A reason for sport

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Sport is many things to many people: Sport is a cause for connection. Sport is a stage for excitement. Sport is a reason for hope. Sport, for some, is a way to make quite a lot of money. Sport is the main reason why I am sitting here now, writing this article.

Recently, I came across the story of Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe and her distinct connection to Andy Murray’s second Wimbledon triumph in the glorious summer of 2016.

During the highly publicised build-up to her episode as guest editor for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Zaghari-Radcliffe revealed how the Iranian authorities had allowed her to possess a television during her prolonged detainment in the country.

This television, she claimed, had two available channels. One provided the Republic’s homegrown version of Eastenders, whilst the other offered coverage of that year’s Wimbledon tournament. The choice, therefore, was rather easy to make. “They had no idea what they had given me”, she is reported as saying.

Thus, confined to the sheer boredom of my bedroom during this cold, dark and dank holiday period, such a tale inspired some thought within me. In essence, I began to wonder: when has sport offered me such heart-warming solace?

Now, naturally, this will not nearly amount to the same comfort tendered to Zaghari-Radcliffe as she stared down the bleak barrel of solitary confinement. Nor will my problems extend beyond those that truly affect people in a life-changing and potentially adverse fashion.

This is, in clearer terms, not an outcry for support. Instead, it is a form of pondering which can often be healthy for the mind, if not slightly self-indulgent.

“They had no idea what they had given me”, she is reported as saying

For my sins and saintly moments, I am condemned to eternally be a fan of Rotherham United. If any of you are confused as to our existence, stretch your minds back to the hidden memories occupied by the Chuckle Brothers. Admit it, you watched the show at least once or twice. And, almost certainly, you enjoyed it.

This club, questionably more times than not, has offered me experiences verging upon the precarious extremes of both delight and despair.

For example, I could easily refer to our victory in early 2021 over Sheffield Wednesday. A last minute, 25-yard scorcher from the flaming boot of Freddie Ladapo in the 96th minute secured a 2-1 win against one of our fiercest rivals, ensuring we performed the league double over the Owls for the first time in our history. This sacred moment helped drag me through that irreversibly isolating Epiphany term a few of us finalists endured at home, sometimes without a soul to speak to.

Moreover, this article has the potential to droan on ceaselessly about many other occasions and moments in which worries and concerns have been washed away by the magical waves of sporting distraction.

However, I have selected one in particular that I would like to discuss.  Apologies in advance if this example turns quite deep. I will do what I can to remain firmly in the shallow end, arm bands and all.

My cat died on a Thursday in late November 2019. I had to do the usual business of taking him to the closest vet and held him close as he fell to sleep for the final time. All this had been expected. ‘Catman’, as I had named him as a child, had been ill for a while. His eyes were glazed, and his fur had grown into a rough, sticky carpet in comparison to the luxurious coat I had loved to tickle before. In essence, although his heart still held the same devotion for our family and our favourable warmth, the body was no longer the same. His life had grown too big for it.

Admittedly, it may seem absurd to some that I have chosen the passing of my cat as a moment in my life to relate to sport. Yes, he was a pet; yes, he was only a feeble creature to the eyes of others. Nevertheless, as owners of cats, dogs, birds, bats, monkeys, and kangaroos know, they are much more than that.

For me, ‘Catman’ was my childhood, and, with him, it died in that passing moment. He had recently turned 19, around the same time as I became a legal adult. I had no memory of life without his calming presence.

In the weeks that followed during that drab conclusion to the year, other events were to change my life in different ways. However, the taking of my cat was to hold most significance. He was, after all, my best friend.

I slumped, rather irrationally, into a numb and depressed state. There are, of course, far worse situations to be in. But this one had a stranglehold over me. In the wise words of Winston Churchill, I was facing the infamous “black dog”, baring its glistening teeth and ready to pounce at will.

Pictured: ‘Catman’, the cause of my troubles. (Image: )

So, where does sport come into this? The answer lies on the 29th of December 2019. An insignificant date to most, this day laid claim to Rotherham United v Peterborough United. Exhilarating, I know.

At the top of League One, this match held a remarkable amount of importance for both sides as they strove on towards promotion. Rotherham had, for the most part of the season, occupied the automatic promotion places. Posh had, meanwhile, traversed elegantly between the play-offs and mid-table mediocrity.

Nonetheless, the visitors packed an offensive punch, and the home crowd knew all about it. Ivan Toney (yes, that one) led their attack. No more need be said.

On the other hand, the mighty Millers had among their ranks Daniel Iversen, Matt Crooks, Chiedozie Ogbene and Carlton Morris. Not too shabby, really.

At the time, I did not care much for such hysterical hype. I was down in the dumps, and seemingly wanted to remain fixed there for the foreseeable future. That hollow abyss is sometimes a place of synthetic comfort. Self-pity can be an addictive drug at the worst of times.

The first half passed without comment, and the day felt like every other. Life was dull, and I wanted to remain at home and see no more of it until the upcoming new year. The same fans surrounded me, the same players took to the pitch, the same sky sat above, the same music blared from the speakers strewn out around the stadium. I was irascible and filled with Scrooge-like contempt.

Then, like the unexpected flick of a similarly unknown switch, the second half erupted with glee.

A few chances came and went before one finally stuck itself to the grail-like target. Richard Wood, the aged warrior of that Rotherham side, bundled his way through a sea of bodies from a cross and rocketed a fierce header into the bottom corner. Delirium ensued. In more selfish terms, I had been resurrected.

Playtime antics resulted in a red card for one of Peterborough’s defenders, and the floodgates subsequently burst open in a miraculous fashion. Matt Crooks – the slayer of Manchester United in last season’s FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough – broke through Posh’s diminished defence and saw a deflected effort trickle over the line.

Suddenly, I found myself leaping into the arms of new fans in my surroundings and hugging my mates tighter than ever before. I had seen the valley, and now I stood upon the mountain peak.

Less than ten minutes later, Wood struck home again – and what a home it was. The sky above glazed into a brilliant, deep crimson. Its heavenly clouds rippled, and I found myself standing within a temple of old, as my heart duly stirred with incalculable raucousness.

Whatever you do, make sure you talk to your mates

Those minutes had awoken me to the scent of life once more. I finally felt joy again. I could hug my friends and fellow spectators and not possess even a hint of sadness. Football had brought me back from the brink. My childhood had returned for a brief moment, and I felt so vividly the verve and twinge of what we apparently call spirit.

Even a last-minute overhead kick by Rotherham’s Kyle Vassell to make it 4-0 could not hand an escalation to this pure, beaming magnificence. Life was good again. I was free from despair’s lingering shackles.  

That is, to me, the blessed magic of sport. Seeking a complete and coherent description of this phenomenon would be, quite frankly, a fool’s game. It has the true potency to lift the stumbling to their feet, to bring life to the dying, and hope to the crushed and weary.

This may seem like gross hyperbole, and it probably is. However, I insist on believing that there is something to it. Sport can often be the glimmer to a shadow, and a release from the often-overwhelming pressures of daily existence.

Personally, I cannot count how many times these silly games have been a welcome distraction from life’s troubling trials and tribulations. There are not enough fingers or numbers on the planet for that sort of thing.

So, if you are ever feeling down in these long, dark months – as many of us do – switch on the television and see what’s on. It may only be snooker, but that’s okay – maybe you will witness a miracle. If that doesn’t do the trick, try to find some local match or fixture and bring a friend or two.

Whatever you do, make sure you talk to your mates. Check in on them, even if it seems somewhat inconvenient. The topic of conversation need not be too serious, but the words themselves can possess more meaning than any deep verbal tug of war. Sport is many things, and it can be a reason for that as well.

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