just as I was about to leave, a tiny flicker of the old Dad.

“How are United getting on?” he asked. So I told him. 

Around that time, most of my visits would follow this pattern. I would sit by his bed, trying to make some kind of sense of what he was attempting to say. Then, for a few precious seconds, the fog of confusion that shrouded his brain would lift and Dad would recognise me. 

When he did, it was always football that we talked about.

Dad had reluctantly decided to give up his season ticket at the end of the 2017/18 season. His last game at Old Trafford was against Watford, settled by a Marcus Rashford goal I can’t recall. The only thing I do remember from that day is what happened after full-time.

As United’s players passed by on their end-of-season lap of appreciation, Dad had tried to hide his tears. But by the time Dennis and John and Nigel and Frank and Sue and all the other match day friends he had made over the years started to say their goodbyes, he could no longer disguise it. 

We sat down in our seats together for a final time as the stadium emptied, remaining there until his crying stopped. Then, holding his hand awkwardly, I helped him to his feet and guided him to the exit. A chapter which started with Dad holding my hand as he took me to a goalless midweek game with Ipswich Town 25 years previously, had come to a close.

As is the way with many father-son relationships, my dad and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Exacerbated by the fact that he was a teacher at my school, we often argued throughout my teenage years. Football, though, had always been our common-ground, the thing that brought us closest together. 

From an early age he’d prepared me well for my first visit to Old Trafford. He told me about how, as a child, he had defied his parents and caught the bus there to watch Duncan Edwards and the Busby Babes in action. He told me about the school assembly that had nearly been cancelled one February morning as he and many other boys sobbed uncontrollably at the news that had filtered through from Munich the previous evening. 

He told me about driving down to Wembley to watch United lift the European Cup a decade later, about the Stretford End the night Bryan Robson outshone Diego Maradona’s Barcelona, about how those stories of Denis Law’s back-heel condemning United to relegation were, in actual fact, bollocks.

Being able to go to Old Trafford with him always felt special. Initially, it was probably nothing more than the thrill of watching the game itself. Later on, in the years after I left home for university, it became something more. It was the only genuine quality time we spent together and took on even more significance - particularly after his cancer diagnosis. 

During our final season together his deterioration was more apparent with every passing match day. I had known something was wrong in the first few weeks as Dad was strangely subdued during an early spate of 4-0 wins, hardly reacting to any of the goals. 

Against West Brom in December, he asked why Wayne Rooney wasn’t playing - once in the first half, then again in the second. Both times I reminded him that Rooney had returned to Everton in the summer; both times he sat silently for a few moments, eyes staring blankly at the pitch. Physically he was struggling, too. The walk back to the car after full-time became a hobble. It left him breathless, as did negotiating the steps to our seats in the second tier of the North Stand. By March, he had started to miss games. 

Dad’s condition worsened as the year drew to a close, his decline accelerating following the failed last-ditch round of chemo. After being transferred from one hospital to another, he was eventually moved to the care home where he would spend his final weeks.

During that time, I also stopped attending games. Watching someone you love gradually forget who they are as their body slowly fails them puts football and all the petty rivalries that come with it into sharp perspective. Why, when your dad no longer recognises you, should getting rolled over in the derby next week really matter so much? Would Liverpool winning a league title be quite so unbearable when you’ve witnessed what real pain looks like, the anguish on his face as the morphine wears off? 

You question, too, why something you’ve obsessed about for so much of your life, something that’s swallowed up more weekends than you could possibly count, could ever have mattered to you in the first place.

Dad passed away peacefully last month. I’ve not been back to Old Trafford since. In the 18 months since our last game together I’ve realised that the older you get, watching football becomes less about your team winning or losing and more about who you’re watching with. 

Perhaps it’s a parent or a sibling, maybe a long-term friend. For me, it was my dad. 

Until my son, nearly three, decides he wants to do something more with his weekends than play with toy tractors and dinosaurs, I know match days won’t feel the same.

But when that day arrives, the next chapter will begin.