A Sad Time – Some Rambling Thoughts

I feel like it would be almost remiss of me to not write about Coronavirus. As a planet we’re all fighting it and, as with Influenza (Spanish Flu, if you must), this is something we will see in history books in the future.

I’m normally pretty up to speed on news. I try to keep myself in the know. You can’t always catch everything, though, and the rise of Coronavirus was actually one thing I’d not noticed. In fact, the first time I heard of it I thought it was a joke. Even then, when I read up on it, I wouldn’t have predicted what has happened.

I apologise in advance for if this post is a bit all over the place…this is all just a bit off the cuff.

I work in food retail. Due to this, I’m now classed as a ‘key worker’ in the UK. Someone that, if my kids were old enough, could still send his kids to school. Someone that has to keep working. That’s fine. I agree with it. I totally understand it…people need food to live. People need to shop.

I’ve been off work this past week due to holiday time. The week prior was when panic buying started. When I finished up for the week on the Saturday I left saying, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” I was, and still am, incredibly proud of my team during this time and proud of my friends in other stores working equally as hard…this is absolutely unlike anything any of us have ever seen. I’ve been in retail for nigh on 15 years. Going in to the shops this week has been eye opening and has made me think that, potentially, I’ve ended up being off for the worst week of panic shopping.

But what will next week bring? Who knows? All the retailers have been asking shoppers to stop panic buying, think of others. They’ve put restrictions on. But people are still panic buying. People are still buying far more than they need to. Today’s government press conference included a member of the retail consortium. The message? Think of others and stop panic buying.

I fail to understand how that message will change public behaviour any more than retail bosses have by saying the same thing. The mentality of people now is “We need to get this before they run out”…not everybody would have been thinking that way but the behaviour of others will have definitely forced it. Even for myself, I sit here knowing depots have got stock – I know some of the plans that will be put in place…can probably guess at others – but I worry about things my kids need. Thoughts of “if I see the correct size nappies for them I’d best get them before they’re gone”…it’s fear, anxiety and panic not bought on by the retailers, but instead by the actions of the public as a whole. The government message today does nothing, really, to alter that.

I’ve found myself walking around the stores this week when I’ve been getting food and found myself on a few occasions feeling almost emotional. Massive greed and selfishness will have hurt people. When I am shopping and thinking about the food my kids like but those shelves are empty…what do you do? I feel fortunate that I’ve seen some great generosity this week otherwise, potentially, I’d also be panicking for the weeks ahead.

As I’ve stated before, I’ve been in retail for about 15 years…both food and clothing/home. In that time, I’ve had the chance to get to know so many people – people I wouldn’t normally talk to – and you get to see a side of humanity, both good and bad, that you don’t see in any other job sector. Looking at the bare, empty shelves has me thinking of a customer I used to serve years ago when I was a part time deli assistant. His name was John.

I have no idea if John is still alive. He was getting on a bit and clearly had some issues. He’d come in, pretty much, at the same time every day. Albert Einstein hair style, an old blue coat that had tears in it and patches of dirt. His facial expressions used to remind me of Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. Anyway, he’d come in every day and ask for “two slices of honey roast ham on one and a half. I don’t have a fridge so this way I don’t throw it away.” Every day. Without fail. I found John quite an interesting character. He had a good job before retiring, but once he retired he slipped. Clearly had signs of dementia, clearly very lonely. The trip to the shop was as much a social thing as it was a necessity for food.

I look at the shops now and think of John and the countless other John’s I’ve met, served and got to know over the years and it genuinely saddens me. It saddens me because I don’t know how he would survive. Food counters have shut to allow supply chains to focus on key deliveries – a correct decision – but for John that would probably mean spending more on pre-packed items. And, even then, it’s only if he could get it. I’ve noticed how, in several areas of stores, the cheaper and average priced items have all sold meaning only the expensive alternatives remain. If you shop at the wrong time, you’ll spend more and, probably, for less. For people like John…could they even afford that? I worry that, for those people, it won’t be Coronavirus that kills them…it’ll be malnutrition. And, again, it saddens me because that’s not the fault of the retailer as there is stock at depots…there was just no need to panic buy and put depots in a position whereby they simply can’t get enough of the stock out quick enough. We’ll undoubtedly see shoplifting increase, too, as people find only expensive alternatives and find they can’t afford it.

And what about when people do find themselves in a place of not being able to afford food? Food Banks? Well, no…because people aren’t donating. Some are being stolen from. Help from the banks? Unlikely, unless you’re a business affected by things. So, bankruptcy? Unpaid rents and rise in homelessness? Maybe. Anxiety? Depression? Further mental health issues? Most probably.

The behaviour of people has lead to this. That is why Supermarkets are now having to put in place designated hours for vulnerable people, NHS workers…but, the reality is that it should never have really needed to get to that point.

Even if the country goes in to lock down – which, you’d believe looking at others, it will – Supermarkets will still be open. I’ll still be going to work. People still need food. My brilliant team, myself and others will still be working to provide for the people. We have online deliveries. To repeat what the retail bosses, and the government, all say…there is no need to panic buy, there is a need to think about others.

But what is the answer? Honestly…I don’t know. We’re asking people to change. There is a likelihood that these past two weeks will change some people’s shopping habits for good, anyway. I don’t know what the future will look like.

Are the government doing enough? Again, I don’t know. Hand on heart, I couldn’t say if I think they’re doing the right things or not. I think today felt like a checklist press conference – a way to say, “we’ve talked about it.” I think offering to pay 80% to workers that find themselves out of work due to Coronavirus is admirable. I think the negligence to the self employed and zero hours contracted people – plumbers, freelance journalists, PR people, writers, musicians and so on – is shambolic. I think we’ve been slow to respond to the virus…still think there’s an element of people underestimating how serious it could be…but I think we’ve eventually got to doing the right things, such as closing pubs.

I still don’t think information on the virus itself is clear enough. We don’t do enough testing. How do you know the difference between a cold and the coronavirus? What makes a “persistent cough”?

I don’t pay for Spotify premium. Don’t really use it enough to warrant it, plus I love physical copies of CDs etc too much. But, during the Brexit talks, there were public service announcements about the changes coming. For Coronavirus, I’ve heard none at all.

We have to trust in those above us and believe they are doing the right thing by us…even if I think, you think, or anybody else thinks more could be done…we have to have faith in them.

And then we have to look at ourselves, too. We have to think about other people. Not just look at the news, read words online and say “That is a shame, isn’t it? How sad.” but seriously look at ourselves, our behaviours and ask if we are doing the right thing, too.

Eventually Coronavirus will pass on and go…but it is our actions that will dictate just how damaging this pandemic is for people in the years to come.

Wrestling For The People

Let me take you back to 1997. The WWF (as they were known back then) were due to be hosting their first UK show in years, ‘One Night Only’, in Birmingham. My home town. The headline match was Shawn Michaels vs The British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith for the European Championship.

I’d started to get in to wrestling. It was having a bit of a revival and, aged 10, I was swept away by the characters. Larger than life, yet, at that age, completely believable. I was incredibly excited to find out that Shawn Michaels and The British Bulldog were doing a promo event at Birmingham Town Hall on August 31st…and my Dad was going to take me to it.

But, then…tragedy. Princess Diana dies in a car crash overnight. The country comes to a stand still. I still remember getting up early, seeing writing crawling across the bottom of the TV when watching Nickelodeon advising to put on the news and going to wake up my Mum and Dad to tell them. I look back now and think they must have been fuming with me for waking them up at 7am on a Sunday for that.

The Michaels and Bulldog event is postponed out of respect. My opportunity of seeing these people in real life is gone. Or so I think. A week later, they do the promo event in some run down industrial estate on the back of a van. From the Town Hall to that. All just to make sure the fans had that moment. That little bit of entertainment while promoting their event.

I remember when I saw The British Bulldog. He was massive. He looked more like a super hero than a real person. Even Shawn Michaels, regarded as fairly small in those days, looked huge. They were larger than life in character, larger than life in person.

The first match that truly got me addicted to the WWF was a few months prior to this event. It was at Wrestlemania 13. Bret Hart vs Stone Cold Steve Austin. They’d had quite a rivalry and this was the key moment in it. Hart entered as the babyface (good guy, for those not in to it) and Austin the heel (bad guy). It was a submission match, the winner would be whoever made the other quit. It was fast, it was hard hitting…it was incredible story telling.

In trying to win, being so desperate to win, Hart started to do things associated with heels. He used dirty tactics. Austin wouldn’t give up. He showed determination and grit. He kept getting up, kept going. The fans started to change tact. The final shot of the match was Bret Hart holding his sharpshooter finisher on Austin, Austin screaming in agony with blood pouring down his face…but he still never gave up. He passed out. The match was ended. Hart won, but Austin never quit. After the bell, Hart tried to attack Austin again…the crowd fully turned against him. The hero had become the villain, the villain became the hero.

Obviously, this is all planned. Whisper it quietly…but wrestling is fake. However, that really doesn’t matter. The story they told was unlike anything else. It was convincing, it felt real…and it created a superstar in Steve Austin.

It was the storytelling that got me hooked. I loved seeing how the stories unfolded and then how those stories transpired in to the ring. Austin would go on to have a legendary rivalry with the owner of the WWF, Vince McMahon. Disgruntled colleague vs terrible boss. It worked because so many people could relate to it. McMahon, when behind his people, would be abrasive to Austin…but when Austin broke through and got to him alone, he’d cower. Character based stories.


When they came to the UK for One Night Only, the British Bulldog was the champion. He got a heroes welcome due to being from England…Michaels, on the other hand, booed. In the end, through cheating, Michaels won and became European champion. The crowd threw bottles, programmes, food…Michaels (and the rest of his group) just fed off it. They embraced it. It was amazing heel work, amazing character work. As a viewer, you genuinely hated him…and he wanted you to.

I watched the WWF/WWE religiously in those days, starting to tail off from it all around 2004. I’d still buy the games – just always enjoyed them – but rarely, if ever, watched the shows. I’d normally just end up playing one of the games, feel nostalgic and seek out specific matches on YouTube.

Through doing that, I eventually got sucked back in to the world of sports entertainment and WWE. I became hooked on WhatCulture Wrestling’s YouTube channel…Adam Blampied, Adam Pacitti and others all created content I found hilarious…and also became almost addicted to Brian Zane’s YouTube channel, Wrestling With Wregret. I would watch list videos, get nostalgic over it all, and end up seeking out more videos of matches and promos. Before long, I started to pay more attention to the modern era of wrestling. Without really knowing it, I’d reached a point where I knew about every key character…without actually watching Raw or Smackdown. I still watch those YouTube channels now, along with Cultaholic and Inside The Ropes, and I would honestly recommend supporting them all.

It felt a bit like a dirty secret at first as I started to watch the WWE YouTube channel, watching every highlight video from the previous shows. I kept thinking, “I’m not a kid anymore…I should be past this”…but there I was, spending my days off watching recaps of shows. Now I look at it and think that, maybe, that’s why I watch it. It takes me back. That little bit of child left in me comes back to life when I watch WWE. I can forget about other things by watching something completely ridiculous. I can be the big kid again. From a mental health perspective, the WWE works wonders. It’s almost like a fantasy world at times and it enables you to switch off.

When I was younger, I watched the wrestling for the matches. I wanted the stories but, really, I wanted to see people like Jeff Hardy jump off 30 foot tall ladders more. Now, I rarely watch a full match. There are a few…most recent ones I’d recommend to anyone are any of the AJ Styles vs John Cena bouts, Tyler Bate vs Pete Dunne on NXT Takeover and, away from WWE, Okada vs Omega for New Japan…but mainly I watch the promos, the build up.


There are a few stories I’m invested in currently, but the biggest one is that of Bray Wyatt. Over the years, Wyatt has consistently been one of the best at talking on the mic and building a story. You get sucked in by him. Leading the Wyatt Family, he played a cult leader that would use his horror to scare opponents. The issue was…he’d always lose. It made it difficult to believe his storylines because you could guess the outcome every time. Regardless of how dominant he was as a character in the build up…his character lost believability because he’d never follow it up.

Last year, Wyatt went away for a while. On his return, he came back as a completely new character. He wasn’t in the ring, he had a video promo segment. As a kids TV presenter. It was surreal. It was creepy. It included nods to his previous characters and character arcs. He cut a cardboard cutout of his old character in half with a chainsaw. He presented himself as a deranged child’s TV host and it was incredible. Eventually, he started to portray himself almost as having schizophrenia. We then got introduced to an alter-ego, The Fiend. Over the months that followed, The Fiend targeted Wyatt’s old rivals, overcoming them with ease and getting revenge. After each win, the loser would change – often change back to an older version of their character. As we approach Wrestlemania, The Fiend faces John Cena, another person that beat Wyatt…and the storyline tells itself.

It’s unlike anything else on TV at the moment, unlike any other sport. It’s a complete escape from reality. It doesn’t matter that the ending is pre-determined. If you watch a film, it doesn’t matter that the ending is scripted…you can still enjoy it. You can still escape in it. And that’s exactly what wrestling is about…the escape. It’s a soap opera, of sorts, with a sports element.

As the world becomes affected more and more by the Coronavirus, most sports are closing their doors. Seasons have been postponed. Tournaments postponed. Yet WWE continues to go on without a live audience, giving people something to escape in.


At a time where people could do with something to take their minds off the real world, you could do far worse than start watching WWE. It is ridiculous. It often knows it is. Watching Stone Cold Steve Austin ask an empty arena to shout “Hell Yeah” shows that. It mocks itself. It takes itself seriously, but isn’t afraid to lighten up. The promos and acting are as good as anything you’ll see on a soap (watch Bray Wyatt and John Cena on Smackdown from Friday 13th March and tell me otherwise – I dare you) and the stories can take you away.

Much like they gave us something to take our minds away from the death of Princess Diana and the national mourning around that, the WWE are now giving us some kind of sport – even if it does have fixed endings – some kind of story…to take our imaginations and thoughts away somewhere different to Coronavirus. That can’t be a bad thing.

It still has the power to make you feel like a big kid and suspend your disbelief.

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Thanks for reading!

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A Retrospective Look – Tony Pulis At The Albion

Soccer - West Bromwich Albion Press Conference - The Hawthorns

Growing up as a West Brom supporter it was never really that difficult to find a reason to dislike Stoke. For years, Stoke would always win against Albion, even prompting the words, “We always beat West Brom”, to be sung by Stoke fans at any game between the two clubs.

The first time I saw Albion beat Stoke was in 1998 in the FA Cup. One of those moments that I always remember. Prior to that, Albion hadn’t beat Stoke since 1988. When people talk of ‘bogey’ teams, Stoke were definitely that.

In the background of growing up as an Albion fan in the Nineties were the changes that were starting to happen within football. Arsene Wenger had taken over at Arsenal in 1996 and, with him, he bought change to the English game. From the scouting to the dieting to the way it was played. As a youngster, as a football fanatic, I loved it. I loved watching those teams play fluid football. As years went by, the Albion took their own style of fluid football under Tony Mowbray and my favourite era at the Albion had started.

40 miles down the road, however, Stoke were playing the complete opposite style of football. Far from fluid, they settled for sitting deep and playing long ball. They used Rory Delap for his long throw ins as if they were corners. It was effective. It made them hard to beat. It made them a comfortable Premier League team. However, this wasn’t just Stoke City. This was Tony Pulis’ Stoke City.

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The football was largely terrible to watch. Stoke would grind out results and always create issues for teams. They were strong and weren’t scared to put in hard challenges. They played as though they were from a different era…and they were, in a way. Tony Pulis is an era defining manager. Stoke were in the Pulis era. Second time round, they seemed the perfect fit. The supporters were louder than most, if not all, and Stoke maintained a good Premier League position throughout.

From a football perspective, it gave another reason to dislike Stoke. Not only could Albion seemingly never get a result against them, they were now playing the most boring, difficult to watch football. I couldn’t imagine Albion ever playing that way. Eventually, Stoke fans wanted more. Patience began to wear thin with the playing style and what felt like a lack of ambition…and Pulis and Stoke went their separate ways.

As this was happening, Albion were just finishing their best ever Premier League season. Steve Clarke had seen the club to 8th in the league and it seemed as if Albion had cemented themselves somewhat as the ‘best of the rest’. The 8th place finish masked a run of poor form in the second half of the season, however, and the year following it saw the poor form continue. Clarke got sacked, Pepe Mel came in, Albion survived – just – but damage had been done.


At a time when Albion needed somebody strong, somebody who could take the club forward following Pepe Mel…the board hired Alan Irvine. To say it was badly received would be a huge understatement. The club seemed to be falling apart in the 2014/15 season. The famous blue and white stripes had been replaced with pinstripes, there were multiple issues behind the scenes…and it was ultimately no surprise at all when the Irvine experiment failed and he was dismissed halfway through the season. We were only going one way.

So, then, who to appoint as manager if you don’t want to be relegated? Easy. Pick one that’s never been relegated. Enter, Tony Pulis.

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The appointment made sense, but it always felt like a deal with the devil for me. This manager that had helped produce football that I detested, for a team I detested – largely because of that style of play – was in charge of my team…and for as much as I couldn’t stand the man’s football I knew, deep down, he was the right man at that time.

The club had lost 10 games in the league during the first half of the 2014/15 season, only winning 4. The second half of the season, under Pulis, saw a turnaround. Albion won 7 games, lost 6, drew 6. Defensively Albion had improved, too. From looking like a team destined for relegation, Albion ended the season comfortably mid-table…even beating the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United at the end of the season. Results wise, the Pulis appointment was a success.

Despite this, the warning signs of discontent had already started to show. Albion’s style was changing. A soul destroying week where the club were beat twice in a week by Aston Villa didn’t help him win support. The Jeff Astle Day defeat was so disappointing. But they were, in the grand scheme, singular events. The fact that Albion were staying up was enough to please the majority of fans.

The following season saw the start of a Pulis trend at Albion. The team were solid. They’d made some good additions. Jonny Evans was a superb signing. Alongside Darren Fletcher, who joined in the February of the previous season, it gave an increased sense of quality within the spine of the team. Premier League winners…and it told. The experience of those players, the leadership, oozed throughout the team. Salomon Rondon signed for a then record £12m, adding a different strength up front. James Chester also signed for £8m – more expensive than Evans – with Serge Gnabry, a young talent from Arsenal, joining on loan.

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The club were never in any danger of relegation. They were also never in any danger of challenging for anything else. Albion were just there. But the playing style had now changed completely. It had become Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion. This was the Pulis era, definitively. This was also the season where it started to become too much for me. The frustrations were huge, and I could sense myself falling out of love with it all.

In the seasons that Pulis was at Albion, the team did well. Mid-table finishes, they were hard to break down…Albion were no fuss, defensive and hard to beat. But the Pulis theme was this. Albion got to 39/40 points, results then stopped. In the 2015/16 season, Albion got to 39 points after beating Manchester United on the 6th March. They didn’t win another game all season. The following season, Albion hit 40 points after beating Bournemouth on the 25th February. In the 12 games that followed, they won only once and lost nine times.

It was disheartening. As a fan, you felt that the target was always 40 points and nothing more. As soon as the club hit that target they switched off. In both of Pulis’ full seasons, you were left wondering what the point was in even going to the games from March onwards because it was clear the team you were watching was not playing with the same intent as the one a month or so prior. It was dull, it was boring…it was unbelievably difficult to feel passionate about.

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I found myself so frustrated, also, at the use of the signings made during the Pulis reign. Salomon Rondon had the makings of a great powerhouse forward – we later saw that in full effect when he joined Newcastle United – but the style of play Pulis implemented didn’t benefit any striker. Robson-Kanu, flourishing this season, has never been known for his goals but his work rate…and he looked lost. The signings of Nacer Chadli, Ollie Burke, Matt Phillips all felt like signals of intent – but none fitted with how a Pulis team plays. (However, looking at how things have gone for Burke since, maybe Pulis was right on that one.) Callum McManaman was another that did nothing.

Defensively, the signings of Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Gareth Barry and Jake Livermore made sense and they all, for the most part, did well. Yet James Chester, a defender that cost £2m more than Evans, was played out of position and deemed too small by Pulis, who eventually sold him to Villa where he went on to do extremely well. The loan signings also made no sense. Serge Gnabry was a waste of time (though, to be fair to Pulis, that was more because of Gnabry than anyone else at the club). Alex Pritchard pointless. Brendon Galloway, too. Young players that would have never fitted in with the Pulis ideology.

We became an old team. Possession wise, we would often struggle to even reach 40% against any team. For fans of statistics, we must have left them completely confused. How could this team maintain security in the Premier League whilst going every game with only 35% of the ball and struggling to have any shots? Somehow, we did. But that in itself was an issue. Against the big clubs…Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool…you could forgive sitting back and hoping for a counter. Although that even went too far in one game against Manchester City when we failed to register a single shot. The biggest issue was that even against teams of a similar ilk, Albion did the same. Sit back, constantly.

There was no ambition. The club didn’t play to win, they played to avoid defeat. Because of that, there was no excitement. There was no enjoyment. For the first time in my life, I gave up on Albion. I lost interest. I couldn’t bring myself to attend games. I could no longer tell people who we had next in the league. I couldn’t tell people how many goals a striker had scored. I was bored of it. I couldn’t even put on Match Of The Day because I’d lost the passion for the game.

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Growing up, I started supporting Albion during the Alan Buckley days. They were bleak. We were so much poorer than we’ve ever been since. Denis Smith wasn’t great but was infinitely better than Buckley. Brian Little was a disaster. None of them, however, drove me away from the club. Throughout all the poor seasons, narrowly avoiding relegation to Division Two (League One, as it’s called now)…I was still there. I still enjoyed going down the Hawthorns. Pulis and the football he made us play changed that. We were beyond boring. The atmosphere was, at times, toxic. Why would you spend money on it?

Not all of what Pulis did was bad, though. As I said earlier, after Irvine he was absolutely the right man for the job and I don’t think anybody else would have kept the club up. When Saido Berahino let his ego get the better of him, Pulis dealt with it well and managed to protect Saido and the club as well as he could. He developed Craig Dawson in to a Premier League player. I’ll even begrudgingly accept that he maybe prolonged Chris Brunt’s time at the club by moving him to full back. He gave the club security and, in the end, when results really did go downhill, I remember reading that it was actually the board that stopped him from leaving as he was prepared to let somebody else try to move the club forward. A rare selfless act.

Despite that, my memory of Pulis at Albion isn’t one I look back at fondly. Tony Pulis made me hate football. Tony Pulis made me stop going to watch the Albion…even when we were getting the results – and I wasn’t alone as average attendances dipped continuously. The Pulis era was uninspired, boring, frustrating, devoid of all ambition and not a lot else.

But, on the plus side, at least we can beat Stoke now.

 


 

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Dear Mum

Dear Mum,

It’s been five years since I last said goodbye to you. In some ways, that’s felt like a long time. In other ways, it feels like no time at all.

This is a time of year that I’ve come to hate. Flashbacks of you in Papworth Hospital. Flashbacks of phone calls on the day you fell. Constant flashbacks. Only the other day I heard a Led Zeppelin song that took me back to sitting in the car with Mark as we parked at a hotel preparing for another night of very little sleep before going back to you at hospital.

I regularly think of the last time I saw you before you had the operation. I have no idea whether you actually knew I was there. You looked at me as if to say, “Bloody hell, what are you doing here?” As daft as it may sound, that thought makes me smile. I got it. You didn’t want me worried about you. I’m sure that had you come through and woke up you’d have gone mad at Dad for even telling me that you were in hospital. But, for as short a time as that was, I’m glad I have that little memory. One last little laugh.

Memories…there were a few weren’t there? I laugh out loud whenever I think about the phone call where you told me Dad got you an air fryer instead of a hair dryer (because you’d been after one for so long…). I remember when we looked at moving to Lowestoft and we had the boat hired on the broads. You were essentially captain. I sometimes think that you were sold on East Anglia by that boat hire, visions of riding the waves in a small boat…it makes me wish we’d done it more.

I will never forget the karaoke/BBQ party we put on at the house. A multitude of disasters. Eyebrows singed, choosing not to eat but instead cook for everybody else, still drinking a lot of gin, breaking the microphone in half…and eventually “Me drunk, me sick”. Going through uni and in the immediate years following uni I found myself and others in various bad, drunken states…but that is still the standout “bloody hell you were drunk” moment.

It’s these little memories that I cling on to and try to think of when I start thinking to those days at Papworth. Thoughts of you picking us up from school, having mates round and talking of your amazing food…memories of you looking after us. Memories of you laughing.

I find myself sometimes down because I struggle to remember your voice. I feel like five years shouldn’t be long enough to forget such an important voice but I fear I have. I can just about hear you saying “Roy!” when moaning at Dad. I can remember you groaning at me when seeing me at Papworth…but that’s it. I hate that. I wish I could remember it more.

I blame myself for that, too. In those final years we’d sometimes see each other only a couple of times a year. I should have gone home more. I’m sorry.

I also wish I could remember our last proper conversation. I watch these things on TV and people say, “We spoke about this and that. That was the last thing we spoke about.” I don’t remember it at all. I don’t know if it’s just time and me approaching middle age…whatever…I just don’t remember. But, then, does that really matter? Surely it matters more that I remember the times we all had? The time you gave us.

Memories. Good for those with good memory.

Five years. Mum…so much has changed. I could bore you with everything that’s happened in the world but I won’t. It’s probably best you don’t know some of that, anyway. But a lot has changed with me.

For a long time prior to your days in Papworth, I wasn’t happy. I think you knew that but didn’t say anything. I got engaged not because I wanted to, but more because I felt it was what I should have done. Forget the happiness aspect…can’t always be easy, can it? But there I was. That’s where I was when we said goodbye.

A year and a half later, I took the decision to put myself first. I left.

I hate it because you taught it to me in the worst way, but I think the biggest lesson that you ever taught me was to live life for now because it’s too short. I was fed up with drifting along, unhappy on a path I didn’t really want to take anymore. I think you’d have been proud of me…even if a bit worried for me as I essentially signed myself up to sofa hopping for a while.

I’ve ended up meeting someone else and, this time, getting engaged for the right reasons. Lori is a lot like you, personality wise…I wish you’d have been able to meet her because I honestly believe that you would love her. I can picture you both sat watching some terrible horror film that’s probably more comedy than horror…I can imagine you on the dance floor together after a drink. I can just imagine you having a good time together.

Another pretty massive change to my life is having children. You’d have been a Nan! Both of the kids are amazing. Our little lad is crazy, but seems so developed already – a proper little character – and our little lady is equally as cheeky. We named her after you and Lori’s Mum, giving her the middle names Mary Jean. Jean, Lori’s Mum, passed away when Lori was pregnant. We want both of the kids to know about you both…we talk about you to them…and I like to think that, by sharing your name, you’ll be with our little girl everywhere she goes.

It’s one of my biggest bittersweet feelings in life. I’d always wanted kids and felt so ecstatic when we had them but that emotion was always hit by the feeling of wishing you’d also been there to meet them. I really do wish that you were here now to see the kids, to hear them call you “Nanna”…I know you’d have loved them. I also reckon you’d have moved in with us by now to be with them!

Five years…so much change…one real constant. And that constant is you.

I always found it ridiculously over sentimental when people said “I think of them everyday”…but it’s true. I do. Every day, since January 27th 2015, I think about you. From hours of thinking to seconds…you’re always in my head.

I miss you so much. There’s so much that I wish I could show you, so much I want you to see that you can’t. So many Thursdays where, even now, I will have a moment of thinking “I could give Mum a call, it’s her day off.” I miss you.

Losing you when we did…it took it out of me. I didn’t react well, getting angry at small things. Such small things. My mood dipped. I really found it hard. This was me…I can’t begin to imagine what Joy and Dad were feeling. 55 years old. It’s not fair that we lost you at that age. You’d be turning 60 this year. I’m not sure you’d like that…but I can’t believe you never got to see it.

You sparked the change in me when you went. We started raising money for Papworth Hospital…I was never really a charitable person before that. I decided to do things to make myself happy after seeing first hand how life can just be taken away. You didn’t deserve to be that person to show me that. But you were. Nothing can change that.

Those changes that have happened in my life may never have happened without you.

Perhaps, somehow, you can see all of this. You’re probably sat by me thinking “why on Earth write all of that on there?”

The answer is simple. I wanted to write to you. I wanted to let you know that things are okay. I wanted to let you know that I’m happy. I wanted to let you know that you’d be a Nan right now. I wanted to let you know how much you have helped make me the person I am today.

But mostly I wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you. Now and always. Every day.

I love you. I miss you.

Love you, Mum.

Adam
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A Bit Of Reflection – The 2019 Election

A bit of time to reflect, a couple of plates of cheesy nachos and a good number of cups of tea. It hasn’t been a good time to support Labour.

But, truthfully, it hasn’t been a good time for some time now.

I believe in and try to see the best in people. It doesn’t always work…sometimes people perceive that you are an easy target, sometimes you miss the real agenda…sometimes it does work and people do some amazing things for you…and it’s what I choose to believe. People have the best interests at heart.

That’s a big reason as to why I vote Labour. They’re a party that have always been about bringing the best out of society, the best in people in equal measure. Sharing that optimism and well being. They pushed for a kinder politics…and that’s where it started to unravel.

People obviously know I’m against Brexit. I still struggle to see the benefits…but in Jeremy Corbyn, Labour had a leader that had always wanted to leave the EU. It went against my views and many other Labour voters. Rather than step aside, Corbyn took a half arsed approach to campaigning to remain. It didn’t work. He then decided that Labour would support a people’s vote, yet when the people’s vote march took place in London and elsewhere…he completely ignored it, instead opting to call for Labour supporters to knock on doors promoting Labour. It threw votes away. For the first time in my voting history, at the European elections I voted against Labour. I criticised Corbyn on Twitter.

The Corbyn fans went for me. A journalist shared a tweet of mine. Replies to his sub-tweet were along the lines of “Labour doesn’t need you”, “Go join the Tories” etc. The kinder politics Corbyn was advocating wasn’t on show…yet they preached it day in, day out. You only need look at Momentum’s treatment towards Tom Watson (who was at the People’s Vote march) to see how they utterly failed at practicing what they preach when talking “kinder politics.”

You tell people to sod off enough and eventually they will.

People talk about antisemitism – another thing Corbyn got dramatically wrong – but I don’t think the public are as bothered by that as some would suggest. If they were, we wouldn’t currently have a racist, xenophobic, homophobic PM. But, here we are.

I stuck up for Corbyn on the terrorist sympathiser nonsense. He isn’t one. He advocates peace and thinks people should talk to their enemies. There’s nothing wrong in that. There’s more wrong with the fact that we have a government selling arms to Saudi Arabia who then sell to groups like ISIS. But here, again, Corbyn got it wrong. When polls suggested he was building support, the London Bridge attack happened. His next press conference was to blame British Army interference for the rise in terror. He wasn’t wrong with what he was saying, but timing is everything and he absolutely shot himself in the foot. Both feet. It fed right in to the “terrorist sympathiser” story.

The media were appalling towards Corbyn, but he didn’t help himself. The reality is that any Labour leader will have a tough time with the media – Miliband got torn apart for eating a bacon sandwich wrong ffs. His interview techniques didn’t work out. He came across as a nice guy, but if pressed on tougher topics he lost it. The Andrew Neil interview, for example, a disaster. The flip side to that, however, is that he at least turned up. But even then, as Daily Mail journalists even started to turn slightly on Johnson, he didn’t capitalise. Wasted chances.

There’s a lot to like about Corbyn. His idea on socialism is fine. He does come across trustworthy and down to earth. He works incredibly hard and has done some great work to get a lot of youth support.

But this is his loss. Brexit will have absolutely played a role – how do you take a neutral stance on it?! – but there’s far more, too. Social media loves him far more than the real world.

He is a great back bencher…not so good a leader.

I voted Labour because I care about equality. I care about the NHS. I care about the fact there are so many food banks, so many struggling services. I care about mental health in the country and the fact suicide rates are increasing every year. I want a better, safer future for my kids. I will vote Labour again in the future for the same reasons.

Much like when a football team gets relegated, the party must now rebuild. I do believe they have to become more centre-left…but time will tell.

The next 5 years will be interesting. Daunting for those worse off. Many voters will have lent their vote to Tory…and the Tories need to keep those votes. The best way? To become more moderate. I’m not holding my breath.

All in all, it was a disastrous night for Labour. I could write more but I’ve already gone on too long. I’m still bitterly disappointed. I still believe that people deserve better than this government…but they also deserved a better opposition.

“Am I here? Of course I am, yes.”

“Am I here? Of course I am, yes.”

I think it’s sometimes human nature to add meaning to things that, in reality, make little sense. In loss, people give themselves comfort by using something as a sign that the person they’ve lost is still with them…for example, it might be a bird. I went a good time after my Mum passed away without feeling that.

The closest I came to a “She’s still with us” moment was directly after she passed away, in Papworth Hospital. The life support machines had been turned off, we were all in tears…for myself I felt lost and unsure what to do…and then the fire alarm went off. Evacuate. I could almost hear my Mum saying, “Stop fussing, just get on with it!” It was a moment that in great sadness gave us a little laugh. Mum was kicking us out.

Life goes on, but we were now faced with living what would need to be a ‘new normal’. It wasn’t easy for any of us. I started suffering hugely with anxiety and low mood. For the first time I had an anxiety attack…it felt like I was having a heart attack. My ribs felt like they were coming in on themselves and intertwining. It was terrifying. Things that you wouldn’t expect to change started to change. My stomach started to play up frequently. I wasn’t sleeping. I was in a hole. I had days when I was ‘here’, but did not actually feel ‘here’. I kept a lot of it hidden.

And then…life changes. One of the biggest things I felt after Mum passed away was a change in perspective. Life is too short. My Mum was 55. I was half way to 55 at that point. What if that’s what I have left? What if I don’t have that long? I started to think about myself, my own happiness…and I started a new life. New home, new relationship…I’ll stop short of saying new me!

One of the first evenings out that I had with Lori ended with us walking to the car and looking around. It was a cold night, but the sky was clear and the moon looked huge. We’d talked about my Mum a lot on the night, as well as how it affected me (it felt good to get it out and to have someone willing to listen). Lori pointed at the moon and said about how bright it was, saying, “That’s your Mum watching us.”

Not long after, we had everything happen with Dan. Lori was late but we thought it was down to stress because of everything that had happened. I was on a late at work, Lori finished around 5 or 6. The moon was bright again. Lori decided to get a pregnancy test…by now we’d talked a lot about how a bright moon seemed to relate to us that Mum was watching…and we found out we were expecting.

I know it sounds absolutely crazy to anybody that hasn’t been through anything like this, or for anybody that hasn’t attached a significance like that to something else…but we took the brightness and size of the moon to mean that this was my Mum’s way of saying she was happy about it.

It is a bit crazy, really. But it’s become one of those things that gives me comfort – and, ultimately, that’s why people give different meanings to these objects and things.

And I’m not for one second saying my Mum was the size of the moon. She wasn’t. And she’d have killed me if I said something like that!

For those that have read my recent Facebook & Twitter posts, you’ll know that I’m currently running 60k in November, raising money for Royal Papworth Hospital Charity and Tiny Changes. I’m now just over 20k of the way there.

Last night, I was tired…but knew I had to go for a run. The thing I’ve found with these half hour outings is that sometimes the hardest bit is to motivate yourself to get out, pass that mental hurdle…and in a way, that’s true of every challenge I’ve done – for example, the Three Peaks…you reach that point where your mind is telling you to give up, but you have to overcome it. It is often the hardest part.

After I got out and started running, I found I was having one of those runs…Spotify packed in, my pace went off…it was a nightmare. But then I looked up and, on the darkest night, the moon was shining bright. A reminder of why I’m doing the run. My Mum, she’s still watching me. I carried on.

And I will continue to carry on and reach that 60k.

Another difficult run I had, where half way through I started to think “I can’t do this today”, was met half way through by the Frightened Rabbit song ‘Head Rolls Off’ playing on Spotify. The lyric, “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth” ringing through my ears. The lyric that inspired the name for the charity, Tiny Changes. Another reminder…don’t forget why you’re doing this.

Something carries on.

If you’d like to sponsor me on my 60k in November…please click here and use the donate button at the bottom of the post to donate to Papworth Hospital in memory of my Mum: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=624717261392302&id=100015621019285

Or if you’d like to donate to Tiny Changes, a charity that does great work for young people suffering with mental health problems, please donate here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/adam-is-going-running?newPage=True

Cheers for reading, thanks to anybody that has donated and thanks to those that do donate.

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If you’d like to read more of my writing, find me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AdamTownsendWriter/

Or follow me on Twitter: @Adam_Townsend

The Secret Of Sodor

1.

“You may have heard of my nickname?”

Of course I had, but the thought of sitting across from someone of such importance and saying, “Yes, you’re the Fat Controller.” felt a bit risky. Too risky. I’m here to do an interview, part of a feature on the Island of Sodor for a newspaper…I don’t want to upset him already.

“I’ve heard of it.” I reply, “But I can imagine you’re not very keen?”

“Well, lad, when you look like this, it’s the least you can expect!” He pats his stomach, laughing heartily. His pocket watch is jumping up and down as his body almost bounces with his laughing. He takes off his top hat to reveal a bald head that reflects any and all light that hits it. Looking around the office, there are numerous pictures of old steam trains on the walls as well as one on his desk; a picture of him stood next to a blue train with the number one on it. It strikes me that he is in every picture, next to every train, but there is only one picture of any other person, an older woman, sat on a chest of drawers in the corner of the room.

He leans over and stretches out his large right hand, “My name is Sir Topham Hatt, it’s a pleasure to introduce you to our island. I’m sure you’ll absolutely love it here.”

I’d heard several stories about Sir Topham; a strict task master who believed very much in the older things in life and was reluctant to change. It was easy to sense that this was true. Wearing a three piece suit with a top hat, running the island’s public transport system primarily with steam engines…he had made this little island feel like a different world. I introduced myself and explained that I would be on the island for a few days, exploring the sights and focusing on the absolutely unique aspect of Sodor; the public transport.

“What I’ll really be looking at and writing about,” I tell Topham, “is the fact that all of the vehicles on this island communicate and have characters. There’s nowhere else like it, I know that nobody has found out how the trains talk but…”

“But nobody ever will.” Sir Topham Hatt sits back in his chair and stares at me. His eyes had turned beady, his fingers were interlocked resting on his stomach. “It’s the island’s secret, my boy. Sodor needs it to stay that way.”

I don’t know how to respond. He maintains a stare on me, awaiting a response. I look at him bemused until he eventually lets out a booming laugh, his whole body shaking, the pocket watch now essentially floating in mid air.

“If people knew how they worked, everybody would do it! This way we keep tourism alive on Sodor. These trains, buses and other vehicles are what make Sodor so special. I’ll never give the secret away. I’d have to kill you if you ever found out!”

The laughter was louder than any laughter I’ve heard, but nothing funny had really been said. There was a knock on the door and Sir Topham was advised that his next appointment was waiting for him. It was a family with a young boy, Phillip, who was suffering from a serious terminal illness.

Sir Topham became suddenly very serious. “This is why I can’t tell the secret. For this boy, this dying boy, the magic of this island will give him a smile. If people knew, then the magic is gone.” Sir Topham stands up and walks to the door, holding it open for me. “Enjoy your few days. We will have to meet over a brew on Wednesday afternoon.”

No handshake, just a nod. I walked through the door and looked at the young boy, Phillip, and his parents. Phillip looked around 7 years old and was holding a green toy train with the number 68 on it. He looked excited. By contrast, his parents looked as though they had been crying. His Mother looked at me. Her eyes were completely blood shot. Sir Topham summoned them in to his office. “The number 68 train? I might have one just like that.” He picked the boy up, everybody walked in the office and I heard the door lock.

It was 1.15pm, I opted to go to the cafe on the platform for some lunch. Sitting by the window, I kept looking over at Sir Topham Hatt’s office. He was an intriguing character. One minute laughing, the next almost intimidating. I didn’t know how to take him. I also couldn’t imagine him being fun company for an ill boy. Sipping on my tea, my eyes gazed up to see the office door opening. The parents walked out, the Mother was sobbing uncontrollably. The Father put his hand on her lower back and practically forced her to run to the exit. The door closed, with no sign of Phillip leaving.

Ten minutes passed and the door opened again. This time it was Sir Topham Hatt, carrying his top hat in one hand and a briefcase in the other. As he stepped out he neatly placed his top hat on his head and then gave the briefcase to a train conductor. He closed the door and locked it, before leaving the train station.

Where was Phillip?

2.

I woke up early, it was around 6am. I hadn’t slept too well. My mind was occupied with the thoughts of the family that had been to see Sir Topham after me. The sight of this poor woman leaving the office in floods of tears, the question of where the little boy had gone…he definitely didn’t leave with his parents and he definitely didn’t leave the office with Sir Topham…it was all I could think about.

I went downstairs to the hotel restaurant and set up for breakfast. The dining area was very old fashioned, keeping in with the whole feel of the island. You could hear the whistles of the steam trains through the open window. Sat above the breakfast buffet table was a framed picture of a magnificent steam train called Gordon.

“He’s a handsome engine, isn’t he?” The hotel owner noticed me looking. Removing the empty plates from my table, the elderly lady stopped and stared at the picture. She never removed her gaze when she said, “You should visit him. He’s the fastest engine here. He’s the best engine here; my Gordon.”

The plan for today was to travel by train, going to the main scenic locations on the island taking pictures of the sights I would see. I really wanted to ask about the boy from the day before. I grabbed my notepad, camera and pen and walked out of the hotel to the train station platform. One thing with Sodor is that the train stations are a stones throw from anything in the towns on the island. I started walking towards Sir Topham’s office when I heard a voice.

“Hello! You must be the reporter!” I looked around and was taken aback to see the number one blue engine looking at me with a smile. “Hello! You’re my special today! Sir Topham Hatt has asked me to show you all the sights of Sodor!”

This was incredible. How could a train talk talk? How could a train know who I was? Was this real? I walked towards the train and stared at this huge face staring back at me.

“You don’t say much, do you? He-he!” The train blew his whistle. “My name is Thomas and I’m the number one engine. Will my picture be in the newspaper?”

Nodding, I grabbed my camera and took a picture. All the stories I’d read hadn’t prepared me. I expected the mechanics to be clunky and obvious. I expected robotic voices…but this was nothing like that. It was as if I was talking to an excitable child. It just seemed impossible that any mechanism could create a machine that had such a character and personality.

Walking towards the carriages I noticed they also had faces, they both said hello and asked about the newspaper. I nodded again, climbing aboard and finding a seat. Thomas blew his whistle, told me to “hold on” and we were off. I looked out of the window and saw Sir Topham Hatt on the platform with a young girl, certainly no older than 10, walking towards his office. He looked up and noticed me, and proceeded to give a polite wave. I saw the young girl go in to his office and watched Sir Topham follow in behind her before we turned a corner and went down a siding heading towards the next village.

3.

It was a beautiful, sunny day on the island of Sodor. Every village had areas full of picturesque beauty. The beach, although small, was a throwback to old English holidays. There were numerous children eating ice creams from cones, parents sat on sun beds reading broadsheet newspapers and novels. A blow up beach ball was bouncing along the sand. It reminded me of how my grandparents would talk about beach holidays.

“Come on!” Thomas said, “I want to take you to other places! I can go really fast, if you like? We could race Bertie when we see him!”

I took a few more pictures, and walked back towards Thomas. He was quite the engine, incredibly clean. As I began to step on to the carriage, another whistle sounded. I looked over and saw the same incredible train that I had seen in the picture earlier. It was Gordon.

Thomas whistled. “Hello Gordon! The Fat Controller gave me a special today. I am taking this reporter around the island showing him the sights of Sodor!”

“Well,” said Gordon, “He probably asked you to take him so he’d be able to take pictures. After all, I’d be far too fast for him to take pictures on and pulling the express is the most important job on the island.”

“Or maybe it’s just that I’m the number one engine and have more personality than you!” Thomas tooted his horn and let out a cheeky laugh before we started to set off again.

As we rode by, Gordon cried “Oh, the indignity!” and Thomas kept laughing. We travelled down another siding towards a tunnel – I was told this was Henry’s Tunnel, named because Sir Topham had a train named Henry bricked up in there for not following instruction – and came to a sudden stop.

“Cinders and ashes!” Thomas whistled hard and the brakes squealed. There were some cows on the tracks blocking our path. Thomas whistled to try to encourage them to move but eventually the driver stepped out instead and tried to see what he could do. I had to get this on camera. I jumped out of the carriage and walked up a small hill to get a decent shot. By the time I’d turned around, the cows had moved. I heard Thomas blow his whistle and watched him drive off without me.

My phone had no signal, so I waited by the track and waited for another train to come by. Eventually I heard a train coming and, looking down the track, saw a green engine with the number 6 on it heading my way. I waved at the train to flag it down and, thankfully, it stopped.

“This is a funny place to catch a train! We’d best not let the Fat Controller know I’m picking people up away from the platforms!” I jumped in a carriage. “I’m Percy, the mail engine. I take mail across the island. I’ve finished my jobs for the day but wanted to go to the steam works to see the new engine…would you like to come?”

I agreed to go. I figured it meant that I could get more pictures of the main Sodor attraction, it’s trains, and, maybe, find out how they made the trains have personalities, faces and character. The closer we got to the steam works, the more I noticed the sunny, blue sky begin to develop in to a smoggy, grey colour. There was a smell in the air that wasn’t usual for an area surrounded by steam engines. The smell reminded me of burning. I grew uneasy heading to the steam works, but couldn’t place why.

As we got to the Steam Works, the noise level grew as did the smell. It definitely wasn’t steam. What was it? It reminded me of something, I just wasn’t sure of what.

“Here he comes!” Percy exclaimed, and started tooting his whistle repeatedly. “Hello! Over here!”

A green and yellow train rode towards us, it had the number 68 on the side. I noticed Sir Topham Hatt was riding in the engine.

“Hello Percy.” Sir Topham acknowledged him, “I’d like to introduce you to our newest engine. This is Phillip.”

I stuck my head out of the window and looked at Phillip the train. The face had the same features as the boy from the day before. Phillip caught sight of me before Sir Topham and smiled before saying, “Hello again! It’s me, Phillip!”

I dropped my camera and stood open mouthed, before two train conductors appeared and pulled me off the carriage I was on. They dragged me towards Phillip, towards Sir Topham Hatt. His face was red and I could see a vein pulsing above his left eye.

“You shouldn’t be here. You should be with Thomas. You have caused great confusion and delay.” He looked at Percy, “You shouldn’t have picked him up. Take him back to Knapford Station and have him wait for me in my office.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” The train conductors lifted me by my arms back on to the carriage and Percy set off.

As we drove away, I heard Phillip say, “Say hello to Mummy for me and let her know I am so happy!”

4.

The two conductors threw me on the seat at Sir Topham Hatt’s desk, and stood behind me, each with one hand on one shoulder each. They had a python like grip, I couldn’t move and if I tried they held me down harder. I looked around the room for an exit. There was one stained glass window looking towards the rail track and the door, nothing else. Then I saw something haunting.

Underneath the window was a small green leather sofa with a briefcase on it. The briefcase was open and inside was what looked like clothing. I had a flashback. The clothing was exactly the same as the clothing on the little girl that entered the office earlier in the day.

The door swung open and Sir Topham Hatt stormed past, sitting opposite me. He was still red. His eyes were as small as I had seen them, and they were practically completely black. His body was shaking but this time it wasn’t through laughing. He was in a rage. He told the train conductors to leave the room. As the second walked out I heard the door lock behind him.

Sir Topham looked at the open briefcase, “So I imagine you’re asking yourself just what is going on here today, yes?”

I nodded, sweat was beginning to run down my face.

“Those clothes belong to a delightful young Scottish girl called Emily. Emily has suffered with a rare form of bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma, for some time. It wasn’t diagnosed early enough and the cancer has spread.” He points his finger at me, “And do you know what is the most incredible thing about Emily? She still wants to go on. She wants to live forever.”

The green dress lay there, neatly folded, in the briefcase. I still couldn’t understand why it was there. Sir Topham banged a green toy train on the desk so hard it made me flinch.

“Emily gave this to me, so I gave it back to her.” He pulled a picture from his jacket pocket, showing him stood next to a green steam engine. The face was identical to the girl I saw yesterday.

“This is madness…how?!”

Sir Topham opened a drawer and pulled out a photo album. He places a picture on the desk in front of me. It’s old. It’s Sir Topham, much younger but still dressed in a black suit with a top hat, and a familiar looking little boy.

“Before I came here, I practiced magic and hypnotherapy. This picture is from 36 years ago, on my first visit to the island. I was putting on a show. The boy, there? Do you recognise him?” Sir Topham glared at me. I couldn’t place who it was.

A whistle sounded. I looked at the stained glass and could make out a blue engine outside on the platform.

“That boy…that boy is my son, Thomas. He, too, suffered with an illness that he couldn’t recover from. He had leukaemia. I was losing him. So, we came here, and I created a magic that would keep my boy alive forever and give hope to more in the same position. You need not lose a loved one in that way, no child needs to die. They can be here, they can live forever. All of my engines, all of my vehicles do.”

Sir Topham put a drink in front of me and called for the two conductors to re-enter the room. They held me down as Sir Topham took the lid off the bottle in front of me. I started to scream for help but nothing came. He forced the drink in to my mouth, a conductor pulled my head back and the liquid ran down my throat. I nearly choked. Some spluttered out. I asked what it was.

“I told you. The secret can never come out. We only offer to a select few. If we begin to fear the worst, if we begin to think somebody will say something, we take action like this.”

I lost all feeling in my body. I was conscious, but I couldn’t move.

“I put the souls, the blood of those children, in to those engines. They remember everything at first but, over time, like all children do, they forget. They drink this potion, like you have, they feel no pain, like you won’t. They go to the Steam Works, we incarcerate the body. I use my magic and we put that in to the new engine. They become the life of this island.”

The conductors open a hidden door under a rug that leads to a tunnel. I try to scream again but I can’t manage it. I can feel my heart beat slowing. I muster enough strength to say, “This…is…wrong.”

Sir Topham removes his hat and crouches down next to me. “It’s a shame you won’t finish that article. I’m sure your pictures were lovely. But, the magic of Sodor isn’t the engines, the magic is me. The miracle of Sodor are the engines. God give life, God take life away. On the Island of Sodor, I am God.”

The conductors pick me up and carry me in to the underground tunnel.

I lose consciousness.

5.

It was a beautiful, sunny day on the Island of Sodor. Thomas was on his branch line carrying passengers, Gordon was steaming past pulling the express and Percy was delivering the mail on time.

At Knapford Station, a new engine called Emily pulled in and blew her whistle, excited to complete her special for the day. Sir Topham Hatt had assigned her the job of transporting some unwanted goods from the Steam Works to the docks, so Cranky the crane could lift them on to a boat and have them taken far away from the island.

The trains were happy, the passengers were happy, and Sir Topham Hatt was happy that his railway was running smoothly once again.

The End.

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.

Tool 5

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.

Tool 6

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.

Tool 3

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

saido 1

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.”

phillips play off

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.

phillips qpr

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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