Thirteen Years – “A Long Time Coming”

2017 Governors Ball Music Festival - Day 3

The only time I have ever seen Tool play live was at the Download Festival in 2006. I’d gone to Download with my cousin, Mark, and we camped with a few others that I knew to varying degrees. I remember when we got the tickets and the line up was announced I was immediately excited to see Metallica, couldn’t believe I’d have a chance to see Prodigy, and hugely anticipated seeing the likes of Deftones, Alice In Chains, Korn and so on.

Headlining the Friday were Tool. I really only knew a few songs; ‘Sober’, ‘Parabola’ and ‘Schism’. Past that, absolutely nothing. I’d always thought ‘Sober’ was an incredible song, but the other songs seemed to go over my head a bit. I remember going to the pub a few weeks before the Download weekend and some of the guys I was going with saying, “Tool on Friday but, you know, seen them once and it’s always the same.” Nothing was really making me think, “Tool are a band I need to invest in.”

But, despite it all, I did. On a day out in Norwich, we popped in to HMV. They were selling the album ‘10,000 Days’. The artwork was unlike any I’d seen before for a CD, with what were special 3D lens type glasses that enabled the pictures in the booklet to almost come to life, showing you more than if you just looked at them normally. It was a work of art. Out of interest, I decided to get it. I remember asking my Dad to put it on in the car, and vividly remember him saying at some points “They’re really trying to rip off Pink Floyd, there.”

I enjoyed it. I wasn’t overawed by it, but I seriously appreciated how good an album it was technically. When Download came, we decided to watch Tool on the Friday night.

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Thirteen years on, there are a few bands I remember from Download. Strapping Young Lad were hilarious and brutal, Metallica were sensational (but ‘fashionably’ late), Korn were fronted by various different people as Jonathon Davies was ill, Prodigy was the most insane gig I’d ever seen…and Tool. They were just cool. Visually stunning, the sound was amazing…but it wasn’t that that got me sucked in.

Stood in front of us was a guy that looked to be in his early twenties. Short dreadlocks, back pack on, stood alone. And he was break dancing.

Break dancing. To Tool. In the middle of a field in Derbyshire.

It was as hypnotising as the visuals on the screens. On stage, Maynard and the band had their stands – they rarely moved from their areas – but here was this guy, break dancing at a heavy metal festival. I watched in awe, and started to really listen to the music and, in that moment, I got it. The rhythm, the beats, the differing time signatures…you didn’t mosh to Tool, you felt Tool. This music was something else.

In a way, it’s such a shame that it happened in 2006. Nowadays, in an age where stuff like this is just recorded and put on YouTube, you can guarantee it would be online…but in 2006, all of that was still relatively new ground. The flip side to that is, for all those that argue the point that they need to record so they have the memory of the show, this is proof that you really don’t. That moment stayed with me, I still remember it, I can still play it in my head…and I enjoyed the moment far more than had I been stood there holding my phone recording it.

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Following Download, I went back to ‘10,000 Days’. It was like I was listening to a different record. I felt the music more, I got the lyrics more…I started to get it. I understood just why those that love Tool really love Tool, and became enamoured by it. I couldn’t wait to hear more.

But, Tool aren’t like any other band…in my hope for a follow up to ‘10,000 Days’, I was left wanting. The band continued to play and tour, but no new music came. I delved in to the older stuff but I craved more.

One of the things I truly loved about Tool was that you could see, and hear, the growth of the band through their albums. The sound changes, the complexity of songs…the experimentation in noise…I just wanted more. Greedy, really, but that’s how it was.

As time went by, life went by. I went to uni, I graduated from uni, I had a long term relationship and saw it end, I got a job and progressed in to management, I started another relationship, I had two kids…life changed.

Within that time, also, I suffered the personal devastation of my Mum passing away suddenly in 2015. Nine years after ‘10,000 Days’ had been released. But, with that tragedy, came a new level of understanding for the album.

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I’d always loved “Wings For Marie (Part One)” and “10,000 Days (Wings Part Two)” as a couplet…but I didn’t feel them in the same way as, say, “The Pot” or “Right In Two”. When Mum passed, the first time I went back to listen to ‘10,000 Days’, I remember sitting with my headphones in and just being heartbroken by the lyrics and the emotion to the songs. Both songs focused on the passing of Maynard’s mother, and I was blown away.

In grief, you feel a lot of different emotions. There’s the sadness, but there’s also anger, frustration, guilt – a reluctance to accept. When Maynard sang “Ignorant siblings at the congregation gather around spewing sympathy; spare me. None of them can even hold a candle up to you” I started to really get it. One thing that always sticks in my mind around my Mum’s funeral was having a distant relative asking me to make her drinks, clearly not having any idea who I was, and then after the funeral offering me a hug before not saying another word to me all night. I felt an anger towards it, and you do feel sick of these people…inside, it feels fake.

I also felt real anger at the time as I had people trying to preach religion on to me. I have never been a religious person, but in turn I just felt anger – a real anger at ‘God’ – how could anything like this happen to my Mum? Why did she deserve it? Hearing Maynard sing that his Mum should “shake her fists at the gates” just seemed to connect to me even more. But, through the sadness of the song, to the anger, it ends on acceptance. It was an acceptance that took me a long time to feel…I sometimes, even now, fall out with that acceptance. But these two songs were a journey in grief – and a journey I could relate to.

After that, Tool were more than just another band to me, and their music made more sense. They are a journey band. I feel that, the older you get – or, more so, the more you go through in life – the more you start to understand Tool. From the angst in the first records, to the development – you grow up with these records and they grow up with you.

And now today, finally, thirteen years later, a new album has been released. ‘Fear Inoculum’ is tremendous. When I think back to the not long turned 18 year old I was in 2006, I know I wouldn’t have been ready for this album. It’s not an album to listen to and expect to understand immediately. It’s another step in the journey.

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To go back to what my Dad said when he had ‘10,000 Days’ on in the car, and compare to Pink Floyd. I love Floyd, but even the great albums – ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, for example – take a few listens before you find those stand-out moments. They’re albums that demand time, demand a few listens before you can judge…before you notice all the little details.

On the title track, Maynard sings “long overdue”, and, initially, I felt like it was a little comment on the length of time leading to this record. As it is, I don’t think it is ‘long overdue’ in the slightest. “Fear Inoculum” isn’t an album to introduce new fans to Tool with, it’s an album to listen to in order to take the next step in the journey. The natural successor to ‘10,000 Days’ – we’ve all got older, the band are in their fifties, the songs have become mellower…but still with that bite, and still with that sense of build, tension and excitement that Tool do so well.

Thirteen years has felt like an age and so much has changed but listening to ‘Pneuma’, listening to the majestic ‘Culling Voices’, the absolutely incredible 16 minutes of ‘7empest’…’Fear Inoculum’ came right on time.

And who knows what the next step on the journey will be?


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A Retrospective Look: Saido Berahino At The Albion

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It could have all been so different.

September 28th 2013, West Brom are at Old Trafford playing Manchester United for the first time since the incredible 5-5 game, with United now managed by David Moyes. Morgan Amalfitano, a new signing for Albion, had put he Baggies 1-0 up with an incredible solo effort. Rooney had immediately pegged it back to 1 all. Then 10 minutes later, a goal by Saido Berahino. Albion go on to win 2-1.

In that moment, Berahino started to become a star at the club. He was clearly still learning his game, still finding his strengths, but he had an ‘it’ factor about him. There was a feeling that this boy could go on to be something special.

And what a story it would have been. Berahino and his Mother fled a war-torn Burundi being granted political asylum in the UK. Berahino, aged 10, made his own way after his Mother. He spoke French, knew nobody except the few of his family that had also made it, and had to start life again. His Father was killed during the Burundian Civil War when Berahino was only 4. It’s an unimaginable start to life. To go from that to scoring the winning goal at Old Trafford was…still is…inspirational.

So…what happened?

A year after coming to the UK, Berahino was spotted by coaches from the Albion and signed up. From age 11, he started to develop his game for the club and, over the years, reportedly rejected advances from other clubs. He scored goals, he was becoming a good striker. By 2009, he was playing for the England U16s team. He would work his way up through each age bracket of the England set up with tremendous stats. When he got to the Under 21s he was paired with Harry Kane – 11 games, 10 goals – and, for some time, it looked as though he would progress further than Kane would.

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Once he’d signed a professional deal in 2011, the decision was made to loan Berahino out to lower league teams to help build his experience. His records were good, scoring 6 in 15 for Northampton Town, 4 in 8 for Brentford and a couple for Peterborough in the Championship. Behind the scenes, though, the signs were there that Berahino could play up.

While at Brentford, his loan was cut short. The reason was revealed that Berahino had been having parties in his hotel room, even trying to get tequila sunsets paid as part of his hotel expenses by Brentford. There was also an occasion where his hotel room was soiled, probably following one of his parties…and that was the final straw. When he returned to the Albion, there was talk of him being dismissed by the club. Dan Ashworth, sporting and technical director, wanted him out. He was talked around. It was to become the first of a number of chances Berahino would have.

More controversy surrounded Berahino in 2012, when he was arrested for being drunk in charge of a vehicle. Driving convictions start to come hand in hand with Berahino from this point. But the club stood by him, and by the start of 2013 Steve Clarke, then head coach at Albion, had decided that he wanted to try to make Berahino Albion’s main striker.

His first start for the club came against Newport County in the League Cup. He was brilliant, scoring a hat-trick and showing the fans the promise that he clearly had. This was his breakthrough season, the goal at United cementing that he had landed…but it wasn’t without controversy. By March, he’d had a (now infamous) bust-up with James Morrison after Albion drew 3-3 with Cardiff – reportedly resulting in Morrison throwing a punch at Berahino – and then, only 2 weeks later, news broke of Berahino inhaling laughing gas (“hippy crack”) after a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United.

Those incidents alone became frustrating to so many that supported Albion because everybody could see the talent and knew how far he’d come. I remember watching him and seeing this news thinking “if he isn’t careful, he’ll lose it all”. And we all wanted him to succeed. His upbringing was well known by supporters, he worked his way through the academy…he had the potential to be an Albion hero.

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If the 2013/14 season was a breakthrough year for Berahino at West Brom, the 2014/15 season was truly the one where he became a household name to supporters of other clubs. Albion, now managed by Alan Irvine, started the season against Sunderland. Berahino opened his account scoring two goals. He then doubled his tally with another two when Albion destroyed Burnley 4-0 at The Hawthorns. The club started to discuss a new, much better paid contract with him…but controversy struck again.

Once more, Berahino found himself arrested for drink driving, with allegations that he was also doing more than 110mph before being stopped on the M6. The club put contract talks on hold. When Tony Pulis joined the club, Berahino showed what he could do, scoring 4 goals in the FA Cup against Gateshead. He didn’t celebrate. He then did an interview stating that he was playing to get a transfer to a bigger club. Tottenham were showing interest and you could see his head was being turned. The Albion stopped contract talks and said they’d consider offers at the end of the season. Despite this, Berahino had a great year, scoring 20 goals in all competitions and ending as the Players’ Player Of The Year.

For other strikers in the Albion’s Premier League era, a season that gave 20 goals would see that player held in especially high regard amongst the fanbase, kids with the name on their shirt. However, with Berahino, it just didn’t happen. His attitude, his conduct…it had prevented him from being held anywhere near as highly as his goals would normally allow. Everybody knew he wanted out, but many knew he wasn’t really ready for it. For all his goals, Berahino was still a very raw talent. He needed another season to develop. He could have improved his game, increased his value and increased interest. But his head had already been turned.

The Summer leading to the 2015/16 season was full of speculation around Berahino. Tottenham had placed a bid of £15m for him that was rejected. Jeremy Peace, chairman at the time, set an asking price of £25m. A few more bids came in, Spurs now bidding £23m in instalments. Again, rejected. Berahino put in a transfer request. It was turned down. Peace and Albion were not budging. Berahino took to Twitter, stating he would never play for the club again.

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It was a threat that never came to light. Berahino featured 35 times for Albion, but it wasn’t the same. In several games he seemed missing. He (understandably) received mixed receptions from supporters. After scoring 20 goals the season prior, he only hit 7 in the 15/16 campaign – only 4 in the league. Salomon Rondon was the preferred striker, and Berahino’s stock was falling. Tony Pulis appeared to try to take a bit of a father figure approach, meeting with Berahino and his Mother to try to improve things. It just wasn’t to be. Eventually, Pulis stopped starting him at all, even claiming he was lucky to be in the team at all. But, still, Albion rejected bids for him. Newcastle attempted to sign him in the January window for £21m – rejected. And, then, after the season ended, Stoke bid £17m. Again, rejected.

I remember thinking when Stoke went in for him that we should have accepted it. I remember thinking we should have let him go to Spurs or Newcastle. He had become a negative energy. Peter Odemwingie had a spell on Twitter where he’d argue with Albion fans but you always felt that there was a reason for Odemwingie’s frustrations – more than any ‘normal’ fan would ever know – but Berahino would incite anger on Twitter from fans and his reasons just simply felt like greed. By the end of the year, the fans had turned. The boy with the absolutely incredible, inspiring story – coming out of desperate personal grief, leaving his home country to become a top Premier League player – had lost touch. When he first broke in to the Albion team, many would comment that he was humble…it sounded as though he was a good kid…but by the end, there was no good feeling towards him.

The 2016/17 season was to be Berahino’s last at the Albion, featuring only 5 times and not scoring any goals. Fairly early in the season, Berahino was dropped and sent to a training camp in France. The club gave the reason that he was overweight, and this was to help build him back up to full fitness. Reality was, however, that he had failed a drugs test. Found positive for MDMA, Berahino was banned for 8 weeks. In covering it up, the club had tried to protect him and his reputation, but this was it. Enough was enough, and he was sold to Stoke for a potential £15m.

Some months after news broke about the failed drugs test, Berahino did an interview claiming it was because his drink was spiked. This may have been true, but it’s sadly so often the way with Berahino – for every wrong, there’s an excuse and a denial. When people criticise or point the finger (even to the extent of WaterAid claiming Berahino’s charity hadn’t donated the money it promised), he always denies and says it’s been exaggerated. The only admissions of guilt come when there’s no other possible story. It’s not a good character trait.

I will always have the frustration with Berahino that, beneath it all, there is a really good footballer in there. Had he kept his head down, stayed out of trouble and just concentrated on his game then I honestly believe he’d be regarded as somewhat of an Albion icon. His story alone would have given him that. Instead, he left the club he joined as an 11 year old and spent 13 years with as a villain.

There was a time when Saido Berahino was considered a brighter prospect than Harry Kane. He could have had it all. He blew it. Two years after leaving Albion, he has had yet another drink driving conviction and that, plus his attitude, resulted in Stoke sacking him. He now has another chance at redemption, this time in Belgium with Zulte Waregem…and part of me, the part that still thinks of that academy built player scoring the winner at Old Trafford, really wants him to succeed. He has to, because this is surely the very last chance he has altogether.

Saido Berahino. Through all of his own doing, a wasted talent.


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A Retrospective Look: Kevin Phillips At The Albion

super kev

It’s not everyday that your club signs a 33 year old striker from your local rivals and you feel equal parts excited and interested about what is to come, yet in 2006 that’s exactly what happened when Kevin Phillips left Villa to join Albion for £700,000.

Phillips was a known prolific goalscorer, but there were doubts over how much was left in him. His record at Sunderland was incredible, averaging better than a goal every two games. At Southampton, he managed an impressive 22 goals in 64 league games. Then, he joined Villa. Phillips lasted one year at the club, scoring only five goals in a season hampered by injuries and illness. It was his worst season in front of goal since the 1996/97 season at Watford.

And so, Phillips joined the Albion. Bryan Robson in charge, the club were hotly tipped for promotion straight back to the Premier League after relegation the year before…but things don’t always go to plan. A poor start saw Robson out the door and replaced by Tony Mowbray. The style of play changed. Suddenly the likes of Koumas and Kamara looked like real deals again, and up front Kevin Phillips was proving his worth.

To sum up the kind of impact Kevin Phillips had on me as a fan watching the game, I’ll take a trip to a match that involved neither West Brom or Kevin Phillips.

20th September 2009, over a season after Phillips had left Albion, the Manchester derby was on. It had been an incredible game. Back and forth, non-stop action, and as the final minutes hit Craig Bellamy scored to make it 3-3. In to ‘Fergie Time’…a perfect pass from Ryan Giggs finds Michael Owen in the penalty area with acres of space. Goal. 4-3 after 96 minutes. Bedlam. And sat there watching this happen, I turn around to my Dad and say, “That was a Kevin Phillips goal if I’ve ever seen one.”

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For a 33 year old Phillips still had an impressive turn of pace but his overall game was about so much more. When he joined the Albion I had visions of him being a goal poacher…he’d score goals with the right service but not much else. To an extent, that was true. He would hang around the goal if he needed to…he was a striker…but, equally, he’d drop back. It became clear that he would always be in the right place at the right time.

I quickly found myself in awe at just how well Phillips could read the game. If the other players were running around all over the place, he’d just stop and wait. Eventually the ball would drop to him from the scramble and he’d ever get a chance at goal or set up a chance instead. And that’s what made that Michael Owen goal in 2009 so much like a Phillips goal – when everyone else chased the ball, Owen stood still. Space opened, ball came, goal. It’s brilliant reading of the game and the more you watch football the more you realise just how many players are not capable of doing it all that well.

That approach to the game even changed how I would play myself. I used to run around like a headless chicken chasing everything. Suddenly, inspired by watching Kevin Phillips, I would decide to stop and stand still or just walk while everyone else ran. I’d get the ball more, I’d get better chances, I’d always lose my man…if I had a better finish, touch (and the rest), I could have been lethal. But that style of play changed my opinion on how a forward should play.

In his first season at Albion, Phillips scored an impressive 22 goals. Mowbray had started to place his style on to the team and we were desperately unlucky to miss out on promotion, losing to Derby in the Play Off Final. That Summer there was an exodus. Jason Koumas was gone, Diomansy Kamara gone, Curtis Davies gone…amongst others. It was expected and, to some extent, wanted. The ‘bad blood’ was out. Mowbray could build his team of soldiers and artists. Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Felipe Teixeira all join…as does a young forward by the name of Ishmael Miller, on loan from Manchester City.

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The 2007/08 season was, for me, the perfect year. The football was sensational, the players were hugely likeable, and the club had massive success. A season that saw an amazing FA Cup run, ending (unfairly) at Wembley in the Semi Final, and then the club won the league. This was also the year where Kevin Phillips cemented himself as my favourite player.

24 goals in 38 games is more than a good return; it’s sensational. It was so good that there was always an air of expectancy when Phillips played. If he was on the pitch, you knew Albion would score. You’d know it because either he would score or he’d create the space, make the chance, for the other player to score. He made the players around him better. Ishmael Miller, alongside Phillips, looked a world beater in the making. They were immense together. And away from the goals, he also bought a joy to the pitch. When you saw Phillips and Paul Robinson dye hair the same colour, rub each others heads…you could see that this was a team loving life. Phillips made that and, in turn, it made the support feel it too. He was quiet, he was small, but he was somehow almost larger than life. Only 5’7, but on the pitch he was the guy you saw.

The goal that epitomises Kevin Phillips’ time at the club, in my opinion, came in the 5-1 win against QPR on 30th September 2007. As QPR attempted to clear the ball after another attack, the defenders chased after the ball as Albion players tried to get it back in the area. Phillips makes his way to the edge of the area, with defenders running the other way. The ball comes across to him. He stops it, looks up, and just curls it in to the top corner. As cool a finish that you will ever see, he walked over to the supporters with a beaming smile and both arms aloft. It was pure quality. I’ve seen few, if any, finishes that beat that goal in terms of quality.

phillips league

As the end of the season drew near, talk began about Phillips new contract. The current deal expiring at the end of the season, it felt almost imperative to have him sign a new deal. He was the player of the year, he was named in PFA teams of the year…the fans dressed as super heroes for the last game of the season in tribute to him, ‘Super’ Kevin Phillips. It was simple. Give him two years and he’d sign.

But we didn’t do it.

A contract was offered of one year, with an option of a second year only being given if Phillips played in 19 games. No guarantee. It was turned down. Birmingham City offered two years, back in the Championship, and he took it.

In a way, I really admired that decision. It showed that it was about more than just the Premier League for him. He just wanted to play, and he wanted to play for another two seasons at least. I’m of the opinion that, had we offered the second year as a guarantee, Phillips would have signed and probably have gone on to retire at the Albion. In the space of two years, Kevin Phillips had completely bought in to the club. Even today, interviews show how much the Albion mean to him.

I would have loved to have seen Phillips play for Albion in the Premier League under Mowbray. I remember reading that Mowbray was equally disappointed that it never happened. There’s still a part of me that thinks Phillips would have played the 19 games and would have got that second year…but I could understand why he wouldn’t risk it.

To this day, the refusal to offer a basic two year contract stands high on my list of things that have frustrated me about Albion in my lifetime (perhaps a blog for another day). The fact he would go on to spend two (and a bit) seasons at Birmingham, including time in the Premier League, just heightens the feeling. But the fact I could feel so frustrated, so upset, at losing a player turning 35 just shows how good he was.

Kevin Phillips joined Albion with an air of interest, excitement and a tinge of doubt. He went on to score 46 goals in 81 games. He helped the team win the league. He got the club to the FA Cup Semi Final. He loved scoring against Wolves (I couldn’t leave that out). He left the Albion as a hero.

Super Kevin Phillips. The best striker I’ve ever seen play for Albion.

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A Retrospective Look: Lukaku At The Albion

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There was a moment on transfer deadline day in 2013 where I thought, along with several others, that the unthinkable was about to happen. Albion were going to re-sign Romelu Lukaku on loan for another season.

News filtered through on Twitter – I even remember Stan Collymore (I know…), who worked at Talk Sport at the time, tweeting that he had signed for Albion. He wrote it in block capitals. I remember jumping up and going “Oh my God! Brilliant! Yes!” as if Albion had scored a goal.

But isn’t it just like the Albion to get it wrong?

Lukaku joined Everton, and Albion signed Victor Anichebe. It was like going out and saying, “Tonight I’m buying a brand new Aston Martin” but then coming home with a second hand Skoda. It’ll still get you from A to B, but it’s nowhere near as glamorous and it’s probably going to break down two or two hundred times along the way.

It capped a pretty dreadful transfer window at the club – arguably the start of a deterioration within the club as we failed to capitalise on a great opportunity to establish ourselves as a steady Premier League team – and the season that followed was a nightmare. Steve Clarke, who needed some luck, couldn’t get anything and ended up being sacked. Pepe Mel came in and got a cult like status for really very little. And following that came Irvine and Pulis. The Albion gradually moving backwards and the idea of having a player like Lukaku at the club growing more and more like a pipe dream.

But once upon a time, it did happen. Romelu Lukaku was sent on loan to the Albion from Chelsea to help aid his development and add a bit of quality to the Albion’s attack.

Aged only 19 years old, Lukaku came to the club having only played 10 league games for Chelsea without actually scoring. That stat didn’t really matter, though. It was well known that at Anderlecht Lukaku had made a name for himself as a strong, fast centre forward with a good eye for goal. He looked ahead of his years at Anderlecht, resulting in Chelsea paying good money for a teenager and seeing him picked for the Belgium squad at the age of 16. There was a real air of excitement about the Hawthorns.

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His debut came in the first game of the season at home against Liverpool – a game that would later become famous for Brendan Rodgers and his envelopes – coming on as a second half substitute and scoring a header in a surprise 3-0 victory. It was a great way to start, and had fans believing that the hype was real…but Lukaku could rarely break in to the starting line up. Instead, Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long were preferred.

The 2012/13 season started off brilliantly for the club, and by the end of November the club found themselves sat fourth in the league, occupying a Champions League spot heading in to December. It was a real “pinch me” moment for the Albion faithful. Totally unexpected, the team were flying, and even when the club had dropped to seventh by the end of December it still felt like a dream. It felt like ‘little’ West Brom had arrived.

Then came the January transfer window and the saga of Peter Odemwingie and the QPR car park. Things were never the same after it, and form dropped massively. The incident with Odemwingie (who had now also started arguing with fans over Twitter) resulted in him being dropped from the starting 11, leaving a gap for Lukaku, who had previously mainly featured as a sub.

And this is when we saw what he was capable of.

Eleven goals in the second half of the season, resulting in him becoming the highest Premier League goalscorer in Albion’s history. His last actions at the club being an incredible hat-trick in the unforgettable 5-5 draw against Manchester United, Alex Ferguson’s final game.

The second half of the season, and that hat-trick, cemented Lukaku as a massive fan favourite. He had the buy-in of the crowd already, but stepping in as a heroic figure, as such, following the ‘betrayal’ of Odemwingie secured him a status afforded to few at The Hawthorns. He deserved it, too.

In interviews it was clear just how much of a perfectionist Lukaku was; he was articulate, critical of his own performances and always looking at how to improve. He had a determination that was clear in the way he played and the way he carried himself. Despite being so young it felt like he had more about him than some of the older players at the time.

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I remember when I first saw Lukaku play at The Hawhorns and I was struck by his size and speed. For a guy that looked so big, he moved so well…but he was raw. The potential clearly there, but it wasn’t fulfilled yet. Of course it wasn’t, he was playing for Albion. His first touch often let him down, but if he got the chance to hold the ball then you felt that something could happen. His size intimidated defenders and, at the time, the Albion had some good players who could help him out up top. The team posed a threat.

It was easy to see why he was a bit part player in the first half of the season. Peter Odemwingie was superb for the club – it’s still such a shame it ended the way it did – and Shane Long was a brilliant partner for him. The team were performing so well, it would have made little sense to alter things to make space each week for him. But, in a way, this is where part of the problem comes when looking at Lukaku at Albion.

There is no doubt that as a player he improved as the season progressed. That raw, powerful striker at the start of the season had turned in to a solid, ‘too-good-really-to-be-at-Albion’ striker…but his form came as the rest of the team fell apart. The final 18 games of the season from January onward saw Albion lose 10 games and win only four. Of those four wins, Lukaku scored in all of them.

An argument is sometimes made that the majority of Lukaku’s 17 goals meant very little over the season – even amongst the four wins it’s argued that his goal against Liverpool was a second in stoppage time where Albion were already 1-0 up and his goal against Southampton was the second in a 3-0 win…potentially these games were already won.

What feels odd is that a team drops in form, but the key striker rises to prominence. It’s very rare that a striker will grab the headlines for a team that continues to lose, but he did. And for that to happen, in a way, demonstrated how good he was becoming. Romelu Lukaku was a bright light in a very dark end to a season.

When that final game of the season came round, and Alex Ferguson came to the Hawthorns with his Manchester United team for his last game I felt the writing was on the wall. We’d been beat 4-0 the week before by Norwich, we couldn’t buy a result. United would want to leave on a high. Ferguson would want to leave on a high. With the game at 5-2 to United after 80 minutes, it felt like it would only go one way.

It didn’t.

Lukaku saved his best for last. Having already scored Albion’s second, he popped up with two in five minutes and helped Albion finish the game 5-5. This was a player that had well and truly landed. It felt like he knew this was his big opportunity, and I don’t think any other player in the world would have had the same impact.

It left me feeling like we’d seen someone special play in the blue and white stripes. We’d watched a young boy with bags of potential join, and in that last game seen his potential become fulfilled. It felt like we’d been on a journey with him and, I think, that’s why so many of the Albion fans still hold him so close to their heart. This felt like a feel good story and we were a big part of that story. We all invested in to that story. I also think it’s why Lukaku still holds the Albion in such high regard. He came with a point to prove…and, by the end, he did it.

lukaku 2

Watching him now, it’s interesting to see how much he has changed. I don’t see the love for the game in him so much at Manchester United…the style of play just doesn’t look to suit him as much as it should…but also, the perfectionist aspect of his character doesn’t feel as prominent as it once did. Where, at Albion, you could sense he strived to improve, it now sometimes feels like he’s just there. His first touch still lets him down too much, and his goal scoring form has started to drop. There are rumours that he may be sold this Summer, and I hope it happens. As a football fan, and as a fan of the player, I’d like nothing more than to see a truly fired up Romelu Lukaku again.

In a different world, that fired up player could have had another year at The Hawthorns. His rise in form giving massive reason to be hugely excited at the prospect of seeing him at the club for another year. It wasn’t to be. Stan Collymore lied to me (I was foolish to believe him in the first place), I celebrated for no reason.

But I’ll always be grateful we got to see the young Lukaku play for the Albion. The majority of his goals may have meant little in the grand scheme of things, his form may have peaked as the team began to drop…but it felt like we had a player of importance. It felt like we had something special. It felt like we had an attraction.

And, at the end of the day, it’s those type of players we want to see, and those type of players we end up remembering.

Thanks for reading!

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A Hero, A Fallen Idol – My Trouble With Morrissey

As a teenager you’re almost molded by the people around you and by the people you look up to and I was no different. Many of the views I held were founded by my idols…they put the idea in my head and I carried them on, such is the way. A massive voice to me, one of my biggest idols, was Morrissey.

There were certain parts to Morrissey that I couldn’t quite grasp – example, for as much as I am always moved by ‘Meat Is Murder’, I’ve not felt the urge to become vegetarian – but for the most part, I found many of his opinions to be one’s I could approve of. I was never a Royalist, and hearing “The Queen Is Dead” was confirmation that I could never be a Royalist. Seems daft, really, but that’s how it was. I also read his views of Thatcher and Tory Britain and became moved by how against it all he was. Manchester was not a place to be during Thatcher’s time, and Morrissey made that clear. I started to read up on the politics and, starting from his outspoken views of Thatcher, I found my political leaning.

The biggest thing for me with Morrissey was, and always will be, his lyrics. I absorbed them. He was singing words that sounded like they were made for me, words that resonated so much and so well that the emotional connect was like no other. I loved Morrissey, and this was real love – his lyrics changed my life. How many people have that sort of impact on you?

From his interviews, I started to delve in to the works of authors he discussed. Oscar Wilde is an author that I maybe wouldn’t have taken to as much if not for Morrissey. As it turned out, Morrissey talking about Wilde got me interested in him and I was genuinely excited for the fact that I got to study Wilde at university. It was this love of Wilde that played part in me wanting my son to be called Oscar. But the love of Wilde may not have existed were it not for Morrissey.

My first moment of conflict with Morrissey came through an NME interview. The front page had the heading “Bigmouth Strikes Again. Oh Dear, Not Again…”, and featured a quote saying, “The gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown away.” The slant was that Morrissey was racist and opposed to immigrants. I read the interview and felt that, with context, it didn’t read like that (it just seemed that he was saying some immigration is good but it should be controlled) but, overall, the interview displayed beliefs that were no longer intertwined with mine. The idol, my idol, was drifting somewhere else and it was to a place I couldn’t go.

As it was, Morrissey ended up getting an apology from the NME for that article and that cover. I remember reading at the time and having people question me on him, declaring Morrissey as racist due to songs like “The National Front Disco” and “Bengali In Platforms” – but I never saw those songs as anything more than Morrissey, an expert writer, writing from the perspective of another person. When he sang “England for the English”, I saw it as writing as a character. Did I think Morrissey believed that? No.

The real tipping point for me came in 2011. News flooded in of an awful terrorist attack in Norway, with 76 people – mostly children – killed by far right extremist Anders Breivik. It was truly horrific. And then Morrissey compared it all to the slaughter of animals for McDonald’s and KFC. “That is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Shit every day.” I was appalled.

I’d always respected Morrissey’s veganism, and understood his view of “Meat is Murder”. Or, at least, I thought I did. For if that view ultimately leads you to believe that the ‘murder’ of chickens is comparable to the murder of children…I just can’t understand that. I certainly can’t agree with it. Suddenly, for the first time, I found myself unable to defend him.

Despite this, I still had his music. Nothing could take that away from me. And when Morrissey’s autobiography came out it was essential that I had it. The autobiography was, I thought, brilliant. Some of it incredibly quotable. Not an easy read at times – the joys of no chapters – but it was enthralling. If nothing else, ‘Autobiography’ reignited the love. He’d messed up with his comments on the Norway attack. We all make mistakes, don’t we?

Time moves forward, Brexit becomes topic. I voted remain, and truly believe that remaining in the EU is better for the UK, but I accept that not everybody will feel that way. When it comes to politics I like to hear all opinions. I think there are points to be heard for every side and I think that, as a people, we should be prepared to listen to the opposition and be prepared to change our minds if the opposite argument is actually valid. However, I’m also a firm believer in research. And through research I discovered more than enough to understand that Nigel Farage is not the voice for me. It broke my heart somewhat when Morrissey declared that he liked Nigel Farage “a great deal” and then put his weight behind Brexit. It felt like a defeat. But this is politics, we can’t all be the same, and it’s his right to have his own views and beliefs…but then he defended Tommy Robinson, and you start to question where his beliefs come from.

Tommy Robinson, former leader of the EDL. A man known for targeting Muslims and other minorities. A criminal that incites racial tension. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. And then, in the same piece, Morrissey declared support for For Britain, a far right political group that are Islamophobic and made up of former EDL and BNP MEMBERS. And why? Because of animal rights, apparently. But, deeper than that, is the real possibility of something more. When I read Morrissey’s interview and the answer, “Halal slaughter requires certification that can only be given by supporters of ISIS, and yet in England we have halal meat served in hospitals and schools! UK law is pointless!” I was gobsmacked. It screamed ignorance. Whether you agree with the act of Halal meat is one thing – to say that those that follow Halal are all ISIS supporters (at a time when ISIS were incredibly present), was incredibly offensive and an insanely unfair comment. Morrissey is a smart man, and he will know what those sort of comments will do. It’s fine him now saying he “loves his Muslim friends”, but those comments feed on the people that, like me, had their views molded by him. For some, they’re blinded by it – his words are gospel – and this ignorance will, sadly, be ignored.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. He claimed, in the same interview, that Hitler was left wing and that the word ‘racist’ was meaningless. His argument being that “When someone calls you racist, what they are saying is ”hmm, you actually have a point, and I don’t know how to answer it, so perhaps if I distract you by calling you a bigot we’ll both forget how enlightened your comment was.“” It was evasive, and it’s a common escape route for people in far right groups that are challenged. It turns those calling out racism in to attackers, rather than victims, for example.

With Morrissey now openly wearing a ‘For Britain’ badge, the controversy starts again. But this now isn’t new, this is just old. It pains me beyond belief to say that Morrissey, an idol and a hero of mine, is so far detached from the man I loved for singing “it takes guts to be gentle and kind” that I just don’t feel the ‘love’ anymore, or maybe I do, just “slightly less than I used to”.

But, vitally, where the love of the man has declined and gone, the love of the music remains.

I was discussing Morrissey after the image of him wearing the ‘For Britain’ badge appeared online and the question was put to me – “How can you listen to his music and not think about him and the things he stands for?”

It’s a good question. He is standing for the complete opposite of my beliefs now, some of which genuinely upset me. I viewed him as a hero, but would struggle to now. So how do I look past it? For me, it’s about separating the art from the artist, and allowing the meaning that the art has for me be the leading factor.

One of my favourite films is ‘American Beauty’. I also love ‘Seven’. Kevin Spacey is, obviously, a main actor in both. His alleged acts of sexual abuse won’t stop me enjoying those films. It doesn’t mean that I support him. I just don’t view the characters as ‘Kevin Spacey’.

With Morrissey, it’s even easier. I don’t need to think about Morrissey when I listen to his music. For me, as the listener, I now own those songs. ‘Asleep’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘Life Is A Pigsty’…those songs belong to me. How? Because of the meaning I have put to them. The emotional connection I have between myself and the songs is purely that – it’s between me and the music. I’ve created my own personal meaning behind them that doesn’t need to link to Morrissey. And that’s simply how I continue to love the music of the man, whilst continuing to no longer agree with him. I know that won’t be for everyone, but the songs mean too much for me to just let them go.

And, finally, if nothing else…you can always think of Johnny Marr.

Disappointment, Frustration and Hope – Doing An Albion

My first taste of an Albion Villa derby came 21 years ago, 1998, in the FA Cup. Managed by Denis Smith, it was a very different time to be an Albion fan compared to what it’s like now. After starting the 97/98 season quite brightly under Ray Harford, the season would eventually peter out after he left to join QPR and Smith could only manage to get to 10th in the league.

I remember when the FA Cup draw was made and we were drawn against Villa my Dad, far more than me, was massively excited. This was the rivalry of his childhood. For my generation we had grown up to despise Wolves, but for my Dad it was all about Villa. This was the first time we’d faced them in 8 years. You could tell that this meant something else.

The day came. I remember that I was kitted out in an Albion tracksuit (the kind of thing an 11 year old can get away with but now, as a 32 year old…not a chance), Dad had his Albion shirt on. Our team had the likes of Alan Miller in goal, Lee Hughes and Andy Hunt up front, Kevin Kilbane and Richard Sneekes in midfield…Shaun Murphy and Shane Nicholson in defence…and we were up against a strong Villa that had Dwight Yorke, Stan Collymore, Gareth Southgate and Ian Taylor in. My Dad and I knew it would be tough to get a result but you’ve always got hope and…

4-0. We were destroyed. Simon Grayson opened the scoring early, Yorke scored two in quick succession and then Collymore (obviously him…it had to be him…) finished it off. A day to forget. We hoped, maybe one day, we could get out revenge. At the time, the play offs were in our sights but it didn’t happen and we wouldn’t see Villa again for a few years.

At that time we used to go to the Midland Red Social Club in Quinton every Saturday (I don’t think it exists anymore). It was populated by Birmingham and Villa fans, few Albion in there and perhaps some silent Wolves. I went still in my Albion tracksuit. I remember my Dad saying to me during the night that he was proud that I was still wearing the colours even though we’d been thrashed to which I replied something along the lines of “well, they need the support more than ever now and I’m still proud to be an Albion fan”.

A full 21 years later and that stance has always remained, albeit tested on several occasions. The tracksuits don’t exist anymore for me, even the shirts have become more “laze around the house” attire, but the love for the club has always been able to fight through and remain, even at the times when I’ve really felt like giving it up.

Since 1998, times at the Albion have changed dramatically. In 98, the thought of sneaking in to the play offs and getting promoted was like a pipe dream. Unimaginable, almost. But we finally got there, and for some time we actually established ourselves as a decent, if unspectacular, Premier League team. A succession of years of bad management, from top to bottom, has seen the club drop back down in to the Championship and now facing the play offs, with Villa being our semi final opponents.

When I think back to how I felt as an 11 year old thinking about Albion, and compare it to now, the difference is huge. I fell out with the club, and refused to go to the Hawthorns at all, during the Tony Pulis years. For me football had always been about the enjoyment, more than anything else really, and I felt we sacrificed that in hiring Pulis just hoping that he’d be able to keep us just afloat in the Premier League. Even thinking to that 1998 team, when we were far from great, we had players that made it entertaining – Hughes, Sneekes, Kilbane, Hunt all had the ability to make you leave a game and feel like you’d witnessed something good. Under Pulis, we had better players, but played a style that nullified them (for an example, look at Rondon at Newcastle and compare to the Rondon that played for Pulis) and just made it so boring.

After Pulis and the shambles that was Alan Pardew, the club went back to one of their icons, Darren Moore. In the space of a year, my connection with the club had grown back. Moore made the club feel like it’s old self again, brought that connection with the fans back and made me care again. Ultimately it never worked out for Moore and he was dismissed. It was a sacking that pained me more than any other, even though I felt it was the right call. I wanted Moore to succeed. I wanted him to be the one to take us up and move the club forward. I wanted him to help turn me back in to that 11 year old kid, excited about the Albion even when we lost. I had missed that feeling…Moore got it back.

Then the frustration. More mismanagement. The sacking of Moore did make sense results wise, but the sacking of Moore with no succession plan was, and is, beyond naive. It’s foolish, and it puts the club in limbo. It also alters the way in which the club can be perceived – compared to the other three teams in the play offs this year, we stand out as a team that doesn’t seem to have a plan. If we go up, James Shan will have an undeniably brilliant record of results as caretaker – is it really that unlikely that the club could decide to do the same with Shan as they did with Moore and promote him? Likewise, if we fail, is it really that unlikely that the club could decide to stick with Shan because it’d be a far cheaper alternative than looking elsewhere and “he knows the club”? This isn’t meant as a dig at Shan, but it is laughable, really, that a club potentially 3 games away from promotion doesn’t know who their manager is for after those 3 games. It’s even worse when you’re already thinking the club will probably get it wrong when they make a final decision, too.

And this is the biggest frustration with Albion. We had a chance to really reset this year, but have failed to do so. Although it’s been more exciting this season, performance has been poor most of the time and we’ve been reliant on a great strike force. It pains me to think that several of the issues we face as a club come from planning…and you can look over the years, back to Steve Clarke’s last Summer in charge, perhaps even further, and see that it is planning that hurts us most. This season we’ve struggled defensively…but in Craig Dawson (a player I’ve generally always liked) we have a defender that doesn’t want to be at the club and promotion, essentially, hinders his chances of a move away – we should have sold him last Summer – and then you look at, say, the decision to loan out Allan Nyom but have no plan to replace with another right back. Poor decisions. In hindsight, the last Premier League season, paying the ridiculous wages for Krychowiak and Sturbridge, Chadli and so on, have bitten us. If we don’t go up this year the potential for implosion next year is massive because we will absolutely have to sell to make amends, but we won’t get the money we may have got the year prior for the likes of Dawson and Rodriguez, for example.

But then comes the thing with football, and the Albion. Despite the poor planning, despite the frustration, despite the poor defending and performances, we finished fourth and are now two games away from Wembley, three games away from the Premier League. My heart says we can do it. My head says we need to do it but I don’t think we’re consistent enough. But this is football, and the heart will always override.

In a week that saw the impossible completed by Liverpool and Tottenham, it gives all fans hope. The unlikeliest of results are always possible. We go to Villa Park on Saturday as the unfancied team, in my opinion. Villa have ended the season in brilliant form. They have some of the best players in the league. They are a good team. But so are we. There has to be belief.

For all the frustration, the anger…the Albion are my club, and I have to believe things will go well. Although I have supported Albion long enough to know that, if we can, we will find a way to mess it up. We call it “doing an Albion” in our house.

21 years ago, my Dad was excited because we had Villa in the cup. Now, we have them in the play offs. I’m excited, I’m nervous and I’m absolutely dreading it. We’ve made up for that 4-0 drubbing in 1998 on a fair few occasions in recent years but none would make up for it more than beating them over two legs now. A few good results will make me forget all the frustrations…even if only for a few weeks…and it will mean everything.

The nail biting has already started. The anxiousness has kicked in. But deep down I can’t wait.

Now, I just wait and I hope. Hope that we do it. And, most of all, hope that we don’t “do an Albion”.

Our Secret Tongues

An admission: I had never given Frightened Rabbit much time until Scott Hutchison was found dead. They were a band that I’d heard of, a band that several of my favourite bands and artists discussed as well as friends and fellow posters on Facebook groups I am on…but, for whatever reason, I never gave them a chance until Scott went missing.

Since that awful day in May 2018, and particularly over the past few months, Frightened Rabbit have taken over my life somewhat. Not since Biffy Clyro or The Smiths have I listened to a band and felt an emotional connection like the one I do with Frightened Rabbit. They’re a special band, and Scott Hutchison was a special song writer.

My first sample of Frightened Rabbit came a couple of years before Scott’s passing. An indie compilation I’d downloaded featured the song ‘Holy’ – a brilliant song – but, as is the way with many compilations, it became background music to me. The compilation album was one to go on if people were round or housework was being done.

Looking back, that was a bit of a travesty. ‘Holy’ has become a go-to song for me, one that contains lyrics that I relate to massively – particularly if I think to years gone by. The final refrain in the song feels like it was written for me…I just found it a couple of years too late:

I don’t mind being lonely, so leave me alone
Are you, oh, so holy, that I’ll never be good enough
Don’t care if I’m lonely, ’cause it feels like home
I won’t ever be holy, thank God I’m full of holes.”

This is now a very constant theme between Frightened Rabbit, Scott Hutchison’s lyrics and me. I find I relate to them so much that I’m moved by their music more than I’ve been moved by music in some years. For many others this is also the case. Scott’s lyrics speak to people, connect with people and they offer comfort.

Scott Hutchison suffered with depression, an illness that he openly discussed in interviews and through his lyrics. Some people may argue that other bands and artists have written about depression and anxiety and they’d be right, but with Scott it was a bit different. This guy was baring his soul regularly and in doing so he was doing two things. He was opening a connect to those that suffer with depression and anxiety, and he was also displaying that it’s okay to talk about these things. It’s important. It’s also important to have a male role model voicing this because there have not been enough voices.

A look on the Samaritans website shows desperate statistics around suicide. In the UK, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women (in Ireland its four times more likely to be a man). In Scotland, suicide rates in young men in 2017 had increased for the third year in a row. There are many reasons why a person may feel that suicide is the only option, even if those reasons don’t seem logical to everybody else. I’ve discussed on this blog before that suicide is an end to an illness that someone hasn’t recovered from and I still believe that, but it doesn’t need to be that way. With men there is still that macho culture whereby a stigma exists against mental health and I’ve even witnessed when other men have mocked people for being depressed. The end result of this is that it leads to other men being hesitant in discussing their illness, their issues, and ultimately leads to an increase in drastic final actions. Where else do they go if they’re ashamed to seek out help and, more importantly, how much worse will those men that suffer feel by feeling that, on top of everything, they should be ashamed of themselves for feeling like they can’t go on? This is why people like Scott Hutchison are so important – he’s opened doors, encouraging men to talk, showing that we shouldn’t be ashamed to feel that way.

However, it wasn’t enough for Scott. He used his Twitter account to write, “Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.” and a final, “I’m away now. Thanks.”. Three days later, Scott was found on the banks of the Firth of Forth dead. He was 36. His light had gone out, and for many people that voice was gone.

I remember at the time reading one person argue that Scott’s death showed that talking had little impact for depression but to think that is to look at depression in the wrong light. If a person with cancer dies it doesn’t mean that every person with that cancer will also die, it just means that, sadly, the illness beat the other person. Medication works better for some than others. It’s the same with depression…it needs to be viewed as an illness to understand it, and it needs to be understood that what works for one doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for the other. By talking a person takes a first step to trying to find a way to recover. Talking is the start, and that’s something men have not been comfortable doing. It’s why Scott helped so many others, even if ultimately he couldn’t save himself. He allowed others to feel they could take that first step. When Scott sang about speaking in “our secret tongue” in the song, “The Woodpile”, I have always tried to interpret it as a way of expressing opening up about emotions. The things people don’t talk about, the feelings that we so often keep secret.

In retrospect, listening to Frightened Rabbit is sometimes incredibly difficult. The song ‘Floating In The Forth’ is about suicide and even poses the question, “is there peace beneath the roar of the Forth Road bridge?” which is haunting when considering where Scott was found 10 years later. One of my favourite songs, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, is also quite haunting to listen to when you consider the lyrics…but it would be unfair to focus on Frightened Rabbit and Scott’s lyrics just for that.

The magic of Frightened Rabbit, the power of Scott’s lyrics, are that they give you hope. The lyric many go to now, from the song ‘Head Rolls Off’, is “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth”. Everybody will have their own interpretation of these words but, for me, I listen to that song and think about it stressing the importance of making the most of what we have, and doing what we can to make an impact. Much like I found myself connecting to The Smiths and feeling comfort because they made me feel “not alone”, Frightened Rabbit have the same effect…but lyrics like “make tiny changes…” give a motivation that Morrissey’s lyrics don’t. They give you hope that there is a meaning. There is more.

I found Frightened Rabbit some years too late, but it hasn’t lessened their impact. They are one of the most important bands of the past decade but not many will know them, which is a complete injustice.

The ending may have been sad, but Scott’s lyrics and words live on. They remain important. They still give hope. They still give comfort. They’ll still help countless people.

And, at the end of the day, that’s how Scott Hutchison “made tiny changes to Earth” – he made other men feel like they could talk about their battles and demons. Although he couldn’t save himself he saved many others.

(Click here to watch the music video for their song “Head Rolls Off” – and then, please, dig further and listen to more.)

The Black And The Blue – Part One

The Blue

Chapter 1 All The Way Down

“This could be a bad idea.”

It wasn’t what I expected to be thinking as I peered over the edge of the roof of my office building. Yet here I am, looking down at the small crowd that has gathered, trembling in fear. I thought it would be easier.

I can hear sirens in the distance getting closer. Police? Ambulance? Both? I’m trying to guess but I have no idea. There are some kids yelling “jump”, cheerleaders of my demise. I wonder how they’ll react when I do jump. Will they cheer? Will they get excited by the blood that may splatter on to them? Will there even be blood splatter?

I look around. It’s actually a really lovely day. Barely a cloud in the sky. I could just walk down the stairs and go for a walk somewhere. It would disappoint my cheerleaders, no doubt. I dare say it would even disappoint the old ladies who have stopped their weekly shop to watch me. If I just walk off they’ll have nothing to talk about. I’ll be hated more for being alive and wasting their time than I would be if I jumped and got some blood on their beige coats.

Am I even high up enough to die if I jump? There are four floors in this building, so it’s a decent drop…but would a jump just result in me being paralysed? I’m not sure. If that happened, how would I feel? You read about people that have tried to take their own lives, failed and then felt like they have been given another chance at life. A free roll of the dice. But if I jumped and ended up destroying my body but still being stuck here, what then? That’d be absolutely shit.

“You jumping or not mate? Lunch is nearly over!”

I look down to see who it is shouting and, unbelievably, it’s my boss, Neil. I can’t decide whether he’s telling me to jump because his lunch is nearly over, or whether he wants me to do something because my lunch is nearly over. Either one is believable. Neil is one of those managers that make you wonder if they had ever actually dealt with any type of person before in their life. Zero empathy, zero personality. He’s not even organised. I’m still not sure what he did to get a management role. I’m not sure I want to know.

The crowd has built up some more. I never perform well in front of an audience. This is going disastrously. When I decided to end things today I knew that I should have done it another way. Toaster in the bath, or something. Private. Now I’m a show. A pretty bloody depressing and boring show, but a show nonetheless. A police car has turned up with two officers. One has entered the building, so I expect company soon.

What a fuck up. I’m looking over the edge again but this has gone on for too long. I need to either jump now or say sod it and try again next week. Maybe at a different time.

“Hello, my name is Charlie, I’ve just come up to have a chat. What’s your name mate?”

Oh, for fucks sake. Police are here and of all the police to come up it’s Charlie, the same Charlie that lives on my street. I turn around and he straight away recognises me. He shakes his head a bit, smirks and starts pointing towards me almost laughing – like you would if you bumped in to an old mate at a pub.

“Fuck me, mate…what are you doing up here?”

It’s a different approach to what I expected and from being PC Sensitivity he’s now PC One-Of-The-Lads.

“Well, to be honest,” I start, “I was planning on, you know, jumping off this building.” He looked at me with a smile and started to walk over.

“You’ve fucked it up a bit, matey.” He looked over the edge. “Taken too long. If you wanted to do it you’d have done it straight off before the crowd at least. No standing about.”

And then he jumped off.

No warning, no signal that it was going to happen…one minute he was there, the next he wasn’t. There was a sickening thud as his body hit the ground. A mixture of screams, gasps and the sound of people throwing up overtake the sound of the streets. And then silence.

I look over the edge and look at where Charlie landed. There’s no blood, just a crumpled body. The kids that were yelling at me to jump are sobbing. Some people are looking up at me. I step back and head to the stairs.

Typical, I thought. I can’t even attempt suicide without someone doing it better than me.

 

Chapter 2 Make Tiny Changes

With the shock of Charlie’s unexpected jump still alive in everybody’s system I was able to sneak off without much notice. It struck me that in this moment Charlie was no longer alone. People were mourning him already, all stood around him. Some had no idea who he was, but they felt that sorrow and a care that Charlie must have felt was missing.

A few years prior to this day, Charlie had been involved in an accident during a police chase. He was driving the car that followed an uninsured driver. Nothing too out of the ordinary, I remember reading about the chase in the paper and they talked abut how it was a common issue in the area. But every chase has a risk and, unfortunately for Charlie, he found that out first hand.

Driving at a speed of about 50mph, they came to some traffic lights and a crossing. The black Honda Civic they were chasing went through a red light. Lights and sirens on, Charlie followed in his squad car when a fifteen year old teenage girl jumped in front of them. Her body went flying in to the air and was sent forward where she bounced off a street sign on to the ground. The Civic was gone. More importantly, the young girl was gone. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

There was nothing anybody could have done. Witnesses explained that the girl saw the Civic roar past and, without explanation, she just ran in to the road in front of the police car. The police chiefs were in the media offering support to both the girls family and the police involved. Therapy sessions. There was talk of money going to the family but I am certain that was only a rumour. An Internet campaign ran that helped raise money for the funeral, but after that there was nothing in the press. The fifteen year old girl had come and gone in the blink of an eye, a tragic story to sell just a couple of days worth of newspapers before disappearing in to the abyss.

There was nothing in the press about the police officers in the car except for a paragraph in the initial story. They both took the therapy but the one, PC James Fuller, resigned only a few weeks later due to the stress (he now works as security at the local supermarket), and Charlie dropped the therapy after a month. He said he was fine to go on as normal, and people believed him. He’d been around a while, he’d seen some horrible things…foolishly, they let him carry on. He just didn’t drive.

I got to know Charlie as a neighbour. When he wasn’t at work he kept himself to himself. He had an amazing knack of remembering birthdays and, every year without fail, he’d post a card for me on my birthday and every year it read, “Happy birthday mate, have a good one. Charlie.” If the weather was good, he’d be out cleaning his car – a white Ford Fiesta – until it was spotless. He’d spend hours on it.

I look at things like that now and wonder whether he washed his car so much not because it was a hobby, but because he had nothing else. Did he remember birthdays because he was lonely, and it at least gave him a sense of other people? Nobody will ever know.

Time moved on. Eventually, the police did find me and question me on what had happened. They recommended me some support groups and I said I’d go but I never did. Trying to explain that Charlie succeeded where I failed felt wrong, so I spent the majority of my interview apologising. I was sincere, and I meant it…you could tell that they were suffering…but I wasn’t feeling the overriding sense of getting another chance at life. All I could think was how brave Charlie had been to just go and do it, just like that. That takes guts. Takes more than what I had.

As the months went by and I sat at home watching daytime TV and Netflix documentary specials, I couldn’t shake the image of Charlie just having one look over the edge and jumping. Why couldn’t I do it? What held me back? Also, would Charlie have gone that day had I not decided to stand up there myself?

A letter dropped through my letter box. Who even sends mail these days? Not least to me? It was work. It’s been six months now since the day on the roof, and I’ve been signed off work ever since. Loved it, too. Now they’re inviting me to a meeting to discuss my health and any plans to return to work, with a lovely message on the letter that reads, “It should be noted that if no return is deemed possible we may have to consider your position within the company.” I throw the letter in the bin.

Fuck it. I quit. I was never really there, anyway.

 

Chapter 3 Paul And Alexander

“The way I see it, you’re either in the black or the blue.” This was one of Paul’s favourite analogies, if you even class it as an analogy, and he’d talk to me about it any time we had a drink. “If you’re in the black,” He’d say, “You’re absolutely fine. No issues for you. You’re happy, life is good, finances are good – I mean, they say money can’t buy happiness but when did you last see a happy poor guy? – and you’re swimming. If you’re in the blue, which is where you keep finding yourself, Scott, then you’re struggling. You’re not swimming, you’re drowning and the blue is the sea choking you. You need to get back to land, get in to the black and start to live on land with other people.”

“So what are you saying? I’m currently living in the sea?”

“You’re a fucking idiot.” Paul took a sip of his pint, “You’re in the blue. Everything around you is blue. You look at things and see the bad in it all, you actively look for the blue, look for the sadness in it all. You’d find something sad in a Jack Johnson song and that guy, that guy is pure black.”

It was a stupid argument, but despite that Paul probably made a better point than I’d ever want to admit. I’d known Paul for about eight years. He was a good guy, and one of the few I could trust. I could depend on him to tell me exactly what he thought and, sometimes, that’s what you need…even if you think the guy is talking complete shit. I’d look at Paul every so often and wonder where he would put himself; the black or the blue? He was 32, single, self employed and still living with his Dad. Nights out with him often turned to him trying to pull, only to come unstuck if someone said they’d go back with him and he declined because he didn’t fancy disturbing his 60 year old Dad.

Alexander, who sometimes came for drinks with us, was different to Paul. A quiet and small fair haired 28 year old who we met at work a few years back was a stark contrast to the rugby player physique of Paul. I liked Alexander because he’d regularly call Paul up on his bullshit and, the most important thing for me, you could actually go for a quiet pint with him. I had one night at the pub with him where we said literally about three things to each other and it was bliss. One of the best nights I ever had. He was sat across the way from Paul cupping his pint glass with both hands, looking down and nodding slowly with pursed lips. I could tell he had something on his mind but half the fun with Alexander was guessing whether he’d say something or whether you’d be guessing at what he was thinking for the rest of the night.

“Are you alright, mate?” He asked, looking at me. It was the last thing I expected. I’d wanted to hear Alexander’s take on the black and the blue, but instead he caught me off guard with a simple question.

“Yeah, of course.”

“But, honestly, are you? You know we’re here for you.”

Oh, God. The dreaded “we’re here for you” line. I mean, how do you respond to that without admitting that you’re not alright? If I push it off I’m being rude. If I ignore it altogether that’s even worse, and it further demonstrates how far from fucking alright I am. If I answer it honestly, I’m making myself too open. I don’t want sympathy. I don’t even really want understanding. I just want to come out, have a few pints and go home where I can then regret the decision to go out by looking at my online banking and pondering over whether a month of Super Noodles teas is viable and whether I’ll even have enough for that. I certainly don’t need Alexander’s sorry eyes looking at me and Paul leaning in with his arm round my back as if I’ve lost a close relative and need a hug. The fact that Alexander asked the question is even worse. He never does this. He just sits there and makes a sarcastic comment every so often, not this. He’s done me.

“You know what?” I look at them both and nod my head, “I will be.” And I take a swig of my IPA and listen to the silence that follows. They’re both still looking at me. It’s become a bit of a stand off as to who will talk next. In this situation, though, there’s only ever one winner and that’s Paul.

“You’ll be alright? Well, that was convinc-” Paul is told to shut up by Alexander. Suddenly it’s not just me feeling thrown by Alexander’s actions, Paul looks stunned. Alexander’s sad eyes are looking at me in almost a frown now.

“Don’t fob us off, mate. You’re not well. You know it and we know it. I’m not going to talk about ‘the black and the blue’, I’m not gonna give you advice or even tell you that you’re in the wrong. I just want to know why you felt that you would rather jump off a fucking roof than talk to one of us. I just want to know what got you to that point. I want you to talk to us about everything and I want you to do it now.”

To say I was taken aback was an understatement of gargantuan extent. I looked at Paul who looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. He had some of his pint dripping off his chin. It was pretty rank. I kept trying to utter a word to start a reply but couldn’t get anything out. I could feel myself rubbing at the back of my head, ruffling up my hair. I felt like I was itching all over. My heart was pacing. My breathing was shorter. My chest felt tight. I could feel my eyes welling up. I couldn’t control it.

Alexander removed his hands from around his pint glass and gripped my left hand, which had been resting on the table. “Scott, from the beginning. I just want you to talk to us. Nothing else. It’s okay.”

I looked at both Paul and Alexander who were now staring at me intently. I had a moment of clarity. “Okay, I’ll talk. I’ll talk.” I let my breathing calm a bit. “But we’re gonna need another pint, and I need the toilet. Same again?”

They nodded. Alexander let go of me. I got up.

I ran out of the door as quick as I could. I heard them call my name as they ran after me but I didn’t stop. I ran home, I locked the door, I ignored the banging on the door, turned my phone off and tried to sleep on the sofa.

The sleep could not stop my mind from wandering.

 

Chapter 4 Rabbits In Boxes

Rosie wasn’t a spectacularly good looking girl but there was something about her that I found myself almost besotted with. The first time I saw her she was wearing a red top, black shorts and red tights with black rabbits patterned all over them. She was a mixture of goth and emo and I was sold. I approached her, clumsily in hindsight as I stuttered saying hello, and we talked about music.

“I love The Cure,” She said, “But I also like The Smiths. Really, I shouldn’t like them both, but I do. And you?”

I knew how important this was, this was the deal breaker question. If I answered incorrectly, then any future hopes of romance were gone. I couldn’t choose anything too mainstream, but I couldn’t choose anything too far out there.

“Well, firstly, I think The Smiths are better but for me I love stuff like Hell Is For Heroes, Biffy Clyro, Reuben…that sort of stuff.”

She looked at me smiling and flicked her brown hair over her shoulder. She replied, quiet simply, with “I don’t know them.”

What followed was a silence where she kept constant eye contact with me, her brown eyes were practically sparkling, and she let out a faint giggle. From that moment, we were inseparable. I couldn’t believe it. For the first time ever, I’d approached a girl and things had worked out. This was massive.

I’d always suffered with low self esteem, low confidence. A childhood of moving from place to place does that to you; I was never in the same place long enough to make friends so I spent much of my time growing up as a bit of a loner. It was only in the last couple of years at Sixth Form had I gathered two or three truly close friends. My biggest issue, for the most part, was that I was too shy to approach anybody and make conversation…I’d wait for it to come to me.

And that’s what made the initial interaction with Rosie so special. This was all me! I’d made the approach and, somehow, she liked me enough to exchange numbers. I was on cloud nine.

The first couple of years were exciting for me. A new experience, something I’d never felt before. I was introduced to Rosie’s friends and family and we started to see them on a more regular basis. This was fine with me because it kept her happy and that was the most important thing for me. I didn’t come from money but Rosie seemed to be able to flaunt it. Her parents house was huge. I felt like I was batting above my league and early on decided that if I had to make sacrifices to keep her happy then that’s what I’d do. I couldn’t lose this.

After a while, we moved in together. A small place, it was all we needed, but it wasn’t cheap. I was living beyond my means but I chose not to say anything. I didn’t want to lessen Rosie’s opinion of me by saying that I was broke but the reality was that I was massively broke. I didn’t have a penny to my name. When it came to the first rent coming out I had to come clean. She went ballistic. This was a side to Rosie I’d never witnessed before, and it scared me. I broke down in tears apologising, saying that I only tried to do things to give her what she wanted and that I’d miscalculated. I promised it wouldn’t happen again, and that I’d make it up to her. She grabbed her phone and called her Mum, and before I could even gather my own thoughts she thrust the phone in my face and shouted at me, “You tell my Mum what you’ve done! You tell my Mum what you’ve got in the bank.”

I looked at her and said, “No way. I’m not talking to your Mum about my finances! I could barely bring myself to talk to you!”

But it wasn’t good enough. She gave me the phone, and a few minutes later I was sobbing down the phone as Rosie’s Mum told me how much of an idiot I’d been.

By the time rent day came, Rosie decided that she’d pay the rent and I would buy the food until I was earning enough to go halves on the rent. I got a part time job and worked more overtime than I thought I could. Rosie wanted good food, so I would ensure that we had fresh food each week and in time I always worked to ensure that I had dinner on the table when she got home. After a while, the part time job turned in to a full time job and I was able to pay half of the rent.

We celebrated me getting a full time job by going for a meal out followed by some drinks. Finally, I thought, I can start to provide the kind of life she’s after. We can enjoy life.

I slowly started to lose touch with my friends at home. I worked shifts and it meant I missed a lot of people, and spent a lot of time alone at home. Rosie got in to the habit of leaving me lists of jobs to complete when she was at work. At first, I didn’t mind. They gave me something to focus on. And then I started to build friendships at work.

I met Paul and we instantly clicked. I thought he was a bit of a dick but, behind it all, a nice guy with a heart of gold. We arranged to meet up on one of my days off in the week. Rosie had left a list but I decided that I’d do it when I got home after. It was a mistake. I finished a couple of the jobs, but didn’t have dinner ready and hadn’t got round to a few other household chores. Rosie was furious. She told me that she deserved better, and that by going out with Paul I’d chosen clear priorities and that was friends over her. We didn’t speak for the rest of the night and I felt terrible.

As the years followed, it became a recurring theme. Any day off was greeted with a larger list than the one prior. I came to learn that I couldn’t plan anything on my days off because I needed to finish my list of jobs. I would meet Paul on a weekend, always with Rosie, unless Rosie had gone away with her friends for the weekend. If I questioned anything Rosie would go on to explain that she deserved the best and that if I didn’t do what she asked then I was showing a lack of commitment to “us”. She booked some trips away for us both, including trips to London that I couldn’t afford, but it just enforced that she was better than me and that I needed to remember that. She wanted this life, I was some way off it and that made me feel awful. Rosie told me I needed to look at these trips away and see that this is the life she deserved to have. When I said I couldn’t provide it yet, she told me to “get better, then.” and we carried on.

Against my better judgement, we got a house. I was skint again. I’d been paying half of the rent and buying all of the food as well as paying bills, but I was earning less money than Rosie and I couldn’t keep it up. I ended up borrowing from my family, and kept it quiet. I just wanted to keep her happy. All the while, however, I was sinking further within myself.

I ended up doing everything to the house, from building furniture to general tidying. I didn’t see my friends. I saw Rosie’s family but she refused to see mine so that meant I never saw them either. I was under house arrest, only leaving to go to work. One day I decided to tell Rosie that I felt trapped indoors and she turned to me and said “You can leave, but you’ll never get anything as good as me again.” My confidence and self belief were rock bottom. Deep down I believed she could be right. I’m still punching above my weight, she’s better than I am worth.

Then came the night. Out with a friend, she’d asked me to wait up to pick them up. It was fine by me, I was a shit sleeper. Pick up at about midnight, fine. Midnight comes, no call. One o’clock. No call. Two o’clock. No call. Five o’clock, phone rings. Rosie is hammered. I get her, shattered, and when we get home head to bed. Rosie shouts at me for not wanting to stay up with her. I tell her to get some sleep. She comes upstairs and throws a plate at me, narrowly missing my head and smashing off the wall. She forces me to sleep on the floor. “This is because you don’t listen. You don’t give me what I want.” She spits out at me.

And, with that, the girl I approached that me feel like I was on cloud nine had made me feel smaller than small. A spec of dirt on a shoe, good for nothing. I was mentally beat. I was battered.

The next day I got up and got in the car and drove to nowhere in particular. For the first time ever I looked across at the other side of the road, watching the convoy of lorries travelling at 60 mph and I started to think, for the first time, “If I just turned my car in to the other side of the road, that could take all of this away.”

I got back home. I packed my boxes. I never went back.

 

(Part Two to follow soon. As this is the first time I have ever attempted anything like this (as in a proper piece of original fiction), I’d be very appreciative of any feedback. Fully aware that it’s not the happiest of stories so far but any other feedback would be amazing. Thank you.)

I Watch cBeebies More Than My Son

It sounds a little ridiculous but when I found out I was becoming a father one of the things that really excited me was having an excuse to get my old favourite TV shows out and have my child grow up on them while I enjoyed the nostalgia. Thomas The Tank Engine was, and is, a must, for example…though watching the trains decide on the best way to go on strike really showed how much went over my head when I was younger.

What I never expected was to find myself sat in pyjamas at midday watching Andy Day on cBeebies singing “You’ve been playing so hard, and now you’re ready to eat!” with the sinking realisation that I’ve been watching cBeebies more than my 19 month old son, and we’re only just having breakfast.

cbeebies

I’ve become a cBeebies parent. There are times when I feel like I enjoy watching it more than my children. There have been far more times than I care to remember where I have found myself sat watching it with no kids around. There’s just something really likeable about so much on the channel.

The presenters are essentially variety artists. They do everything. Introduce the programmes? Obviously. Present/act in there own programmes? Easily. Sing original songs and read stories? You bet. Perform Shakespeare plays on a children’s TV channel? They do that, too.

There’s an intrigue for me when I watch some of the presenters. I like to think of myself as a pretty confident Dad when I’m out with the kids (I discovered you can dance in the street pushing a pram because it’s “sweet/cute”, but it’s not so “sweet/cute” if there’s no baby around – you’re just a man dancing in the street.), but the confidence required to dress up as a farmer and ride a child’s tractor on the streets of Northwich with none of your kids about, as they do in Show Me, Show Me, is a level of confidence I’m nowhere near. I find myself admiring the hosts, but also thinking “I hope they pay you well for that…”

When it dawned on me that Something Special, Justin Fletcher’s show, only featured children with disabilities I found myself massively moved, as I also did when I realised Pablo (which is brilliant, and has an amazing theme tune) is about the thoughts of an autistic boy. There’s something really quite touching about these programmes – they make you think about disability in a different way…how do you react to it? To see how genuinely excited the kids get when they see Justin Fletcher (Mr Tumble) is sometimes enough to make you crumble. You don’t get that on any other channel.

But as well as that, you get brilliant shows like How Does It Work? Hosted by Maddie Moate, it’s just an incredibly interesting show. It’s probably the show that I get more sucked in on than any other (far more than the kids do), purely because who doesn’t want to know the inside mechanisms of a cat flap or how they make the red, blue and white colour stay separate in toothpaste?

There’s a big trend, it seems, towards having kids TV being CGI rather than cartoons. Bing, Octonaughts, Go Jetters are all brilliant examples of how to do kids’ CGI right…but the simplistic cartoon nature of Hey Duggee! is where cBeebies has really struck gold. Duggee is just incredible and, featuring a host of adult references (for example, they’ve referenced Apocalypse Now and Stranger Things), you find yourself as invested in it as the kids do. Duggee is now a key figure in our house. Both Lori and myself love him…and our little lad adores him.

duggee stranger things

The time when I truly realised that I had become a cBeebies parent was when I became almost distraught at the change in schedule of the cBeebies Bedtime Hour – particularly at the removal of the completely bizarre, porridge filled Abney and Teal – a show about these odd characters living on an island in a park (that I’m convinced is Hyde Park) that seem addicted to porridge. Thankfully, it got moved to another time in the day. I, too, need my porridge fix, apparently.

The Bedtime Hour is the tour de force for cBeebies. In The Night Garden is still tremendously out there and incredibly surreal (and inspiration for my piece of fan fiction ‘Trapped In The Night Garden‘)…and the bedtime story has become a bit of a geek out time for me, waiting to see who is reading. Tom Hardy is brilliant, Dolly Parton strangely good but my personal favourite was the least expected, in my opinion…Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age.

I mean…on what other children’s channel, one aimed at toddlers too, would you have a rock star who sang “I want to lick you too much” in the song Skin On Skin and “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, Marijuana, Ecstasy and Alcohol. C-c-c-c-c-Cocaine…” in the song Feel Good Hit Of The Summer reading a bedtime story to your little children?

CBeebies. Never change.

I’d had this idea, before having kids, that I’d try to keep TV to a minimum (introducing my old favourites in intervals) and instead go out more and play games…keep them active and so on. Lori and I still do those things but, nine times out of ten at home, cBeebies is on – even if only in the background. It’s educational, it’s fun, and it’s genuinely great. I’d even go as far as to argue that if you don’t feel happy paying a TV licence watch cBeebies, and then watch another kids channel. You’ll change your mind.

I was excited about introducing my children to the likes of Thomas The Tank Engine, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles etc. Now I’m hooked on Go Jetters, Hey Duggee and Pablo.

I think the kids won.

Mindfields

The Fat Of The Land came out when I was only 10 years old.

The 10 year old me was listening to pop music. I’d grown really fond of Madness, and was sucked in to the excitement of the Brit Pop battles of Oasis and Blur…trying to sing Oasis songs with my best Liam Gallagher impersonation. But that was it. Other than that, you were looking to whatever was in the charts…at that point it was The Spice Girls so, secretly, I add, I was listening to them, too.

I remember the first time I saw and heard Prodigy. Top of the Pops, ‘Firestarter’. My Dad had heard it on the radio and was saying how amazing this song was and then it was on TV. A black and white music video, in a tunnel, with Keith Flint dancing and shouting his vocals. I remember thinking I’d never seen anything like it before.

The ‘Firestarter’ video got banned by the BBC due to complaints from parents saying it had scared their children. The video didn’t scare me but it did make me take notice and it has always remained one of the most memorable music videos for me.

Ultimately, the thing that made the ‘Firestarter’ video stand out wasn’t the music – as brilliant as it was, and still is – but actually the performance of Keith Flint. I’d seen clips of, say, The Sex Pistols but Flint was different. At age 10, Keith Flint was the most punk rock person I had ever seen. The devil horn hairstyle, the crazy dance moves, the clothes, the make up…I was enamoured by this person.

I always found it odd that the video for ‘Firestarter’ was black listed. There was nothing scary about it to me, it was just punk. And dance. I soon discovered ‘Breathe’, a video that I thought was creepier than ‘Firestarter’ but fewer people seemed to agree. From those two songs and videos came my introduction to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ – a music video that, even now, pushes boundaries and a song that, even now, causes such controversy.

Prodigy were a dance band, but they were more than just that…they were the most punk rock band I’d ever seen, with Keith Flint, the most punk rock man I’d ever seen, leading the charge. I remember getting their 1997 album ‘Fat Of The Land’ when I was just shy of turning 11 and listening to it all through. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

My love of music is something I often think I got from my Dad. In the car, he’d put on Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Elton John and so on, and talk to me about the gigs he’d been to. It got me in to rock music from a fairly early age, even if my preferred style was pop. I look back now and think of my Dad introducing me to Prodigy and it makes me laugh a bit. From an outside perspective, to go from introducing your son to ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by Prodigy…it may seem a bit odd. But this is how I was raised with music, and another reason as to why I think I like music of so many genres.

All of my Dad’s favourite music had their “angry” songs, protest songs almost, but none of them had the raw energy, anger and aggressive feel of the Prodigy. I loved it.

Keith Flint as front man opened my eyes to a vast surrounding of music I’d otherwise ignored. I often think that had it not been for Flint, for Prodigy, I’d have never listened to some of the punk that I adored in my later years, never had listened to Nirvana, never had listened to punk and metal. My musical tastes would be completely different.

On hearing Keith Flint had passed away, aged only 49, I find myself thinking of that first time I heard ‘Fat Of The Land’, and feeling massively grateful for the lasting effect it had on me with my taste in music.

I saw Prodigy perform live only once, at the Download Festival in 2006. It was insane. They headlined the second stage while Guns n Roses headlined main. It felt like more people had come to the tent for Prodigy and the mix of people was unbelievable. Metal heads, ravers, punk rockers…it was a musical free for all. And when they started the whole tent went berserk. Energy like I’ve rarely, if ever, felt at a gig. People climbing the rafters. The whole place a mosh pit.

My cousin and I lasted a few songs before we had to go. You could feel the mood turning on the night and the band were having to stop performing to encourage people to stop climbing rafters. All in all, it was a recipe for disaster. A mix of ravers and moshers, in a tent too small. But Prodigy were immense. Keith Flint parading the front of the stage sticks in my mind. This man, the first person I saw that made me think “punk rock”, is in front of me and he is still the most punk rock person I’ve ever seen.

That mix of people, that impression of Flint, is part of the reason why Keith Flint is an icon. There are very few people that could bridge the gap between dance, electronic, punk and metal like Keith Flint did…and there may not be many that do it anywhere near as good, with such ease, ever again.

To hear that Keith Flint took his own life adds to the sorrow of the day and he joins an ever growing list of musicians I love that have taken their own lives; including Kurt Cobain, Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell and more. All men. All men that other men would look to as a voice – be it a voice to help them release pain, or sadness, or anger…or just a voice they loved.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 50 in the UK. Bigger than cancer, bigger than road accidents, bigger than heart attacks. Suicide. And with every Chris Cornell, every Chester Bennington and now with Keith Flint we’re all left with it there in front of us. Depression doesn’t care how successful you are, how loved you are or about what you have…but, as men, we struggle to talk. We struggle to admit. Why?

Stigma plays a massive part. With every famous suicide I still see comments online of how selfish the person is, how someone has taken the easy way…”the cowards way”…and it’s all unfair. Suicide is not cowardice, it’s an end to an illness for someone that hasn’t got better. I see comments of “they don’t think about their loved ones”…but I’d argue the contrary and encourage people that believe that to think this way. A suicidal person always thinks of their loved ones. A suicidal person will believe that they are doing the best thing for those people because, and this is the biggest issue, a suicidal person believes more than anything that they are a burden, they are a problem and that everything will be better without them.

Stigmas and attitude can only change when we begin to try to understand. At 49 years old, Keith Flint has added to the number, the already huge number, of UK men aged under 50 that choose to take their own life. Of all those people, how many could have been avoided had more people taken the time to understand and be there rather than pass quick judgements and create stigma?

This is the male problem. And with every famous suicide, the focus comes back. But how sad is it that more death, more pain, is needed to make people reflect, change and talk?

Keith Flint is an icon, and a man I feel I owe a lot to as I know it was him that made me become more open minded to other genres of music and groups of people. The Prodigy and Flint really did take me to another dimension.

And now I hope his passing serves as not just a reminder of his brilliant music, but as a way to make more people become open minded to mental health, removing the stigma around it and maybe give someone the courage to talk to somebody else instead of meeting the end.