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Football is the True Shibboleth

Patrick McCloskey describes the power that the beautiful game has to overcome division and boundaries.

Skyping home to one’s parents is a central pillar of the life of the modern student. For many, it is an obligatory pain – a mandatory ceremony carried out to depict a diligent, wholesome lifestyle which fully justifies the continued sponsorship of the Bank of Mum and Dad. For me, however, it is a staple of my sanity, an earth wire which conducts the flow of my stress back to the insulation of home. The call itself may be a permanent fixture, but the current of conversation is forever alternating. In a burgeoning family of seven, there are always fresh dramas, triumphs and gossip to discuss. But there is one unflinching core of conversation: football. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says: ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church’. So too, God created football so that upon this rock families, friendships and lives may be built.

The first clothing I ever wore was a Manchester United baby grow. Such a garment could not be sourced locally. The internet remained very much virgin territory at the time, but the remedial dial-up connection of an age prior to Amazon Prime did not deter my father. Around a year earlier, he was on the receiving end of a thuggish tackle. His shin guard split along with the shin itself. The fear of a leg break haunts every footballer. But this particular injury was especially troubling. He was due to marry my mother some months later. There were widespread concerns of the big day being haunted by the clumsy clinking of crutches. Thankfully, the cast was removed the day before the wedding. Free from crutches, but moving gingerly towards the altar, my father carried football with him into married life. Football would also be there for the birth of his first child.

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No choice but Newtowne FC

The game remained a constant in my childhood. In 1996, my grandfather, John Holland, and his friends founded Newtowne FC. My father became player-manager. His successor was my uncle Marty. Marty was once the hub of the black and red midfield and is now club chairman. On our mantelpiece, there’s a picture of me, 2 years old, draped in my father’s number nine jersey. Even now, the smell of Deep Heat brings me back to the changing rooms at the Wysner’s Lane pitches – ‘the Wiseys’. To my seven-year-old self, the hard benches of the council facility were more alluring than even Old Trafford could ever be. I could conceive of no greater cast of heroes than the Newtowne first team. When myself and my friends played football on the street, we would always assign ourselves to ‘be’ certain players before kicking off. This is standard procedure for all young connoisseurs of the game. In practical terms, it involves nothing more than simply screaming the player’s name in an excited, high-pitched commentator impression before shooting. But, ideologically, the precise selection of a particular player is a profound statement of oneself – a revelation of allegiance, of aesthetic preference and of dreams for a future in the game. My neighbours must have been sick of hearing me bellowing ‘MICKEEYYY O’BRIIEEENN’ –  the name of Newtone’s stalwart centre-half – before yet again plummeting the ball into their flower beds.

I imagine high hopes were fostered of me one day adorning the red and black of the Newts. It was, after all, a family tradition. But, I never have. I doubt I ever will. In a sense, the shirt is still too big for me. In a recent call home, my dad mentioned he ran into Billy Wilson –  my old under 10’s coach. Billy was another of my childhood idols. He had played for Middlesbrough in the 60s. So far as I was concerned, he was practically Juninho himself. According to Billy, he’s coached countless lads with no footballing talent whatsoever who simply could not be convinced that they were anything less than sensational. I, however, could not be convinced that I was anything less than utterly atrocious. I’ve been the subject of innumerable pep talks from managers trying to instil some confidence into me. Charlie O’Kane, father of Leeds midfielder Eunan, once stopped a training session mid-drill and singled me out. ‘Young McCloskey, boys’, he proclaimed, ‘is the future of this club’. I quit one week later and never played for my hometown again.

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Uncle Marty and Granda John celebrating Newtowne success

I don’t have the mind to be a footballer. I worry. I examine and re-examine every move I make until I come to the conclusion that I have made a fool of myself. My head drops. I hide from the ball. I walk away. I never played more than a few games in a season. It always ended in tears.

And yet, I continue to love it. Why? Well, I suppose it’s because I had to.

I had a rough couple of years at university. The same shyness and anxiety which had led me to walk away from football now consumed my every day. Other than a call home in the evening, I went about my days in silence. Weekends were the toughest. Homesickness hit hard. Loneliness hit harder. There were no lectures or seminars to break up the day. No opportunities to see anyone. I cherished those few minutes on the way to class so I could at least be in the company of others. I may not have broken my silence but it was nice – even just for a few minutes – to not be alone. My last lecture on Fridays was the law of tort. It ended at 11am. Leaving the lecture theatre, I knew this is where my solitary confinement resumed until 9am Monday.

But I did have the Premier League. Every Saturday at 12, I would quickly sneak into hall to get brunch. As always, I returned to my room to eat alone. But I never made this particular return trip with the same dread. Gillette Soccer Saturday was just starting. I’d listen to Stelling and Merson and LeTissier and pretend like this was just a normal Saturday at home with my dad and my brothers. Then, in the evenings, there was Match of the Day. When the theme tune came on, I knew I had done it – I had managed to get through another Saturday. I was one week closer to home. Gary Lineker has become a sort of cult hero of late. Both football icon and voice of political compassion, his stance against the rising tide of hatred has rightly been widely praised. But, for me, my admiration for Lineker stems largely from a substantial personal debt. Quite simply, he helped me get through it.

Terry Eagleton claims football is ‘the opiate of the masses’. In a secular age, he argues, football assumes the perceived Marxist function of religion in capitalist society. It distracts the masses. Consumed by their debates on whether Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s scorpion kick was offside, they neglect their duties of insurrection against the bourgeoisie. I think he’s talking balls. I was dependent on football, but not as some degenerate drug. It was not anaesthesia to the realities of life. Sky Sports is not Murdoch’s equivalent of Morpheus’ blue pill. I was not simply numbing my brain – I was finding reasons to keep going, mining what little joy I could from within a particularly long and dark tunnel. I was – albeit unconsciously – investing in the vast stocks of cultural capital football has to offer, laying ground for future happiness, friends and memories.

There’s an episode of The West Wing called ‘Shibboleth’. It’s a reference to a story in the Book of Judges. The Gileadites had been invaded by the Ephraimites. Having fought off the attack, the Gileadites now sought to find any remaining Ephraimites who had not yet retreated across the River Jordan. A password was devised – the Hebrew word, ‘Shibboleth’. Shibboleth literally means the part of the plant which contains grain or corn. It does not, at first sight, seem to be an especially distinctive term. However, the Ephraimite dialect did not avail itself of the ‘sh’ sound. Thus, according to biblical narrative, the Gileadites said to those they suspected, ‘say now Shibboleth’. If the person in question were an Ephraimite, then they would reply, not with ‘Shibboleth, but with ‘Sibboleth: for he could not pronounce it right’. All those who said Shibboleth were Gileadites. They were allies. Friends. Football is its own Shibboleth. It’s a password which unlocks social circles.

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The McCloskey Boys leave no one in any doubt of where their support lies

I still play, but I spend more time now reading and trying to make sense of the game. In ‘We Were Soldiers’, Mel Gibson’s Vietnam war film, journalist Joseph L. Galloway explains why, rather than fight in a war, he would document and “try and understand one… I just figure I could do better shooting a camera than I could shooting a rifle”. I like to think I can be of more use writing than playing. I doubt I can ever entertain anyone with a ball at my feet, but I hope I can offer something a bit more with a pen in my hand. I love football. I love the world it opens up – the wonderful, authentic characters and stories to be found on every terrace and in every changing room. Bill Shankly said “football is a simple game, complicated by idiots”. If he was talking tactics, then the Great Man was correct. My own attempts to adapt Carlo Ancelotti’s Christmas Tree formation to Stoke City on FIFA manager mode are testament to this. The complications of football – the emotion, the politics, the pain, the meaning – come from elsewhere.

My father was in East Belfast on the 23rd October, 1993 – the day of the Shankhill Road Bombing. He had represented his hometown of Dungiven in a cross-community game. Dungiven is a well-known nationalist area. Its hurling team is named in memory of INLA hunger striker, Kevin Lynch. The soccer team adorn the name of ‘Dungiven Celtic’. To be in loyalist East Belfast on any day was itself dangerous. But this was not just any day. At around 1pm, an IRA bomb exploded prematurely in Frizzell’s chip shop on the Shankhill Road. 10 people were killed, including the bomber himself. 57 were injured. Even amongst the manifold acts of unfathomable evil executed through ‘the Troubles’, the bombing of Frizzell’s chippy stands out as instance of pure terror and callousness.  Billy McQuiston is famously quoted as saying that ‘anybody on the Shankill Road that day, from a Boy Scout to a granny, if you’d given them a gun they would have gone out and retaliated’.

The game itself was played in the Short Strand – a nationalist enclave precariously ensconced within loyal Ulster’s heartland. My father reports it was played in good spirit. Competitive, but fair. At full time, both sides retired to the home side’s clubhouse back on loyalist territory. In the custom of amateur football, the home side put out a spread. A few
pints, some soup, sausage rolls – nothing fancy. If the delicacies of politicians’ lunches had done little to help make peace, then sausage rolls and soups would be ample. The atmosphere was good. Dungiven Celtic were welcomed amiably as guests.

But then something changed. Word began to trickle out that something had happened. The underlying dynamics of the meeting shifted. It was not yet clear exactly why. But something had certainly changed. A member of the home side advised Dungiven Celtic to get back to the bus and leave urgently. It was no longer safe for them to say.

A noble attempt at reconciliation was scuppered by the exact kind of senseless violence which cross-community pursuits such as this aim to end. Later that evening, a fast food delivery boy, lured in by a bogus call, was murdered in Belfast. He was a Catholic. An eye had to be taken for an eye. Massacre followed massacre. A week later, UDA gunmen entered the ‘Rising Sun’ bar in the nationalist village of Greysteel. Around 70 people were packed in for a Halloween party. They opened fire, emptying their magazines. They walked out, laughing. 8 people – all Catholics – were murdered. Had someone not warned the Dungiven men, who knows what could have happened. One of Northern Ireland’s darkest days could have been even blacker. My family may never have been. Even football has its limits. The beautiful game lives in an ugly world.

Northern Ireland is no longer that place. No longer do we live in the shadow of violence. Yet the old divide remains the almighty elephant in the room. Our schools, homes and cultures remain very much segregated. The Old Firm persists as a remitting tumour of a poisonous past. Football conspires with history, religion and politics in a toxic cocktail of bigotry and violence. But it is too often overlooked that football has been the point where the two traditions meet. For many children – including myself – it was the primary means by which we could engage with members of the other community. As much as national anthems may be divisive, the hymns of ‘Will Grigg’s on Fire’ and the classic David Healy rendition of ‘Away in a Manger’ are intensely unifying. My father encouraged this ethos as manager of Newtowne FC: players were forbidden from wearing Celtic or Rangers tops. When representing the club, the players were not protestant or catholic, nationalist or unionist. They were footballers. End of story. Football, like religion itself, is only a means of division if you want to pervert its true nature.

I return to the Gospel of Matthew. Christ says ‘Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. Go to any football game in any country of the world and think of these words. Whether in the favelas of Brazil or on soggy pitches in Northern Ireland or in the room of a lonely university student, the beautiful game welcomes all those looking to escape the hardships of life. We call football a religion for a reason. Because what in God’s name would the world be without it?

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Patrick McCloskey is in his final year as a law student at King’s College, Cambridge. He is also a regular contributor to the podcast, A Team of John O’Sheas. If you enjoyed this article, you can read more of his writing on his website. He tweets @paddyroe95.

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