We are blessed at the Irish Chaplaincy with some wonderful volunteers and it was not easy to have to choose just one of them to nominate for the Irish in Britain Volunteer Awards. We did in the end nominate somebody and I was saying to Paul, our Seniors Manager “if that person gets the award it’s good for everyone at the Chaplaincy”, and I added, “everyone’s a winner”. I thought for a few moments, then said “but not in the Champion’s League final!”
It was the day before the big match and Paul, who’s from Liverpool, was going to be cheering for the reds, whereas Rory, who works with Paul in the Seniors’ Project, is a big Spurs fan! Even though I was a relative neutral I was also excited about the match and I have fond memories of the 2005 Champions League final in which Liverpool were up against AC Milan. I was in Assisi at the time, attending an international L’Arche meeting, and I went off to a bar in the evening with people from L’Arche Liverpool and an assortment of football fans from various countries. It looked like it was all over by half-time, with Milan, the favourites, having raced into a 3-0 lead, so I went off to join a prayer vigil in the nearby Cathedral (the official item on the programme for the L’Arche gathering!). When I got back to the bar I was informed that an on-fire Steven Gerrard had just pulled one back with a header and I was just in time to see a perfect strike from Vladimir Smicer to make it 3-2. And then straight after that, Liverpool were awarded a penalty which Xabi Alonso put in on the rebound: 3-3! It all happened within six minutes. If I’d stayed praying any longer I would have missed it all! Liverpool won in the end on penalties and the bar erupted in celebration. Even the locals were rooting for Liverpool as the favoured team in Assisi is AS Roma, fierce rivals of Milan. It was a special evening.
Another famous Liverpool comeback, this time against the mighty Barcelona, had brought them to the 2019 final. Tottenham too had come back from the dead in their semi-final against Ajax, so there was great excitement in the English press about an all-English final, with stories of people paying up to £25,000 for a top-priced ticket. There was a piece in the Evening Standard about four Spurs fans who were offered £15,000 for their four £60 tickets. They turned it down! And to the question “will it be worth it” the answer was “we’ll let you know on Sunday” i.e. the day after the match.
By all accounts there was a great atmosphere in Madrid, the venue for the final, which was besieged by tens of thousands of fans wearing either white or red and singing their respective anthems. It strikes me that football provides for people some of the elements that organised religion once gave the majority: for example, coming together in a grand venue for worship and singing. Many of the football chants even use the tunes of old hymns, like the favourite of the Tottenham fans ‘When the Spurs go marching in’. And communal singing is good for our health, releasing endorphins (the happy hormone) and ocytocin, which can reduce anxiety and stress. Having said that, watching football is hardly a relaxing past-time!
It wasn’t a great game in the end (finals rarely are) but I enjoyed watching it with a few old mates from my football-playing days, and we reminisced about some of our triumphs on the pitch, whilst conveniently forgetting about the disappointments! There had to be a winner on the night and it was the team in red, so the song that rang out in the stadium at the end was the most famous football anthem of all, ‘You’ll never walk alone’. I was reflecting on how the Spurs fans must be feeling, probably pretty gutted, but I hoped they wouldn’t think that they’d made a wasted trip (and that they really should have taken the thousands of pounds on offer for their tickets!) but could appreciate being part of a really special occasion, even if not all could be on the winning side.
One of the most enjoyable football matches I ever played in was one I organised in Canterbury between L’Arche Kent and L‘Arche London. On both teams there were people with and without learning disabilities, men and women, old and young. There were people kicking the ball towards the ‘wrong’ goal. And when somebody scored everybody cheered. It was such fun and truly everyone was a winner that day. Ironically it was at the venue where I played a lot of competitive matches, when every game seemed like a matter of life or death. And I’ll quote here the response of the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly when asked if he thought that football was a matter of life or death. “Oh no”, he said, “it’s much more important than that”!
It can be good, I think, for us to work hard and to use our talents to achieve great things, in the world of sport or elsewhere, and it certainly feels good to be on the winning side. But failure and disappointment are also part of life, and they can be a spur for us to try even harder next time to realise our dreams. And whoever gets chosen as Irish in Britain’s Volunteer of the Year I hope we can all rejoice with them and with their organisation and declare that, in some aspects of life at least, everyone’s a winner.