Pee, Poo and Pride – Being A Parent

It took twelve days for my new baby daughter to wee all over me.

Sitting down to watch a film, my fiancée and I noticed a certain whiff in the air. Through sheer luck and good timing, I’d avoided the pooey nappies but this time it was my turn. Unfortunately, our little girl hadn’t finished so I had to sit and hold her legs up while she did her stuff.

A minute and a strong smell later, she was done. I start cleaning when I notice her start to wee. It’s an explosion. It’s everywhere. My little girl has turned in to a water feature. My arms are covered, my jeans are splattered, my shirt is decorated with polka dots of piss. I’m covered in my daughter’s urine.

It may sound like I’m having a moan but, actually, I’m not. To go twelve days without any accidents…I was happy with that. I know of people who have gone seconds before facing the baptism of piss. I’d gone nearly two weeks. I view it as a bit of an achievement.

For those without children reading this I can imagine you’re possibly confused and maybe even disgusted by this opening. But, I imagine, anybody with kids or young relatives will be thinking of similar experiences.

One of the first things I learnt when we had our first baby was that wee and poo went from being almost taboo topics of conversation to everyday topics of conversation. Speaking to other parents about the colour of your babies poo becomes the new opening to a conversation. Sharing stories of “My son pissed in my mouth” (sadly true for me…) replace stories of what happened at the pub last night.

And you know what? It’s amazing. These conversations are as funny as they are disgusting, but, most importantly, they’re always lovingly told. I think you see a different side to people when they have kids and when they’re around kids, and you see a love in people for others that you don’t see at any other time.

I’m lucky enough to now have two children. Both still babies, really, although our first is up and walking all over the place. They have absolutely changed my life. I feel more complete. I feel more focused. I feel very lucky to have such an amazing little family.

Both of our children came from quick labours. Our first was born 7 hours after arriving at hospital. Our most recent, 3 hours.

Child birth is incredible. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the side of my fiancée for both labours and both times I’ve been almost in awe of how strong she is to go through delivery and actually give birth. However, before I’d sat in a delivery suite I’d always read people saying it was the most amazing time of their life. That labour time really isn’t. I found the labour hard to sit through in that I hated seeing Lori in such pain, knowing there was nothing I could do. As a man you have a sense of helplessness in that situation because there’s so little you actually can do. Women reading this would be well within their right to say they’d rather be sat where the man is but it’s true. I ended up turning to humour and positive words, perhaps fortunate that Lori was just incredibly loving and apologetic during labour rather than taking the “this is all your fault” approach I’d seen on “One Born Every Minute” or talked of so much by my Dad and others.

With our second we very nearly never made the hospital. Lori had been suffering with cramps for a few days and got an appointment at half 4. By half 3 the cramps had gone and we discussed cancelling the appointment. One sharp pain as Lori went to call kept us that appointment. At 5pm, a midwife measures Lori and she’s fully dilated. At 7.38, our little girl is with us.

The delivery of the baby itself…the end…is incredible; and every one different. Our first tried to cling on and not come out. Our second was born initially in the sack as Lori’s waters didn’t break until the final push.

Its hard to explain but when our babies were born, the first time I saw them, they looked exactly like I knew they would. I felt like I already knew them. It felt like they’d always been there.

There is no other feeling like holding your baby for the first time. I’ve written on here before how with my first born I’d had no prior experience with a new born so I was extremely anxious I’d drop him or not know what to do. That anxiety is still there with my second, even though I like to think I do alright as a Dad and keep hands on. But the sense of pride is unreal. It’s unmatched by anything.

Tonight, my first born started eating food with a spoon unaided for the first time. I’m exuberant with pride. I remember when he smiled for the first time I was beaming. When he walked I nearly cried. When he first rolled over, I cheered. They’re the smallest of things, the smallest of milestones in the grand scheme of things, but some of the proudest moments of my life. I can’t wait to go through them again with our little girl.

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Songs That Changed My Life Pt.2 – This Charming Man

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I was 16 years old when I first heard The Smiths. By this point of my life I was growing more and more in to indie music and rock music, veering away from the rap, hip-hop and dance I’d loved as a kid growing up in Birmingham. I knew of The Smiths, had seen several of my favourite bands talk about them, but I’d not taken the time to listen.

My first encounter with the band, with Morrissey, came one day when I was watching MTV2. I’d watch the Zane Lowe show, ‘Gonzo’, and it became central to me finding new music. Lowe was, essentially, the John Peel of my era. I was watching for Biffy Clyro, Nirvana, White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand when suddenly I had the image of a band playing atop floral decoration with the lead singer swinging gladioli from side to side singing of punctured bicycles on desolate hillsides.

The lyrics were fascinating, the video was beautifully simple, Johnny Marr’s guitar was hypnotic and fused with Andy Rourke’s bass and Mike Joyce’s drums it felt like the perfect indie song. I was enamoured by it. From then I went on to hunt more Smiths music and discovered ‘How Soon Is Now?’, ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ and ‘Hand In Glove’. I ended up buying ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ and I played it on loop. I ate in Morrissey’s lyrics and fell in love with him and his music. I found his solo work and loved that, too. ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ became my own private theme tune to Lowestoft, where we’d moved to just before my 15th.

It never dawned on me the impact that The Smiths and, more so, Morrissey’s lyrics would have on me as a teenager growing up but I always view The Smiths as more than a band. Morrissey is a man that, for a long time, I gave god-like status to. It’s only really in recent years, as I’ve become far more political that I’ve veered away from that thought but that’s only because I can’t stand the political leaning Morrissey takes. Despite that, I still regard him as one of my heroes. He is a man that if I met in real life I’d probably freeze or break down or both. Either way, it’d be hugely embarrassing for me and, most likely, for him so it’s probably good that the likelihood of it happening is so slim.

To give an example of how The Smiths affected me is actually genuinely difficult. When I first started writing this series about songs that changed my life I very nearly titled it “The Songs That Saved My Life” as a roundabout testament to The Smiths’ song ‘Rubber Ring’. Even picking ‘This Charming Man’ as the Smiths song to write about was difficult, and, in a way, a lie, because there are a number of Smiths songs that I relate to far more. However, it was ‘This Charming Man’ that got me started on the band and for that reason it’s the one that will always, deep down, mean the most.

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Aged 16, I was very much the type of boy Morrissey sings about in ‘Half A Person’. “Sixteen, clumsy and shy; that’s the story of my life.” I was very quiet, I had my close circle of friends and, for the most part, I really tried to keep myself to myself. The move from Birmingham to Lowestoft had knocked my confidence a bit and I struggled initially to ever really feel comfortable in my new surroundings.

Part of the issue for me was that it took a month for me to get in to a school. At the time I was probably loving the fact that I was 15 and getting a month off for free but in reality it actually made things a little harder when it came to starting at my new school. My classmates all knew one another, they’d mostly grown up together, and here I was, an outsider with a weird accent, with the challenge of fitting in.

In that month of no school I got bored. It taught me that I’d never want to be the type of person that just does nothing at all because I just couldn’t do it myself. I learnt the guitar to fill my time. No real inspirations, just something to fill the time. Over the years, my guitars came to be a way to release emotion. Any thoughts I was having would disappear when I started playing any song or just, in a lot of cases, made noise. The day I found out my dog had been put down the first thing I did on getting home was play on my guitar and butcher a few Led Zeppelin classics.

It was also that month out of school, when I started playing guitar, that I started to listen more intently to music. Between the ages of 15 and 18 my musical tastes blew wide open. I never stopped listening to the rap and hip hop, but I also began to appreciate the music my Dad listened to such as Pink Floyd and Led Zep, and I started to appreciate heavier, darker music as well as indie. I started to get more in to literature, too, and started to write. Words were powerful. Pete Doherty wrote incredible lyrics for The Libertines and I became totally invested in them. I often felt The Libertines wouldn’t have existed were it not for The Clash, but when I listened to The Smiths I realised that many of the bands I loved would never have been the way they were had it not been for Morrissey and Marr.

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At school I was in the middle. Never one of the cool kids, but in touch with them just enough to not be recognised solely as a ‘geek’. I found it easier to associate with the kids outside of the “cool” group, but my love of football, more than anything, meant that I could approach a lot of them and talk about the weekends matches. It meant I got through school quietly, really, and I was left to just enjoy the time with my mates when I wanted to. However, there were some issues.

I suffered some mild bullying from a lad called Louis in my art class. We started at the school around the same time and initially got on alright. As the weeks went on, he became friends with one group, and me another. He tried to become the alpha male in that first year through bullying. Maybe thought it made him look strong. I don’t know. I’d put up with the insults, and if anything ever got physical (which only really happened a couple of times) I was strong enough to hold my own. I’m a skinny guy but I’ve always, somehow, been strong on my feet and it throws people. Once it became clear he couldn’t knock me down it all became verbal. Sticks and stones and all that. It all stopped towards the end of year 10, but the worst stuff happened elsewhere.

The school bus was hell in my first couple of years, to the extent that I’d often sneak on to another bus to avoid heading on the bus I should use. On our designated bus I’d become mates with a few people that suffered verbal insults and physical abuse at the hands of a lad called Michael. It’s crazy that you’ll remember the names of these idiots but not all of the people that were good to you. On that bus I saw one of my friends get abused for being a Jew, another abused for being gay…by association, I was in the firing line. The worst I would get for some time was stuff thrown from the back until one day my mates weren’t in and I was at the stop alone waiting for the bus. He walked over and pushed me, taunted me to retaliate. I didn’t fall, I didn’t retaliate. He threw his fist towards my face, stopping literally a few centimetres in front of my nose. It was my turn now.

The half hour to school and the half hour back could feel like the longest parts of the day. I tried regularly to avoid the bus because I hated it. I got slapped in the face one day for just being there. The worst part to it all was that there was no reasoning behind the abuse at all. I hadn’t done anything, but I was being beaten. Physically there was never anything that really hurt me but mentally it was killing me. And it was confusing, too. I was friends with several of Michael’s mates. They had no idea this was happening. I sometimes wondered what they’d say but at the same time I became too scared to mention it in case it deterred them from being my friends. He left at the end of year 11 and Sixth Form onwards was fine. Two years of emotional torment was enough, though, and the damage was done. I was a victim, there had to be a reason for that, and my mind would go in to critical overdrive as I beat myself up over why it was me. I formed the belief that there had to be something wrong with me. That stayed with me for a long time, even up to now, and the self doubt that was born in me over those two years is still something I battle with now.

Every now and then I used to see Michael appear on my Facebook as a ‘person I may know’. Several times I pondered contacting him to ask if he ever thought of the way he treated us on that bus and if he ever regretted any of it or felt guilty but why waste time? The only time I saw him after those years was some years later in a shop and he looked straight through me. He has no memory of me, and one day I hope to lose the memory of him. This is all stuff I’ve never talked about before.

The emotions I felt over that period created a huge sense of self doubt, and built my anxieties and low mood. At this point, I became addicted to The Smiths. Morrissey’s lyrics were no longer just words to songs…they were me. My self doubt increased how shy I was, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ opened with the lyric “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar” and it clicked. ‘Ask’ was somewhat of an anthem for me. I reached a point where I would listen to ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ and associate so much with the lyric “And I’m not happy and I’m not sad”, knowing that I just felt numb. There were only a few people I talked to about any of this back then. Some of that was because I couldn’t understand myself so how could I talk to others? Another part was a fear of opening up and, as daft as it sounds, coming across as weak. At least in listening to The Smiths, and listening to Morrissey’s words, I felt like I wasn’t alone.

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‘Asleep’ became a favourite of mine. I’ve always interpreted it as a song that challenges people to think about suicide and depression.

“Don’t feel bad for me, I want you to know,

Deep in the cell of my heart, I really want to go.”

Despite the tough topic of the song, it was one I felt comfort in. It’s a different Smiths song in the sense that it is essentially just piano and vocals but that bare naked feel of it makes it even more poignant. I know that to many, ‘Asleep’ will be one of those songs that several people, especially those that dislike The Smiths, would call too depressing. For me, I found it hopeful at the end.

“There is another world,

There is a better world.

There must be.”

It’s the one Smiths song that I listen to now that sends me back to those years at school, but those final lyrics are the ones I now cling on to. There is a better world, and fortunately I feel like I’m in it now. Despite still struggling with low mood and anxiety, I know I am in a better place now. And, as ridiculous as it may sound to some, I don’t know if I’d have got to a better place in the first place if not for The Smiths.

The older I have become, the more I see the humour in the lyrics of The Smiths. With my first job, I was insistent that there were no truer words in music than “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and Heaven knows I’m miserable now.” I can laugh at the lyrics to ‘The Queen Is Dead’ (“Charles, don’t you ever crave to appear on the front of the Daily Mail dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?”). And then the tongue in cheek approach of a lot of Morrissey’s solo work; “Life is a pigsty…and if you don’t know this, then what do you know?”

I love The Smiths. I owe a lot to The Smiths. They made me feel safe. Morrissey helped me to understand my inner feelings in a way that no other artist could. I loved Kurt Cobain, but his lyrics didn’t transcend anything that Morrissey could do. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote incredible lyrics, still does, but none of them spoke to me as much as, say, ‘Half A Person’, ‘Ask’ or ‘How Soon Is Now?’

‘This Charming Man’ may not be the Smiths song I listen to and say “I relate to this song”, but it is and it will always be one of my favourite songs of all time. Not just only one of my favourite Smiths songs. Without ‘This Charming Man’ I may have never fallen in love with The Smiths and I may never have fallen in love with Morrissey’s lyrics.

‘This Charming Man’. It probably changed my life more than any other song ever could.

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(You can watch the video and listen to This Charming Man HERE.)

Soldiers And Artists – The Tony Mowbray Era

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I first started going to The Hawthorns with my Dad in 1995. I’d been to see Birmingham a few times, but my Dad finally got me to the Albion. We were playing Sunderland. I don’t really remember the result, I think it ended 1-1, but I do have one lasting memory. That memory is a ball played across the field to Stacy Coldicott, who was out wide.

Coldicott, like many of the players at the time, was nothing special. The Albion were a hard working team but that really was it for the most part. The Nineties were not a great time. But I fell in love with Albion because of Stacey Coldicott. As that ball went across the pitch to Coldicott, who had no players around him, he did something I’ll never forget. Did he score a wonder goal? No. Did he have a moment of brilliance and control a football like nobody I’d ever seen before? Absolutely not. What did he do?

He caught the ball.

Nobody around him, ball still in play; he inexplicably catches the ball. In doing so, he gets a yellow card.

I’m sat in the stands in hysterics. The few games I’d seen at Birmingham had never made me laugh – they’d made me feel scared (Cardiff fans ripping seats out and throwing them around still vivid in my mind), they’d made me feel excited…but they never made me laugh. All in one huge cock up, Stacy Coldicott had embarrassed himself but also made a fan out of me. I loved laughing, and therefore I loved the Albion. I was hooked from that moment.

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The years that followed were dreadful. Alan Buckley’s West Brom were shocking…that 11 game losing streak…Ray Harford’s Albion boring but too short lived…Denis Smith’s Albion were erratic…and then Brian Little came along and came so, so close to sending us down before change of board and the arrival of one Gary Megson. In school in Birmingham all my mates supported Villa, Birmingham, Manchester United, Liverpool…one Arsenal fan…and I could see why for most of it. I loved Albion but for a long time it was impossible to really enjoy watching Albion.

And so life goes on. Times change and the turn of the Millennium sees promotions and a change in fortune. But West Brom yo-yo between the leagues, and we either get relegated or go up. We weren’t fancy to watch…there were some great moments…but for the most part we weren’t exciting. I found myself loving watching the likes of Arsenal because they played football how I felt it should be played. It was neat, it was stylistic, it was fun, it was enjoyable. It’s that enjoyment that we all want from football at the end of the day.

On 13th October 2006, 11 years after my Stacey Coldicott moment, Albion hired Tony Mowbray to replace Bryan Robson. I didn’t really know much about Mowbray; I’d heard he’d done well in Scotland with Hibs and knew little bits of him as a player at Ipswich but that was it. His first job was to try to get the club back in to the Premier League. We finished fourth and got in to the play offs, beating Wolves in the Semi Finals (two amazing games) but ultimately losing to Derby in the final 1-0.

play off final

This was a make or break time. Several of the players in the team at the time didn’t want to play for the club, there were rumours that there was unrest…something had to give. Mowbray sold key players…Jason Koumas, Curtis Davies, Diomansy Kamara…and he bought in his own players. Chris Brunt and James Morrison were signed. Ishmael Miller joined the club to play up front alongside Kevin Phillips. The shape of the team changed. The make up of the team changed. Tony Mowbray talked of wanting ‘soldiers and artists’ on a football pitch and he had formed that team.

The midfield was incredible, the attack was sublime…Albion were brilliant. We played football better than anybody else in the league. We could outscore anybody and everybody. It was a dream to watch when it worked, and even when it didn’t work there was still always that feeling that we only needed one chance.

The game that showed how far we’d progressed for me was John Gregory’s last game as QPR manager. It ended 5-1 and it could have been more. It was a masterclass. Kevin Phillips was sensational – his second goal my favourite of his Albion career. I had fallen in love all over again. This was the Albion I wanted to see. This was the Albion I was proud to go to everybody and say “That is my team.” We were electric.

Tony Mowbray had transformed the club. There was a fear at the start of the season that with the loss of the likes of Koumas and Davies that the club would struggle but, instead, we were better than ever. Defensively we were always suspect, but we had a midfield and strike force that made that almost impossible to care about. You score 3 against us? We’ll score 4.

It wasn’t all golden. In the March of that year Leicester came to the Hawthorns to beat us 4-1 (a game made famous by Luke Moore getting sent off pretty instantaneously)…Colchester United beating us 3-2, Coventry beating us 4-2…these games happened. It was perhaps the risk with our style of play; we played an expansive brand of football and if a team countered it it could be a disaster. But fortunately these were just odd games. We went on to win the league. We deserved it. Tony Mowbray deserved it.

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Alongside the league performance, we also had an incredible cup run. I think back to when I started watching Albion in 1995 and I could have never dreamed of seeing them in an FA Cup Semi Final but Mowbray got us there. One handball and a poor refereeing decision cost us that game against Portsmouth. I still believe that, had the ref seen Baros handle the ball before Portsmouth’s goal, Albion would have won the FA Cup that year. It would have been an incredible double. Regardless, it was an experience I will never forget. A moment I will always treasure. Watching Albion walk out on to the Wembley pitch in the FA Cup – it was sensational.

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Tony Mowbray’s footballing philosophy was the same as my own. His near three years at the club were the favourite of my lifetime. We were entertaining, we were adventurous and we were good. Outside of football, I found Tony Mowbray an inspiration. After losing his first wife to breast cancer aged just 25, he just continued to move forward. Such personal tragedy had hit him but he remained focused, he achieved so much. He is a soldier, with the mind of a footballing artist.

On Saturday (27th October), Mowbray returns to the Hawthorns for the first time since leaving the club for Celtic. Some fans felt let down by Mowbray but I always felt, with his history with Celtic and the size of a club such as Celtic, he had to go. He gave Albion three brilliant years, and while it’s a shame that the Premier League year with Mowbray never worked, his time at the club remains my favourite period.

My hope is that he’s welcomed back to the Hawthorns with massive applause. My fear is that his Blackburn side do to us what his Albion sides used to do to many others.

Chris Brunt: Albion’s Hero, Albion’s Fall Guy

It’s Monday evening on the 28th April in 2008, I’m sat in a back room of a pub in Derby with a few University friends watching West Bromwich Albion play Southampton on TV. The season is so very nearly over, promotion is in our grasps and then it happens. Adam Lallana, not yet the name he is now, scores for Southampton. Celebrations are muted for the time being, it seems. Albion had dominated for large periods, but just couldn’t find the back of the net…something so unusual for a team that ended the season scoring 88 goals.

But here we were with less than 15 minutes to go, losing 1-0 to a team fighting relegation. “Typical Albion” is something I would have undoubtedly muttered under my breath.

Albion continued to push on after the goal, desperately looking for an equaliser. A draw would essentially clinch promotion; only an absolutely incredible turnaround on goal difference on the final day would alter that. Attack, attack, attack…Tony Mowbray’s Albion knew no different approach. A ball got played over the top on the right wing, a cross comes in, Luke Moore just about misses the connection on his attempted header and the ball lands at the feet of Chris Brunt who had come off the bench in the second half. Control, shoot, goal, eruption.

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My pint went flying, the scenes I could see on the TV at The Hawthorns were spectacular…fans fell over the advertising hoardings, I actually fell over my chair. Chris Brunt was the man of the moment, ending his first season at the Albion by winning promotion. It was an iconic moment and the first real landmark moment of Brunt’s Albion career. A hero was born.

Just a little over 10 years on, Albion are back in the Championship and Brunt remains one of the key members of the team. This Wednesday (3rd October), the Baggies will travel up North to face the team that they bought Chris Brunt from for £3m, Sheffield Wednesday. If Brunt plays, which he most likely will, it’ll be his 376th game for the club, a feat only beat by a few other players.

Chris Brunt has, for lack of better word, often found himself at the brunt of any criticism aimed at the club in recent years. As captain for several years, he was the face of the club and it was a club that was generally moving away from it’s fans. The business side mattered, not what the fans wanted, and it told. Decisions at board level, senior management, were detaching the club from the people that followed it. Brunt, not shy to put himself forward, often found himself a fall guy. Unfair criticism was aimed at him and it culminated with a coin being thrown at him from an Albion fan after a 3-1 loss to Reading in the FA Cup in 2016.

This moment was met by anger from the majority of Albion fans that understood that Brunt was one of the few players that actually seemed to care about the club, and appreciated the years of service he had put in. While the club continued to gradually detach itself from it’s previous “family club” values, Chris Brunt was genuinely one that tried to keep the connection and this was how he was repaid.

But still, Brunt stuck with it. He knew that the coin throwing incident wasn’t a fair representation of the Albion supporters with a number of fans putting together and raising money for a charity of Chris Brunt’s choosing after. He kept playing. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he tried all he could before being hampered by injuries, one of which ruling him out of the European Championships with Northern Ireland.

Brunt’s character shone through during the relegation season last year. Passion and fight took over and, at times, he ran the games. In a team that looked half arsed, he stood out as one of the few that genuinely cared. For many younger West Brom fans, Chris Brunt is West Bromwich Albion. And for many older West Brom fans, Chris Brunt is a reminder that loyalty does still exist in football, even in this modern era of fame and greed.

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So why then, is Chris Brunt under so much criticism this season? Featuring in most matches so far this season Brunt is still one of the more consistent passers of the ball in the team with a pass completion rate of 77.8% so far but there are constant calls for him to be dropped. I have been in the party myself calling for a change in the team and to see Brunt on the bench instead.

Playing alongside Jake Livermore in the centre of midfield, Brunt has often found himself as a weak part of the puzzle. The partnership of Brunt and Livermore is questionable. Both more than suitable players but they just haven’t always gelled. It’s got better as time has gone by but, overall, it’s still not a partnership that breeds confidence.

Chris Brunt’s range of passing is, and always has been, superb. His left foot is remarkable and by playing him in the centre it is entirely plausible to consider Brunt as somewhat of a ‘Quarterback’, trying to construct attacks from the back. However, it begins to fall down when the player next to him lacks the energy to be box to box, and is practically demolished when the defence behind struggle to do the basics. Brunt, again, becomes the fall guy and none of it is really his fault.

It’s a strange time at the Albion. Results are going brilliantly, and a win against Sheffield Wednesday will see the club return to the top of the table. However, the performances are still inconsistent; it’s still a club trying to find it’s feet, resting on the potency of a superb forward line to help get the results. Darren Moore, still sitting on an incredible win ratio, is still learning and, although results have been good, shouldn’t be made free of any criticism of decisions made by him. It is possible to enjoy the ride but still see the flaws.

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At some point, Chris Brunt will have his testimonial at the Albion…most likely alongside James Morrison…and it should be a day steeped in celebration. He is a modern day icon, certainly for supporters of my age group, and he deserves to be treated like one. Playing him in a central midfield role, with the flaws that do exist in this squad, is heralding the murmurs of “We should have moved on from Chris Brunt a few years back.” The partnership of Livermore and Brunt is improving slowly, but it needs to improve more to quieten the crowd…myself included.

Ten years is a long time in football. I still remember that goal against Southampton like it was yesterday. I still remember Brunt’s wonder goal against Villa, the free kick against Everton. I just hope that, regardless of any criticism he may get, that these are the moments the fans remember him for when he does eventually depart and not as a player “that stayed too long.”

And if Chris Brunt is able to do what Chris Brunt has done several times before and make people eat their words, then nobody will be happier. There’s still a moment or two for him to create just yet.

Songs That Changed My Life – Pt.1

Songs are powerful. They have an ability to change emotion, an ability to make people feel safe, an ability to make people move and even, sometimes, the ability to make people stop altogether. There’s nothing else really like it.

I think that for every person there is at least one song that they can go to that, regardless of how many times they hear it, they’ll always love. It can be for any reason, too; it may remind you of a loved one, it may remind you of a holiday…it may just have an amazing guitar riff. Whatever it is, you are emotionally tied to that song. Whatever meaning it has to you, it belongs to you. That song, written by somebody that you may never meet, is an important part of your life.

This will become the start to a run of features I’ll do on my blog regarding the songs that are important to me. “Songs That Changed My Life” is titled so because, in some way, each of these songs did just that.

The first song I will talk about is one I have mentioned on this blog before, and the one song that means more to me than any other. It helped me to deal with grief, and it gave me the belief that I could “come back”.

The song is ‘Machines’ by Biffy Clyro.

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The first time I heard ‘Machines’ was on hearing Biffy’s fourth album, ‘Puzzle’. I’d been blown away by the album – it may have lacked the quirkiness of the first three albums but the songs were so strong and it sounded so huge that I found myself in love with it pretty much from the off. I’d always loved Simon Neil’s lyrics but on ‘Puzzle’ it was different. These were honest lyrics, these were the strongest lyrics Neil had written.

I was part of the Biffy Clyro fan forum when ‘Puzzle’ was released. Everybody knew that the majority of the album was about Simon Neil’s Mum passing away and the immediate song that highlighted that was ‘Folding Stars’ in which Neil sings, “Eleanor, I would do anything for another minute with you ’cause it’s not getting easier.” It is such an emotional song and the message was abundantly clear. For many, it was the standout song but for me it wasn’t. Initially, the song I was hooked on was ‘Get Fucked Stud’…it just rocked. It still does.

As time went by and Biffy started to grow in popularity, I decided to introduce one of my new Uni mates to the band. I lent him ‘Puzzle’ and he later came back to me talking about how powerful it was – saying that ‘Machines’, the album closer, had him in tears as he thought about his Granddad, who had not long passed away. I’d always liked ‘Machines’, I loved playing it on guitar, but I wasn’t tied to it and didn’t appreciate it as much as some of the other songs on the album. I think, at the time, I just wanted loud music and ‘Machines’, a beautiful acoustic song, wasn’t top of my list.

As time went by, ‘Machines’ slowly became a favourite. Due to my Uni mate talking about the song and his emotions towards it, I’d focused a bit more time on it and grew to appreciate just how much of a truly powerful song it was. I also felt like I finally understood the hope it tried to present in the lyric, “Take the pieces and build them skyward.” I felt like I finally ‘got it’ but, in reality, it wasn’t until the passing of my own Mum that I honestly did ‘get it’.

Mum passed away very suddenly. None of us expected it, we couldn’t prepare for it – we had five days of hospital and that was it. She was 55, a really young age, and it was really tough to comprehend what had happened. There was no way to understand it. It was life being life, and it was life being incredibly cruel. Personally, I didn’t really know how to deal with it and unfortunately ended up suffering with anxiety/panic attacks and, essentially, sinking within myself. It’s a weird thing…I’m the first to say to people they need to talk to others but, in this instance, I couldn’t. I didn’t want to discuss my emotions with family because we were all feeling it; and I couldn’t face in to talking to friends. I was hiding.

I remember the first time I listened to ‘Machines’ after Mum passed away. I was in the shower and had my music on shuffle and the live version from Wembley started. The song had taken a whole new meaning to me. The opening lyrics, “I would dig a thousand holes to lay next to you, I would dig a thousand more if I needed to” just had me. And the chorus; “I’ve started falling apart, I’m not savouring life. I’ve forgotten how good it could be to feel alive” connected to me like never before. I related to them…I felt them. This was my life at this point.

In the five days spent at the hospital with Mum she was asleep the whole time. We knew the likelihood of her pulling through was incredibly slim, despite the amazing efforts of the doctors and nurses at Papworth Hospital, but we still held hope. I’d sit with Mum…we all would…and we’d talk to her. I just hoped that she could hear anything we were saying. More than anything I just wanted her to wake up and tell me to stop being so soft.

The second verse of ‘Machines’ always takes me back to those days.

“Crazy as it sounds, you won’t feel as low as you feel right now.
At least that’s what I’ve been told by everyone.
I whisper empty sounds in your ear and hope that you won’t let go…
Take the pieces and build them skyward.”

In that shower, listening to those words, I broke down. No song had ever made me cry before but ‘Machines’ did. I realised that I’d never understood the song properly until now…I’d wished, really, that I’d never had to understand it…but here I was, 28 years old, crying in the shower to a song by my favourite band.

The final lyric to that verse, also the final lyric to the whole song, have become the most important lyrics that I know. Everybody deals with grief differently; some people just carry on, some really struggle. As sung in the chorus, I felt like I had fallen apart, I wasn’t enjoying life…but those lyrics helped remind me that life isn’t always bad (“I’ve forgotten how good it could be to feel alive”). “Take the pieces and build them skyward” gave me a sense of hope that I could pick myself up. If I had fallen apart, fallen to pieces, that lyric was my motivation to pick those pieces back up and rebuild. They encouraged me to find myself again. There are no other lyrics that have ever done that to me.

‘Machines’ is more than a song to me. It’s a reminder of the worst time of my life, and a reminder that from the despair, the grief and the darkness you can build yourself back up.

(You can listen to the song – the Live From Wembley version – here)

Birth, Anxieties and Facing In To Mental Health

Pixar-Post-Inside-Out-Joy-Cheers-Up-Sadness

There was a moment in the aftermath of my son being born whereby all the midwives and nurses had left the room allowing my fiancee to have a shower and for us to have the first time alone as a family. At this time, I’d never really held a baby for that long. I certainly hadn’t felt comfortable holding a baby in the past and I was extremely nervous about holding my boy for the first time. Basically, I didn’t want to drop him.

I imagine it’s a fear that many new Dads have. The thoughts of “will I balls this up?” are always there, ever present, planting seeds of doubt. I had a moment of guilt. I’d watched a baby be born (a baby weighing over 10lbs at that), I’d seen the enormity of what the female body goes through during delivery and here I was, thinking, “Adam, don’t drop the baby.”

Fortunately, I didn’t. For the first time in my life I felt genuinely comfortable holding a baby, my baby, and immediately I was besotted. Here in my arms was a purple (he was a big lad and he came out quick), perfect little boy. My fiancee, once everybody had left the room and we’d had a few minutes with our son, got up and went to have a well deserved shower. I had my first bit of alone time and faced, for the first time alone, tears.

On birth, he didn’t cry. The only cry we had was a solitary cry as he was passed in to his Mother’s arms. Nothing else, really, until this moment. I’d gone from hoping I wouldn’t drop the baby to suddenly thinking “What do I do now?” I kept thinking of the few antenatal classes we’d been to and it popped in to my head that the nurse doing the classes said, “You have to think, these babies have never seen a face, never been outside, not seen anything…it’s initially probably very scary for them being away from the womb.”

I held him close, gently rocked and instinctively started going “sshhh” and whispering a made up song (tired, jumbled words about the world being scary but it’s okay and we love you…or something) before just repeating “It’s okay…it’s okay…” as he fell to sleep in my arms for the first time.

This would turn in to what I’d do (minus the made up song…although they’d still sometimes creep out) every time our boy was crying and I was on duty to comfort him. “It’s okay…it’s okay.” Sometimes it worked, other times it wouldn’t but that’s babies. We’ve been lucky because our little boy is, for the most part, seemingly very happy and that’s absolutely brilliant.

As a new Dad, I’ve started to look at things in life a little differently. My priorities have changed completely. Life has changed completely. It alters your perception on some things, too. You start to look to the future, thinking about what it will be like, not so much for yourself, but for the child. Some of my biggest anxiousness now hangs around the world my little boy (and soon little girl) will grow up in to. Things are so different to when I was younger, and because of that ‘unknown’ factor it sometimes terrifies me. These are parents’ anxieties, I have learned. I have no doubt that when I am 62, and our little boy is 32, I’ll still have similar anxieties.

One thing that has arrived since I left school is social media. We live in an age where people do their best to present an almost false life on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. It can be dangerous, it can lead to bullying, narcissistic personalities…but, it can also be good. Fewer days highlight that more than World Suicide Prevention Day, that we had on the 10th September.

Twitter was awash of people sharing their stories and their experiences. Words to help people, let others know that they are not alone and there are other options. Several of my Facebook friends shared posts. The main statement always being “It’s okay, not to be okay.”

It made me think back to my son’s first day when I sat gently rocking him whispering, “it’s okay”, over and over. It made me think of the amount of times I’ve comforted anybody and said either, “it’s okay” or “it’ll be okay, things will be okay.” It’s the ‘go to’ comfort comment, but, I wonder, how many people saying those things actually believe things will be okay? And, more importantly, how many of those people we comfort by saying “it’s okay” actually think it is okay and things will get better? I fear sometimes that we dismiss mental health too quickly by saying “It’s okay not to be okay” when really we should say “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.” There is a worrying lack of real support for those that suffer with mental health, waiting lists can be huge – by constantly telling people it’s okay to not be okay are we potentially risking people ignoring their mental health and shrugging it off as “one of those things”?

I’m as guilty as anybody for shrugging off my own mental health. I can think of times when I have seriously struggled, but not done anything because I’ve taken the stance of either “I’ll be okay” or “this is just normal”. The worst time for me was, without doubt, the passing of my Mum. I remember being sat with my Dad in a hotel when she was in hospital and feeling my chest getting tighter and tighter. It carried on for some time and when we got home I went to the doctors and ended up being given an ECG. It came back normal and it was explained to me that I was probably having anxiety attacks. Nothing more was done because at this moment in time it was okay not to be okay. Of course it was. But the months after that? In the August of that year, 8 months later, I went to the doctor regarding my stomach and got diagnosed with stress related IBS – we talked about my Mum, briefly, before the doctor talked to me about other doctors suffering the same condition. I remember him saying “It’s one of those things, unfortunately, it affects the best of us.” It’s okay not to be okay.

I’m not meaning this as an attack on the people that say “It’s okay not to be okay”. For what it’s worth, I completely agree. I do, however, think it’s fair to worry that we normalise it as being something it is not. I think about friends I’ve had, some I’ve lost, and I wonder if they hadn’t faced in to their own mental health issues because they also dismissed it as a bad day. We need to do more to make people aware of what is out there to help. Yes, we do need to let people know that it’s normal to not feel well, it’s normal to have moments where you struggle and that it can be brought on by almost anything or nothing at all.

But we also need to know when saying “It’s okay”, as I did with my young lad on his first day, isn’t enough.

Car Park Celebrations and the Joy of Darren Moore

Sunday 21st April 2002, West Bromwich Albion are playing Crystal Palace at the Hawthorns. It’s the last game of the season. A win and Albion are promoted to the Premier League, putting them back in the top flight of English football for the first time in 16 years.

I was 15 when that game took place, with all my Albion supporting life filled with watching us lose to Stoke (all the time), struggle against teams like Port Vale and Stockport, and toy with the fear of relegation. The team I started supporting in the Nineties, managed by Alan Buckley, were not good…but they were my team. I’d never expected this day in 2002 to come.

I spent the game not at the Hawthorns, but instead sat in my Dad’s car in a Tesco car park in Great Yarmouth. The September prior we’d moved to Lowestoft, so didn’t go to quite as many games. I remember listening to the radio and Wolves, who we’d raced ahead of after being 11 points behind them in March, took an early lead against Sheffield Wednesday. Pressure was on…Wolves were the only team that could catch us and how typical of Albion it would have been to catch up from 11 points behind to lose out on the last day…nails were getting shorter, the car was becoming unbearably hot.

And then it happened. Goal for Albion. Both me and my Dad jumped out of the car and started jumping up and down screaming with joy, “Yes! Yes! Yes! We’re going up!” People off to do their weekly shop looked at us like we were insane. We definitely looked it. Dad went up to one of the people going by and said, “It’s okay. We’re Albion.” And I remember thinking that they had no idea what he was talking about.

We went on to win 2-0, and Wolves drew 2-2. I remember after the match hugging Dad, both of us absolutely jubilant, and walking around the shop looking for Mum feeling like nothing could knock me down. I was so proud. I was so happy. All my mates had supported Villa, Manchester United, Liverpool…they’d not watched the struggles I had, they’d not been through the pain of watching your team lose to Crewe Alexandra on a cold winter’s night…and that just made it better. This was years in the making, the reward to the hard work.

The second goal was scored by a man that was already an Albion legend, Bob Taylor. The first, the goal that started the party, came from a defender we’d signed at the start of the season. He’d gained a bit of a cult like following, people loved him. He was massive, he was strong, and he had, apparently, a resemblance to a character from the Pot Noodle advert called Big Dave. His name was Darren Moore and, just like that, that goal transformed him from fan favourite to a set in stone Albion icon. A legend, a hero…a loved man.

Fast forward to Saturday 1st September 2018 and Moore is now the head coach at Albion, having got the job after impressing in a caretaker position and almost…ALMOST…pulling off a miraculous second ‘Great Escape’.

Moore has now been in charge for 14 games, winning 8, drawing 3 and losing 3. It’s a win percentage of 57.1%. It’s a brilliant star for any manager, let alone one who is getting these results in his first job in charge.

Despite that, Moore still has doubters. And, when you consider the points sensibly, you can understand the concerns. Despite a great start to managerial life, Moore’s inexperience does creak through. In searing heat, Moore will only use one substitution even though it can be painfully clear that a number of players are exhausted. He persists with a central midfield of Jake Livermore and Chris Brunt, both good players but not great when playing side by side. Game management comes across as a bit weak, we still concede late goals on a regular basis.

However, despite this, Moore has still been getting results. In the Premier League he oversaw Albion beating Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford, today he constructed a 2-1 win against Stoke. The playing style we’d become so used to at Albion over the years – a style that drove me to stop going altogether – has changed. We look, at times, genuinely exciting. And yes, sometimes it doesn’t work. Even in games we dominate, the defence sometimes looks so unstable it threatens to cost the game. But overall, the football is better.

The club spent three years losing it’s identity. Now, with a club hero in charge, they’re getting it back.

Every time I drive by that Tesco in Great Yarmouth, I think about that day in 2002 and smile. Darren Moore will always have a place in my heart because of that day, too. His time in charge of the club, regardless of how it goes, won’t ever change that.

And the more I think about it, even with my own criticisms of some of his decisions, I’m glad Moore is in charge at Albion. He’s helped me love the club again. It’s not always perfect…it never is perfect…but it’s Albion, it’s my Albion.

And if Moore doesn’t succeed over the season, so be it. But if he does continue to get the results, and it does go well, then there is nobody I’d rather have in charge at the club.

Trapped In The Night Garden…

night garden“Igglepiggle, iggle onk, we’re going to catch…the Pinky Ponk.”

Derek Jacobi’s voice echoed around the garden and the slow drumming “honk…honk” sound of the Pinky Ponk filled the sky. I have been trapped in the Night Garden now for three days.

I’m still unaware of how I got here. I had gone to bed, it was a Friday night, and the next day I found myself lying on a patch of incredibly green grass, surrounded by tall trees, awoken by the booming voice of Derek Jacobi. On the first day I had kept myself hidden from view and watched from afar as Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy and Makka Pakka went about their duties, seemingly instructed by Derek Jacobi – who I have come to understand is some sort of overlord here.

Back then, I believed I had woken in a dream. But then I fell back to sleep, lying down with my back arched within the wedges of the stump of a tree. Surely if it had been a dream I would have woken up again in my own bed? Instead, I was again awoken by Derek Jacobi’s voice; the alarm clock of the Night Garden. I wondered if I have died and this is actually Limbo, my soul and body waiting to be taken away elsewhere. Typical that it would happen on a Friday night, not even allowing me to enjoy my one last weekend. But I felt alive, I could still feel things…there had to be another explanation.

On the second day, I began to realise the true horror of the Night Garden. I decided to walk stealthily around the Garden, not yet ready to approach the characters I had seen. I found some puddles, but couldn’t find any real water source. I struggled for food – the only way I could eat was by pulling leaves off branches and hoping that they tasted ok. The thirst was crippling. In the end, I went back to a puddle and risked it. I knelt by the side of the puddle and just cupped water in to my mouth. Remarkably, it tasted clean – like mineral water straight from a bottle. And then I saw one. A Pontipine.

It was so small, and looked like an old fashioned wooden toy. It’s pitch black eyes seemed to widen and suddenly it started rocking in an almost deranged fashion, squealing “mi-mi-mi” in a high pitched tone. It moved away from me quickly, now screaming “mi-mi-mi” at what must have been the top of it’s lungs, if it even had lungs. I darted across the garden, found what felt like a quiet area crowded heavily by trees and I hid. By now I could hear what sounded like numerous cries of “mi-mi-mi” coming from a number of different Pontipines. The “honk…honk” sound of the Pinky Ponk had begun to travel throughout the air, the jingle of Iggle Piggle became violently constant, Upsy Daisy was shouting her name louder than I’d heard her do so before, Makka Pakka was cycling around lifting and moving rocks as he went. They were looking for me. But why?

Then I heard a cry. This wasn’t one of the characters, I thought, it sounded human. I witnessed for the first time Iggle Piggle change in size. He was now gigantic. He pointed over to the other side of the garden, sounded a couple of squeaks, and suddenly all the characters gathered together looking in to the trees. The cry had turned to screaming. I could hear a male voice screaming “Get off me!” but I couldn’t see anybody. The Night Garden characters stood motionless, Iggle Piggle still standing above everybody else, pointing at the trees. “Who do we have here?” came the voice of Derek Jacobi. “It’s the Tombliboos!”

Three Tombliboos came from the trees; Tombliboo-Unn, Tombliboo-Ooo and Tombliboo-Eee. Tombliboo’s Unn and Ooo were carrying a man, Unn holding his arms and Ooo holding his legs, with Tombliboo-Eee skipping ahead of them. The man was thrown in front of Iggle Piggle. The other characters circled around him. He wasn’t screaming anymore, but he was sobbing and he looked terrified. I had no idea what was happening. Iggle Piggle pointed to the trees and five gargantuan inflatable looking shapes slowly appeared. It was the HaaHoos.

Derek Jacobi’s voice sounded, “Igglepiggle, iggle onk, we’re going to catch…you.”

The Night Garden characters moved in on the man and started to smother him. The screams from the man were deafening, and then a loud cracking noise followed by silence. I could see blood splattering in to the air. The HaaHoos started making a boinging noise, and the three Tombliboo’s took tippee-cups full of blood over to them. Going to each HaaHoo, the Tombliboos placed their tippee-cups to their inflatable figures, blood draining from each cup with each HaaHoo growing in size. The Pinky Ponk flew back over the Garden back in to the trees. A weird looking train, the Ninky Nonk, came through the bushes. Makka Pakka shrunk in size and got on, leaving the rest of the group in the Garden.

Five minutes passed. The HaaHoos began to move back in to the trees. Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy, the Tombliboos and the ten Pontipines all stood in a line. The bright green grass was now painted in blood, there was blood spattered all over the faces and bodies of the Night Garden characters, but there was no body on the floor. The man was no more. Makka Pakka cycled back in to the Garden on his trolley called the Og-Pog, clean from any blood. Makka Pakka grabbed the sponge from the front of the Og-Pog and started to clean all the characters and the floor. Within minutes the blood was all gone, as if nothing had happened. The characters started to dance together.

The Pinky Ponk honked it’s horn, and the characters started to disperse to their own separate areas. All of them, except Iggle Piggle.

“Wait a minute…somebody’s not in bed!” The voice of Derek Jacobi exclaimed, “Who’s Not In bed?”

I panicked. Had I been seen?

“Iggle Piggle’s not in bed!” I sighed a breath of relief. “Don’t worry Iggle Piggle. It’s time to go.” Iggle Piggle skipped to a carousel in the centre of the Garden and lay down to sleep. A tune that seemed to follow Iggle Piggle sounded in the air, the sky turned dark. Night time had come and I knew I had been lucky. I had survived a second day, despite my encounter with a Pontipine, but I knew this encounter put me at risk. They knew I was in the Garden. I had to learn to survive. I needed to find a way out.

So here we are at day number three. I have barely slept…the sound of the other man’s screams were haunting me and I had so many questions. Were there other people in the Garden? How does Iggle Piggle change size? Why did they kill that man? Why were the HaaHoos fed blood? Will the Pontipine try to find me again?

I decided that the only way out was to walk further in to the trees. I’d have to be quiet, I knew that I couldn’t risk being heard and I had no idea where the Tombliboo’s were hiding. Surely I could do this. I set off just before the sun started to rise. Ahead of me were just tall trees, and bushes in full bloom. This place was Hell, but it was an idyllic Hell.

I came to a start as a song played through the trees. It sounded like a nursery rhyme coming from the distance but then, loud and clear, Derek Jacobi’s voice sounded; “But someone I know is safe and snug, and they’re drifting off to sleep.”

Then silence. Something felt off. There was no breeze, no music, no sound. I could hear myself breathing; in…out…in. I was standing still, just waiting for any noise, listening.

“This is the way to the Garden in the Night.” Jacobi’s voice felt closer somehow and it made me jump. My heart started pacing.

“Igglepiggle, iggle onk, we’re going to catch…” I needed to hear the next word, would it be the Pinky Ponk or the Ninky Nonk?

“You.”

It was neither. From behind the trees small wooden characters in blue appeared. Ten of them all turned their heads to me; their eyes as black as the Pontipines. But these weren’t Pontipines…who were they? “Who’s over here?” Derek Jacobi’s voice asked. “It’s the Wottingers.” And just like that, they started to make farting noises. The Garden started to rumble. I began to run.

I could hear the Pinky Ponk in the air, I could hear the farting noises of the Wottingers and the “mi-mi-mi” sounds coming from the Pontipines, I could hear the sounds of Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy and Makka Pakka. They’re after me. I ran as hard as I could but the thirst and hunger of not eating or drinking properly was draining me, I had no energy just adrenaline. I kept running forward. I kept hearing Derek Jacobi’s voice but I wasn’t listening to him; could he see me? Was he telling the characters where to find me?

As I ran through the trees the Garden suddenly opened up and a large green dome stood in front of me. It had what looked like a door way. I’ve not seen this before. I’m running out of breath. If I hide in it, will I be found? It’s dark inside – there doesn’t seem to be anything inside the dome at all – if I stay in here still enough, maybe I can get myself more time?

I tried to steady my breath as I heard Makka Pakka cycle by. I needed to sleep. I needed food and water. These were all things that had to wait. I peered back out the carved doorway of the green dome. The sounds are getting quieter…is my plan working? I breathed a deep sigh. The light coming in from the carved out doorway disappeared, blocked by a shadow. What is it? I held my breath.

“Tombliboo-Ooo!” A hand came round the corner and grabbed me, pulling me out of the dome. I was surrounded by all three of the Tombliboos. I’ve been found. Tombliboo-Ooo grabbed my legs and Tombliboo-Unn took my arms. They began to carry me back in to the centre of the Garden. I began to try to wiggle free but the grip was too tight. The light through the trees kept flickering in my eyes and then I saw the roof of the carousel. We were nearly there, nearly at the place where the other man was taken.

The Tombliboo’s threw me to the floor. I was surrounded. Iggle Piggle looked gigantic, his red blanket blocking the sunlight. Upsy Daisy was dancing around with Makka Pakka. The Pontipines and the Wottingers were bouncing around. And now I can hear the boinging noise of the HaaHoo’s.

“Clever Tombliboo’s!” Proclaimed Derek Jacobi. “What a pip!”

Iggle Piggle placed his red blanket over me. It covered me completely and weighed an enormous amount. I can’t breathe. I try to wave my arms and push the blanket off me but it’s too heavy, it feels like it’s being held down. I can feel myself fading but, wait, it’s lifting. There’s a blinding light coming from behind the blanket. Iggle Piggle removes the blanket.

Sat looking over me is Derek Jacobi. All of the characters except for the Pontipines and Wottingers, who are very small and hardly there at all, are towering over us both. Jacobi smiles at me. What on Earth is happening? His white hair is glowing.

Jacobi grabs my hand and starts circling his finger round my palm.

“Round and round, a little boat no bigger than your hand, out on the ocean, far away from land. Take the little sail down, light the little light. This is the way to the Garden of the Night.” He smiles at me and turns his head up towards Iggle Piggle’s face. “Time for bed.” He glares back at me and points to the HaaHoo’s, Tombliboo-Ooo and Unn grab my arms and legs and pull. I finally scream.

This is the way out of the Garden of the Night…

Rainbows Over The Hawthorns

These are strange times. It feels very much like the extreme views of anyone can be presented, and will be presented, due to social media. Facebook is under pressure, but despite that pressure many people read what they find on there, true or false, and believe it.

When I was at Uni, I wrote my dissertation on how media and media portrayal can affect the result of elections and change public perception. I wrote on the American election; Obama vs McCain. The media presentation of Obama was unlike anything else – regardless of policy, there was no way McCain would beat him. The media loved Obama, loved his catchphrases…he was money, he was change, he was exciting, he sold papers. Years later, McCain is now presented as he wanted to be in that election; a war hero with smart ideas. Just see how his Trump comments are presented.

It’s beyond easy to find racist or xenophobic posts on Facebook and Twitter. Both sites have attempted to thwart some major bodies – but, for example, removing a blue tick from the side of Tommy Robinson’s Twitter handle doesn’t diminish his influence on people. You need only search for “#FreeTommy” to see how many cling on to and believe the nonsense he spouts.

To suggest that Facebook or any form of social media is what makes people support the likes of Robinson is somewhat ridiculous. The EDL didn’t need Facebook to have supporters, the BNP were widely recognised before Twitter – what social media has done is given those people extra reach. What social media has also done is allow you to see who in your circle follows these views…it sparks debate, it sparks arguments, it can bring education and it can also enlighten. Different views, different opinions aren’t always negatives. If you can back it up, you can move things forward.

wba lgbt

But, adding to that element of social media that allows you to see other people’s views, no matter how backward they may seem, can be disturbing. It can be disappointing, rage inducing, offensive. I’d like to share some tweets (spelling mistakes and all) I have seen regarding news about West Bromwich Albion agreeing to fly a rainbow flag at The Hawthorns in support of the LGBT community.

“So it will be now known as the Gay stand. Away fans are gunna love it. Thanks Albion but the majority of the East stand I reckon are heterosexuals. Oh I forgot the majority doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Next it will be the “proud to support paedophilies flag” which the LGBT (let’s go bang toddlers) also believes is just a sexual preference rather than a perversion.”

“PC Bollocks…How about a stand for blokes that shag women 5 times a night? Not PC enough?”

“Ffs what’s happened to football? PC gone fucking mad”

“So because youre gay you have to tell everyone by having a flag. I feel victimised because i am straight and we havent got a flag”

In a time where being openly gay is widely accepted, there is still an underbelly of homophobia. Sadly, in football, it’s seemingly more common than in other areas. The above tweets are all from a minority, and thankfully many were pulled up by others and rightly lambasted, but that’s not to say others don’t have these feelings. Unfortunately the sad truth is that the first tweet may have some truth to it – it’s not far fetched at all to believe that some away fans would, and will, target it.

The list of openly gay footballers is ridiculously short. Perhaps the most famous player being Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 and tragically committed suicide in 1998 aged only 37. The most recent high profile player, Thomas Hitzlsperger, only came out after retiring from the game. There are rumours that there are several gay players in the Premier League yet none have come out. Yes, it’s up to the person as to whether they announce their sexuality to the press, but it’s equally so concerning that even now, in this day and age, there is a belief that players are scared to come out as gay for fear of the impact it would have on their career.

A huge part of that will be because of the vitriol they know they would receive from the fans of different clubs, and to an extent even their own (as seen above). Why would you put yourself in line for the abuse?

This is football’s problem. Hooliganism raises it’s head every now and then, but homophobia is easier to find. It’s a massive issue, and one that Albion should be praised for trying to tackle. The founder of the WBALGBT group, Piero Zizzi, has said, “If the flag makes just one person feel more welcome at The Hawthorns, then it’s served its purpose” and he is correct. The hope has to be that it does help, and that the supporters contribute and ensure they do their bit to tackle homophobia in the game.

It’s quite apt that Albion have taken the decision to support the LGBT community. It’s a club with a proud history and a club with a history of tackling discrimination. The “Three Degrees”, Cyrille Regis, Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham were the most high profile black players in English football at the time the Albion had them in the team. Bananas were thrown on the pitches, but the club and, perhaps more importantly, the fans really ensured those three players were looked after and were seen as “one of their own”. Colour didn’t matter to them. They loved those three players. They still do.

And now, sexuality shouldn’t matter. It may only be a flag hanging in the East Stand this coming season, but it may make a difference. Earlier I wrote how difference of opinion on social media can be healthy, and it can be educational. For some people, I genuinely hope that this is educational, and that it opens eyes to see that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a different sexual orientation. And then comes the hope that one day a player would feel more comfortable in being openly gay. For all we know, the next Lionel Messi may be in this country, afraid to display his or her talent, because of the stigma that is still apparently attached to homosexuality in football today. It needs to change. It will change.

On a final note, the placing of the flag is rather fitting. The East Stand was built in 2001, replacing the old family stand that was called The Rainbow Stand.

There’s something quite nice about the LGBT flag flying in the Rainbow Stand…perhaps they should bring the old name back.

Tales Of The Unexpected

1.

“Hi Adam, are you at this address? Can we come in?”

It was half past 10 at night on Saturday 3rd December 2016 when my phone started ringing. A private number was calling. Usually I’d ignore private numbers but, for some reason, this time, I answered. It was a detective, and that’s when he asked me the above questions. And so began the most surreal time of my life.

Before I could get up, the door knocked. At this point I was in a flat and the only way to get in was to be buzzed in through the front so both myself and my then new partner were surprised by how someone had got in without us letting them in. I looked through the peephole on the door and saw a group of men, some in heavy gear. I opened the door.

“Hello, is Danny here?”

Around 10 police, several fully kitted out ready for more than just a chat, come in to the flat. Me and my partner are practically separated to different sides of the room. Every part of the flat from the bedroom to the loft to underneath the sofa bed are searched. There’s utter confusion. Why are they looking for my mate? What has happened? is he ok? has he done something? Has something happened to him? All answers to these questions would become painfully clear very suddenly.

Sat down for questioning, I decided to ask – and I remember word for word – “I know this seems a silly thing to ask right now, but, is Dan alright?” I was told that they wanted to ensure his safety but, almost chillingly, left saying to me “If he calls, ignore it. If he texts, ignore it. If he turns up at the front door, no matter what he says, don’t let him in. Call us immediately.”

We were left with a business card and a case reference number to use if there was any contact or further information. Shaking, I turned to my partner and just said “What the fuck has he done? What the fuck just happened?” She took the card from me and googled the reference number. And then we found the news story; a body had been found at an address. I saw the picture of the house. I collapsed to the floor.

2.

I met Dan at work. We’d often joke about the fact that the first time we met each other we both disliked each other. Somewhere along the way, over a few beers (as was always the way with us), that changed. In a relatively short time we’d gone from just being work colleagues to being best mates. Often referred to as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum at work, we were practically inseparable.

As our friendship grew we started talking to each other about everything. We were both someone to confide in for the other person and there was no area that we felt we couldn’t discuss together. I loved him, and I do honestly believe the feeling was mutual. He got me through some tough times, and likewise I felt I had helped him through some of his.

We got to know each others families, and I had also brought Dan in to my circle of friends from uni and before. The “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” relationship had gone past being just a work relationship to being how we were viewed in the ‘real world’. In our work we’d get moved to different locations and people would ask how the other was – we were a double act.

It was with Dan’s first move that things started to go downhill for him at work. He was in a difficult place, and, for various reasons, he struggled. At this point, we spoke on the phone every day. After months of struggling, Dan ended up taking some time off work. I felt desperately for him. He was very good at what he did, but for some reason it just wasn’t happening for him. His stubbornness played against him at times, he didn’t necessarily have the best relationships with certain people, and although I always felt there were things he could do (I often tried to discuss this with him), you could tell he was lost. He’d lost the motivation for the job and wanted out.

As any mate would over a time like this, I’d invite him round to mine for a few drinks every now and then to try to help build him back up. We’d talk for hours about anything and everything. I wanted him to be better, and I really hoped that I could help him. Around this time Dan told me he was going to leave our work and go in to floor laying with his mate. He seemed genuinely excited and it felt like the old Dan was back. I was over the moon for him.

Over the next 4 or 5 years, things seemed to be flourishing for Dan and his floor laying business. He’d speak to me about new contracts that they were getting; big contracts with hotels and hospitals up and down the country. They’d had to hire a couple of lads and get a unit on an industrial estate due to their growth. My mate had made it, he was happy, and I was made up for him.

3.

The day after police had come to the flat looking for Dan, me and my partner were still not sure what was going on. We’d been advised that we weren’t to contact Dan, but were assured that they were looking for him for his safety. Hanging over this was the fact we knew a dead body had been found at his address.

Two detectives came to the flat to see us for questioning. By the time they were with us the news had broke that the dead body was Dan’s Dad. Even at this point I was thinking ‘maybe somebody broke in, maybe Dan’s been taken’. The detectives sat on the sofa and asked if we’d seen the news, “You know how serious this is, then?”

I was asked about the last contact I’d had with Dan. I explained that we’d arranged that he was going to help get a bed to the flat, that he was going to use his work van to bring it over but due to his Dad being unwell he’d not been able to do it. The two detectives looked at each other puzzled.

“The way you’re looking at each other I get the feeling I’ve said something that can’t be true?” I asked.

For the first time in 5 years, I found out Dan didn’t have his own business, he didn’t have a work van and he didn’t work in floor laying. I found out from the two detectives sat in front of me that the person I thought I knew like the back of my hand was actually a stranger.

It suddenly started to dawn that the worst fears I had were most likely true but I didn’t want to believe it. I was clinging on to some weird hope that it couldn’t be, that there was more to it. I just couldn’t grasp the thought that he could have killed his Dad.

4.

Early June 2016, I went to London to see AC/DC with my Dad. I was in a long term relationship but I felt like I was just going through the motions, not really enjoying it. I was coming back home on Dan’s birthday and he said he’d meet me at the train station and we’d have a drink to celebrate. I spoke to him about how I was feeling and explained that I was going to have a chat at home but expected it to go only one way. Dan offered me a place to stay if it came to it.

One week later, I was in Dan’s spare room, staying with him and his Dad. Over the next 5 months I effectively classed his house as my ‘base’, but I also stayed in hotels and occasionally with other friends while I tried to sort myself out. Dan’s Dad was quiet, kept himself to himself, but I had a lot of time for him. I would find it awkward in the house at times, in part due to how quiet his Dad was, and also because I didn’t want to come across as intruding. Because of this, I’d try to spend a lot of time out, be it at work or just with other people.

Dan was out a lot for his work, so in a bizarre way I actually ended up seeing and talking to Dan less when I lived with him than when I didn’t.

There was never anything that stood out as odd in the house or with the relationship between Dan and his Dad. I remember us all watching one of the utterly awful England matches from Euro 2016 and us all talking football. It was just normal.

5.

Everyone has watched news programmes or documentaries about criminals where a neighbour is interviewed and says something like, “Well, you just wouldn’t imagine it, he/she was such a quiet person, always seemed alright…”

For years I’d watch those interviews and think that they must have been stupid to not realise that something wasn’t quite right. Suddenly, I was that guy. I was the idiot.

For the next week following the search of the flat I was faced with at least one moment of contact with the police every day. Some days I’d be the first to get in touch, other days they’d call me. I felt like I was living a TV drama. At one stage there was even the discussion of using me to try to contact Dan as if nothing had happened to see if we could find where he was. It was unreal.

I spent a fair bit of time in a daze throughout this period. The story had hit the news, and some people at work had put two and two together (I was now working in the same place Dan had been placed before leaving the company) and I remember hearing people discussing it then stopping when they noticed me.

I sat on lunch one day and after hearing that police believed his Dad’s car was in Wales I checked on my messages to see if I could find anything to give an idea of who he could see in Wales. To my shock I noticed Dan was ‘Active Now’, for the first time in some time, on Facebook Messenger. I called the police and let them know. I didn’t know if it would matter, if they knew…in my head I believed that they’d be able to use this information to hopefully pinpoint his location.

I have no idea whether my call did help but the next day as I drove to Birmingham to see Biffy Clyro I got a call from the detective to say they’d found Dan, and he was safe. By the time I’d got back to my car after the gig the story was on the news that he had been charged with murder.

It was an absolutely shattering moment. I’d had an amazing time at the gig, had the usual post-gig euphoric feeling and then an immediate crash. The realisation that my best mate was a murderer was something I can’t truly explain. I thought I knew him better than anybody, but over the course of five days found that I knew very little.

I felt broken hearted. Two days later, two detectives came to my work to interview me for a statement. I felt nervous beyond belief but in reality I had no reason to be. I just didn’t know what to think. A couple of hours later and I’d given my character reference. The female detective, on her way out, turns to me and says, “only two people know what happened that night and why. One of them is Dan, the other one is dead.”

6.

Nearly 15 months have passed and it’s still hard to believe what happened. I didn’t attend at court due to wishes of the family but the media reported the horror of it all. Sixty stab wounds, twenty hammer blows. I felt physically sick when I saw the news. I felt even worse when I saw the CCTV that the police released showing Dan’s actions afterwards. I couldn’t, and still can’t, get over how ‘normal’ he appeared to be.

I feel so sorry for his Mum and his younger brother, who in reality has lost both a father and a brother needlessly. And, although a reason won’t change anything, I can’t even begin to imagine the grief and pain they have faced with no reason given as to why it happened.

I’d been thinking about writing this post for some time; debating how to write it, whether to do it as just a personal piece of writing or to share the story. Writing is something I’ve always found therapeutic and I still often find it easier to get things out through my writing.

The whole situation changed me. I find that I have a much harder time trusting people now, and I guess the best way I can describe how I felt was actually to compare it to grief. I seemed to go through so many emotions it was unbelievable.

The sadness and the anger I felt were unparalleled and the closest I’d come to those feelings at any other time was when my Mum passed away. I couldn’t understand the lies over the past years, and it eats at me to know that I’ll never understand why he felt the need to do it. It pains me that the lies seem to have continued even now as I was told to expect a letter, but it never came because a guard was sacked for throwing mail away.

I felt a ton of guilt, too. This may seem the strangest thing for people to understand but I felt insanely guilty. In my head, I kept thinking “I should have been there for him more. I could have helped him. If he’d opened up to me would it have happened?” I beat myself up. It took so long to stop doing that and realise that the chances of me doing anything that could have changed things were slim to none.

I felt, and still do feel, so confused about it all. On some days I wish I knew why things happened, from the lies to the actual act of murder itself, but then other days I don’t want to know at all.

And then comes this; the fact that, regardless of what happened, I find myself missing him. I absolutely loved the guy. When I did my character statement I explained how he was a person that you always felt you could depend upon if you needed someone. But the reality is, that wasn’t all him. I miss a character. I miss someone that was, in some part, make believe. I don’t know how much of the Dan I knew was the ‘real’ Dan and when I think about that, and the fact that this guy was so important to me, it makes me genuinely sad.

My life has changed to such a positive degree since this all happened, and it hurts to think the guy that seriously helped me out when I needed it may not actually really be the guy that helped me out.

I’ve not been to see him since the arrest. My stance is that I never will because my life is in such a different place and I don’t want that tie. I also know that if I was to go I’d be a wreck, I’d be unable to handle it and, simply, I don’t want that. I won’t forget, and I dare say I’ll never forgive what he put his family through and what he put me through.

It’s difficult to not think about the guy I knew, and it’s difficult to think of that guy behind bars. But who is that guy? I’ll never know.