For any football fan, the words “it’s only a game” are among the most frustrating and belittling you can hear when your side has just lost.
My girlfriend, Jayne, is typically culpable for this. I fell victim to her comment as Sam Clucas put Swansea 3-1 up against Arsenal and I was put in a foul mood for the rest of our night out.
We were on a trip back to her hometown of Liverpool for her grandfather’s funeral. Bernie Watkinson was a father of five, a loving husband and a lifelong Evertonian.
I had never met Bernie, but I had heard stories of his devotion to the Toffees stretching throughout his life, right up until his final days.
The day before he died, he was talking to his grandson, Michael, about Everton’s chances at Wembley as they played Tottenham Hotspur. Big Sam’s men were without a win in five.
“I’m glad he wasn’t here to see it,” Michael said at the wake, as Spurs swept Everton aside with a crushing 4-0 win.
The quiet coach we sat in on the train up to Liverpool Lime Street seemed particularly apt considering what awaited us over the next few days.
The air conditioning was bitterly cold, much like the Irish Sea winds that batter the city, and the lack of voices foreshadowed the eerie silence that hung inside Bernie’s wife’s living room before the funeral cars arrived on Monday morning.
However, what set the precedent for the coming days wasn’t the cold or the quiet, it was watching what I could of the FA Cup tie between Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion on my phone.
Liverpool’s chaotic 3-2 defeat, which saw two uses of the new VAR system, and also the Reds’ first home defeat in 19 games, seemed almost like a gift to a grieving Evertonian family.
‘The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon’
I met Jayne’s grandmother, and all of her aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time on Sunday afternoon, in the same room that we would all reconvene in again the day after for the funeral. Hardly the best circumstances to meet an entire extended family.
You could sense the expectation for tomorrow; as though the emotion of what was to follow was already in the room just waiting to come out.
Despite the lingering sadness, the television shone a bright green as Manchester City played Cardiff, also in the Cup. City’s sharp baby blue cut through a room made grey by the cloudy weather, and what amazed me the most was that it wasn’t just ‘on’.
Everyone was watching it, and all had an opinion on it, whether it was the ridiculousness of the Noisy Neighbours’ Middle Eastern funding, or the selective use of VAR.
Most prominent in conversation was Liverpool’s defeat the day before, with one member of the family getting an absolute battering from everyone else, being the sole Liverpool supporter.
The conversations that took place were a true testament to football’s ability to give everyone an escape on a sad Sunday afternoon.
It was incredible to see how football became a safe haven for 15 or so distraught family members, and it was a big two fingers to the people who say it doesn’t matter.
The following morning, the tears that held back on Sunday began to fall and football’s safe haven shifted in to being an avenue of remembrance.
The flowers, carried through the rain to the cars, were blue and white and would later lie around the Dixie Dean statue outside Goodison Park. Small touches throughout the day reflected Everton’s stature in Bernie’s life.
Anywhere but Anfield
Bernie’s wife, Bettie, was adamant that the trip to the crematorium mustn’t pass Anfield, though she organised that the cars would drive around Goodison Park before moving on.
To close the service, the celebrant finished with the words “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum”, the club motto. Balloons were released to the theme of the TV series Z-Cars, the same music that the players walk out to before each home game.
Despite the Evertonian focus, and Bettie’s desire to stay away from Anfield, avoiding Liverpool FC would always be a hard task. The crematorium’s main gate faced onto Stanley Park. Jutting out over the horizon stood Anfield’s Main Stand and Anfield Road Stand, imposing itself over the surrounding area.
Liverpool’s illustrious and, in 1989, tragic history as a football club means that they are the most renowned club in the north west. Everton remain firmly in the shadow of their neighbours.
Anfield being in the backdrop to his funeral service seemed to represent the club being in the backdrop to Bernie’s life as an Everton supporter; never in full focus, but too hard to ignore.
After the wake, where alcohol became the family’s ‘safe haven’, I thought that my time soaking up the Evertonian lifestyle had come to an end. However, Jayne’s father Chris mentioned that he could get tickets for Everton’s game against Leicester City on Wednesday night.
One last win for Bernie
I had to go, not only as a football supporter, but as a way to pay my own respects to Bernie. Despite never meeting him, he shared my passion for the sport.
Before going through the turnstiles that I had passed just two days before on the way to the crematorium, we went to the Dixie Dean statue. Bernie’s flowers were sat to Dixie Dean’s left, resting alongside the flowers of other late Evertonians. Chris took a picture for the rest of the family to see, and then we made the walk around the ground to the Bullens Road Stand.
Our tickets were in the Lower Bullens, tucked away at the back, shielded from the dreadful wind and rain that lashed down on those in the Paddock Stand in front of us.
‘Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game” ‘
The seats were fitted after the 1990 Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster demanded all-seater stadia. They were close together and wooden. Supporting beams holding up the Upper Bullens Stand stood in front of us, blocking small strips of the pitch. Fortunately, the blocked parts of the pitch weren’t in front of the goals.
Everton’s form, without a win since beating Swansea 3-1 in mid-December, meant that Sam Allardyce’s promising start seemed to be fading and the pressure was starting to mount on the former England manager.
Despite a nervous start, Big Sam’s side took the lead though January signing Theo Walcott, who would score again 15 minutes later, providing a man-of-the-match performance in his second game for his new club.
The return of Seamus Coleman for the first time in 10 months would have felt like a new signing for Allardyce, with Everton having struggled for much of the season without their two most experienced full-backs, Coleman and Leighton Baines.
The victory helped to end my four days on Merseyside on a lighter note. A victory with Bernie’s flowers still outside the ground is the send-off any football fan would want after they’ve gone.
On top of that, with Walcott being an ex-Gunner, it felt like I did my bit to help his club kick on from what had been a disappointing Christmas period.
After spending time in a city that has given so much more than just money to the game of football, and with a family that had been immersed in it for so long, it was gratifying to see just how revered it still is in people’s lives.
Football’s ability to make people forget, remember and feel elation or dejection in a heartbeat, proves that it is more than “just a game”.