Football can do dangerous things to a man. But perhaps the most common trait is the outright stupidity that this beautiful game can make a man see, spout and shout. Whether your vision is tainted by a prestigious history that is failing to repeat itself, through a lack of knowledge in football, or just your love for your boyhood club, delusion is at the heart of every football fan. And regardless of whether you visit lowly Hereford FC at the weekend or have the joy of watching the Catalan giants, Barcelona, there are aspects of delusion, that as fans, we simply can’t hide.
Looking back, I’m sure we can all remember the first time we fell in love with a footballer. As a Southampton fan from birth, I had the joy of experiencing near and actual relegations and financial conundrums from the age of eight – about the age that you truly begin to fall for your club. So, naturally, just like any other child would at that age, to a backdrop of other fans screaming from the terrace with faces apparently broadcasting the dreadful time they were having, I took an unorthodox approach in selecting my favourite player… whoever looked the coolest. Tragic, I know.
That player just so happened to be Rudi Skacel, and for that bizarre reason (combined with his fashionable arm tape and suave and alluring foreign name) he became my favourite player.
In my eyes, he couldn’t put a foot wrong. So much so, that when he would strike a ball 30 yards high of the goal, I would fervently seek any reason that could steer the blame from my beloved Rudi.
“The sun was in his eyes, I’m sure of it”
“He got crunched five minutes ago, that was the injury there!”
Dear god, I would even go as far to suggest that he must be wearing some new hair product, causing the gel to drop into his eye and place him off balance.
But perhaps the most enduring memory I hold of my unequivocal love for Skacel, was one that broke my heart and revealed the delusion right before my eyes.
My Father had always been opinionated in football, and in truth, as much as I hate to admit it – and he will love reading this – he’s rather intelligent when it comes to football. Even at such a young age, I worshiped his opinions. So, like a little Gary Neville, I saw my classroom as the Monday Night Football studio and repeated every last rant about the weekend’s fixtures, that my Dad had passed comment on.
But there was one topic that as a genuine Dad, he dared never touch upon. Rudi Skacel.
I would always ask him for his view on the man, but for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why he would quickly shift the conversation. I would excitedly point out any little trick that Skacel would pull off, only to be met by silence by my Dad.
Was I the only one watching and appreciating this clear talent before me? Well, as it turned out, yes. Yes, I was.
In one of the final games that Skacel was to ever play for Southampton, I remember a free-kick being awarded just 25 yards out from goal.
“Perfect Skacel territory,” I told myself.
But as he wrapped his left boot around the ball, the strike was met by a shout that would see me tear down my poster of the Czech playmaker later that night.
“Go back to Scotland to that tin shed that they call a football ground, you f*cking waste of space”
After two years of frustration, my Dad let it out. It was in that moment that my first love in football came crashing down.