Written August 2009
As it’s Builders’ Holidays in Ireland at the moment (a nationally-recognised breather for those in the construction industry; that should give you some clue as to how ingrained in the Irish psyche is the practise of throwing together the odd stone wall), I am languishing in Galway, my home county, my calling, my cross. And as it happens it's the start of Galway Race Week, so my fellow Galwegians are getting riled and rambunctious; all around me is evidence of that great Irish pastime – fecking good money after bad.
Galway Race Week attracts people with little or no interest in horses, you see, and encourages those of us who don't know odds from ends to put an annual flutter on the gee-gee with the prettiest name. But the beginnings of the Race Week festival isn't the most evocative reminder of our betting heritage for me right now. No. All around me, in my mam's house, are reminders of my first love, a love killed by careless wagers and gambler's scorn. My mam might have redecorated since I moved out of home all those years ago, but she couldn't be rid of every token; not every stain from that heady time could be smoothed over with Polyfilla or a lick of High-Gloss over the Sellotape stains on the doors …
Oh, Jesus! Manchester United is everywhere in this gaff! Everywhere!
It's an obsession long since cured, but I’m not ashamed to say that as a kid, I was crazy about the Red Devils. As the old song goes, I was at their merchandising mercy; I had every single jersey. I still sleep in my 94-95 shirt and black Umbro shorts, which is just as sexy as it sounds. Giggsy hairspray, Roy Keane deodorant for when you lost the rag, high-kicking spring-action Cantonas on the windowsill – my bedroom was sports nerd heaven, and when I visit my mam's gaff now, there's always a little something from that time sticking out from a cobwebbed corner – a Man. U clock that hasn't had working batteries since 1996, or a wee picture of Brian McClair.
So what, outside of David Beckham, went wrong?
I was an anomaly, a Man. U fan in a house full of West Ham hooligans, male relatives indoctrinated by emigration and foreign building sites. Nearest Brother, the hammiest of the family Hammers, was as scornful as brothers could be under the terms of the Geneva Convention, but I held fast, dead chewing gum to the underside of the family carpentry. I was an individual, in so far as you can call a Man. Utd fan an individual. Nearest Brother imagined this as more a fleeting illness than a lifestyle choice, and as an Irishman, it was his duty to undermine me in a manner more befitting of Bertie Ahern than Machiavelli. He tried to bet me out of it.
‘You'll have forgotten this whole messy business,’ he predicted, smugly, ‘by the end of the season. I shall wager fifty pounds!’
Wagered, and lost. Ignoring my outstretched hand, he chanced again.
‘Double or nothing,’ he said. ‘Man. Utd will fail their bid for the Double-Double, and you'll be up the arse of Blackburn Rovers faster than Biddy Byrne up the arse of the Lever Brothers.’
Failed again. I held fast – stubbornly clinging to Alex Ferguson's army like my life depended on it. A hundred pounds was a lot of money to a fifteen-year-old; there was an awful lot of Man. U mugs I could buy with that, and still have change for a Stone Roses album. Besides, I was in love. There's a rush you can get from the Premiership that you simply won't from watching Galway Utd trundle over a field someone just hunted the cows off.
Nearest Brother is still a great believer of putting your money, like your pint of Harp, where your mouth is. But a hundred pounds is a hundred pounds, and morals won't keep you scuttered during Galway Race Week. To this day he hasn't paid up.
And that's not very sportsmanlike, is it? What was the point in giving your heart, soul, and pocket-money to an endeavour characterised by louts like Nearest Brother, who'd belittle your optimism and put you down as a glory hunter even with evidence of your morals? One hundred pounds was a lot of money to me, a good twenty weeks of babysitting jobs and avoiding Supermacs coffees after school. I had put it up as evidence of my devotion to the cause, and my efforts were laughed at by those closest to me (in the next bedroom). Choking back tears, I started putting away my posters, my magazines, my Limited Edition Paul Ince (the bloody traitor) trading cards with the sparkly edges. Football died for me the day Nearest Brother missed his mouth with his money. The dream was over.
Besides, I'd discovered dance music, and the thrills tacked on to that were a lot bigger. Who needs Alex Ferguson when you've got Vicks VapoRub?