Like most Evertonians, I can remember exactly where it was I watched the 2009 FA Cup final against Chelsea.
Unlike the thousands who walked down ‘Wembley Way’ or those who saw the game in the comfort of their own home, I watched the match with my father sat by his hospital bed.
Like countless other children in Great Britain my parents divorced when I was very young. Throughout the week I’d live with my mother and sister, then spend the weekends visiting my father. At a time and age where I found it difficult to relate to and communicate with my dad we were always able to talk about football and our shared love for all things Everton. No matter what else was going on in our respective lives we would immediately break in to discussions about players, referees and transfer targets from the minute I arrived at his house until just before leaving.
I can vividly remember the first football match my dad took me to see. It was May 1996 and Everton were facing Aston Villa at Goodison Park on the final game of the Premier League season. To this day I still get goosebumps thinking about that walk across Stanley Park and around the ‘Old Lady of Football’ for the very first time. I can still recall the sense of anticipation I felt as well as the smell of beer, cigarettes and fried onions that wafted down the Bullens Road as we queued to get inside the ground that hot Sunday afternoon.
I can actually remember very little about the game itself except for the hairs on the back of my neck standing up when I heard Z-Cars and Joe Parkinson scoring the winner mid-way through the second half. When the ball hit the back of the net I found myself hugging my dad with uncontrollable delight. It was hopeless, from that day on I was hooked on all things Everton.
In early 2009 my dad found out he had a brain tumour. To say we were all shocked by the news would be a drastic understatement. I think most people look up to their parents and admire what they have achieved in their lives and what sacrifices they have made for their children. I am no exception. I’d always regarded my father as a ‘superhero’ figure whom I could turn to if I was desperate and he would be able to help me out. The day he told me he would have to undergo life-threatening surgery as soon as possible I understood that just like anyone else he was human, scared for what the future may hold and what the consequences of such a procedure may be.
The day of the actual operation was somewhat of a blur to me. I remember little other than checking my phone every few seconds for news. Luckily the operation was a relative success. However, a few days later we heard the news that my father had contracted a ‘super bug’ and the situation had become critical due to his very weak immune system following the operation. All the fears and worries we had endured over the past few weeks suddenly came flooding back with the news. Luckily for my dad he was in the best care possible and slowly began to make a recovery.
Due to the nature of his illness, my father was kept in virtual isolation from the outside world so as not to risk him any infection that would weaken his state further. Thankfully, by Cup Final day the doctors deemed him well enough for me to visit. I did not quite know what to expect when I raced to the hospital that hot Saturday afternoon. I kept telling myself not to make a big deal over what I may see in front of me. When I entered the ward and finally saw my father all the fears and anxieties that had been racing through my head vanished in to thin air and were replaced by a sense of utter relief and jubilation.
I entered the room just as ‘Abide with me’ was being played at Wembley. As the notes bellowed out accompanied by thousands of Evertonians in fine voice, our eyes met and we were both able to see each other smiling. As the song crescendoed on the TV I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders.
Although Everton lost the cup final that day I still felt like a winner. As I walked away from the hospital I couldn’t help but laugh. I’d seen Everton play valiantly all season and come the closest to winning silverware in over a decade before falling just short at the final hurdle. Yet none of that seemed to matter. Just being able to sit with my dad and watch football again felt like the biggest victory I could ever wish for.
I smiled to myself as I thought about the future and the rollercoaster of emotions supporting Everton would throw at me over the coming seasons, but just knowing I’d face them all with my dad made me happy. For that day I had never been prouder to be an Evertonian, for everything the People’s Club stood for and how it has defined mine and my father’s relationship for as long as I care to remember.
The road to recovery would be long and hard but we would face it together and with Everton firmly in our hearts. For as Alan Ball famously said, “Once Everton has touched you, nothing will ever be the same”.