Gales, lulls, tears and texts

This is a rookie’s guide to grief.

I’m 53 and I’ve been able to side step the death of close family and friends until now. My parents left family and friends in Scotland and emigrated to Canada just before I was a year old. I’ve had grandparents and uncles pass away but the distance and lack of contact did not hit me as I’ve seen grief hit other people. I saw it once, 15 years ago, when my mother in law died, suddenly, and my partner Lyanne was battered for years really by the loss. I supported her through the acute rawness and the sudden flashbacks that broke her down out of the blue. I saw it and I helped but I didn’t fully understand it. I’m now shocked at how completely naive I was at what the body and mind go through when experiencing profound loss.

Picture a tent on a windy bluff. An older tent that has seen better days but is still relied on for shelter when the need arises. Its simple design held up by a pole and held down by pegs. Pegs and poles against the wind.

So my parents left Scotland, with me, and started a life in Vancouver, unsure of how long they would stay. My two sisters were born here in the years after. They set down roots, raised a family, became part of the community and saw what a great life this city and country was providing for them and their kids. Moving back was not an option despite how much they missed people they’d left behind. My parents made sacrifices that I’m not sure I’d have the selflessness to make so that I, and my sisters, could have a fantastic life that has been full of experience and opportunity.

And then I got a text from my brother in law last Friday night. Please call me. My mom had had a stroke.

Through hopefulness and confusion we convinced ourselves it was not serious. She had been conscious when she got in the ambulance. It seemed to have been noticed quickly by my dad and paramedics arrived within ten minutes of the call.

Lyanne and I drove to Royal Columbian Hospital after telling our youngest, 17, what had happened but it looked like she would be okay. We told him to stay home. Our eldest, Cole, took a cab from Vancouver when we called him. Our daughter was at work and we chose not to contact her there.

We were led to a functional but private ‘family room’ adjacent to the trauma centre within their Emergency room where a neurologist calmly told us what we didn’t want to hear. A burst blood vessel, extensive bleeding (I tense and my vision seems to go hazy), inoperable, on life support (I am silent, almost motionless). Coma, very little likelihood of brain activity looking at the CT scan (I’m all but checked out mentally, paralyzed, but can hear my dad and Lyanne crying).

Wind will rag doll that tent in short order if it’s not put together well. You don’t know when the wind will come but it will. You need to assemble and stabilize the tent. It needs durable support. That tent has to last a fair bit longer. But there’s no point in taking short cuts and hoping that a couple pegs will do or that you’ve sunk them deep enough in the ground. You don’t know how ferocious the wind will be or how long it will last. This work needs to start soon but will encompass many considerations some of which will not reveal themselves right away.

I am withdrawing into numbness. We have agreed that mom had made it clear she did not want to be kept on life support when there was no prospect for recovery. We agree to have her breathing tube taken out once my sister arrives. We are told that it’s impossible to tell how long stroke victims last after this happens. It could be minutes, hours or days.

Lyanne, in tears, sees me drifting, unfocused. She holds me by the shoulders, like you would a child, so we are face to face. “Hey.” She snaps me to attention. “Hey”, through the tears, “Your mom is going to die tonight. You need to be here and…” the rest is lost to me. Because with those first words, I am pulled out of catatonia. I had an almost violent, spontaneous heaving in my chest.  Then another and another. The shock of those words. Almost like a defibrillator had been applied. My mouth opened and it must have looked like I was going to vomit. That was not what was happening though. What has happening was that I was now experiencing the first waves of grief. It was the first gale and I didn’t even have a clue that I was a tent on a bluff.

Back to my wake up call from Lyanne. I had to…do what? Comfort others? Talk to doctors? Make sure my mom was treated well? My brother in law asks if he should leave and get my youngest sister. They had also thought it wasn’t too serious and she chose to stay home with their kids. I quickly says yes. I’m the eldest of three with two younger sisters; one estranged from the rest of us for the past seven years. Many first born sons grow up with a certain mentality. You grow up with high parent expectations that can push you into leadership roles that are embraced in varying degrees. As a result, I have inherently sought to control situations, conversations and environments for better or worse.

I compose myself. I ask to see my mom. I ask to see her scan with the neurologist. My dad sees it too. I ask when my sister is arriving. I tell the rest of my family I’m going to contact the estranged sister (who lives 30 minutes away from the hospital). I do and get no reply to text or voice mail but she would contact me in the morning and visit mom soon after. I convulse between being functional and supportive to nothing of the sort. They wheel my mom in on a bed with the breathing tubes in still. I hold her hand and kiss her face. I can’t type this without tears coming. Again. We are waiting for my sister before they come out.

My tears come and go with equal speed. Most don’t last more than ten seconds. There is no logic to what phrase or look from someone else will set them off over the next week or two. I am over the embarrassment of this quicker than I thought I would be. I will easily cry more in the next week than the rest of my adult life combined.

My sister arrives in the trauma centre, through the doors, being held up by my brother in law. She arrives with tears as her wake. It’s cinematic and jarring. Her hard, self-protective shell has been smashed into a million pieces and she is entirely undone and unencumbered by modesty. This is loud, messy and heavy on hearts that were already leaden.

Lyanne is the pole for my tent. She is going to keep me upright as we go through this. I have never had a problem telling her how much I love her, how beautiful she is, etc. I have never once said to her, “I need you.”

You can’t get past grief if you don’t recognize all its components and welcome them to be part of getting through and over this. You can’t just remember all the good times and kind words. You need to accept the difficult phases of the relationship, the occasional harshness, the things you wish you’d said and done and not, the random interventions. And not just yours, you need to acknowledge the grief of those around you and see how that shapes and provides an apparatus for all of you to climb out of the mess, the confusion, the anger; the climb to acceptance, reconciliation, celebration and peace. Remember the jaggedness of the first knowledge of the death. Remember how you lost control of your body. How it told your brain how to react instead of the other way around. The way it had always been.

All that I needed and gratefully took and all that I was able to give that was received with warmth. Every time I was shaken or weakened, every time I was there for someone else with comfort. Every time I was numb and oblivious to what was going on and what those around needed. These shaped the experience. It takes wide arms and an open mind to realize that to get you through the loss of a loved one you have to embrace the obvious, the shocking, the embarrassing, the physically painful, the mentally exhausting. Acknowledge what you desperately now wish you’d said and done before all this. Feel the shame of your regrets bruise your thoughts and ego. Have that sternly inform a desire to not let it happen again.

You have to know all of this and more play a role in creating your version of grief and then you have to sit at the table with all of this, all the easy guests and the difficult ones. You have to accept the hand you’ve been dealt. This complex, upsetting hand in a game you didn’t ever want to play and you have to sit with it all and find closure. Accept what it’s done to you, what you didn’t allow it to do, see yourself for your strengths and flaws when this moment came.

That’s my version when I’m rational.

At times it feels more like randomly piling fuel for a bonfire higher and higher before setting it alight and glazing over, numb and fatigued, as it burns to the ground. I’m hoping for the former and preparing for the latter because I’ve had the false starts thinking I’m good, that I’ve dealt with it emotionally only to feel foolish hours later when I see I’m clearly not there yet. In all likelihood it’s almost certainly an oil and water mix that will co-exist uneasily battling for hegemony.

My pegs could not be anticipated. Some are new, some are old and have been through this before. Arrayed though they are a unique set built from context. Solid and functional. They will do their job and never be united in action again.

Build your grief tent. Know people are good and give you time and understanding as you build it. Know it will be tested by gales and know there will be lulls that will help you build or re-build it or just allow you to take a few deep breaths in the calm. You’re going to feel that wind though. You don’t get that choice. Be prepared for it to move you about. It’s a success every time you are left standing. Keep making your tent stronger during the lulls. Don’t worry about people seeing you struggle to do this. More will help when they see the effort involved. Help is a text. Help is a meal dropped off, your favourite beer left at the back door for you. Help is the palliative care doctors who sit with you while you are at the hospital and patiently and empathetically answer your stupid, repetitive questions. Help is people who know to say something to you but not have the expectation of coherent reply. Help is tears.

When it was all over and mom had passed, I posted three tweets that included two pictures of her with me when I was around 3 years old. It had been a confusing week with some thinking she had already passed away but putting updates out seemed clinical and just wasn’t a priority. It was over now so I  tweeted it. The response was a compassion not typically associated with Twitter. I heard from friends, people I work with, acquaintances and people I barely know. People replied with condolences, stories and comfort. Even people who I have had disputes with took the time to send a message. I think and hope that I have replied to all of them in some form. They helped. All of them.

Grief slaps your cynicism. It kicks the shit out of your holier-than-thou arrogance about the validity of online social interactions. I hope that my feelings on this aren’t temporary. I hope grief has made me bend more towards kindness in all its forms.

So these are my pegs. These are the elements that helped me realize how serious this was, that forced me to blend the memories, darkness, light, sorrow, humour, community, tension, exhaustion and despair into 80 proof grief, drink it and deal with the highs (not too many really) and lows of an intoxicating bender.

My pegs are the good, the bad, the traumatic and the therapeutic that framed the experience and held my tent in place as strong winds tried to uproot it and send it tumbling, defeated into darkness and uselessness.

But first my pole.

The intimacy and intuition with and of my wife. I’ve told her many, many times that I love her and how beautiful she is but in 28 years, as I said, I had never said the words “I need you.” to Lyanne. That changed the day after mom’s stroke. I needed her and there wasn’t a second I felt unsupported through this.  I had a couple of pretty bad days, one where I was an utter, shameful asshole and she never left my side. Never lost her cool. Never marched out in frustration. She is the tent pole that gave me structure, that kept me upright and able to continue going to the hospital to see my mom and try to support my dad. It’s not a tent without a pole as much as the pegs are trying to make it one.

The pegs are many and varied and most bare no relation to each other but they will all stick with me and I’m grateful I experienced each of them.

Listed randomly as that seems most appropriate.

Coming into her hospital room for a visit to find Cole, my eldest, already there, holding her hand with Beatles songs streaming from his phone for her to listen to. 

The vulnerability of my dad. Losing his wife of 54 years. The ups and downs of those eight days between the stroke and the last breath were hard on us all but mostly on him.

I’ve been cold to the idea that texts can be consoling. That birthdays should be acknowledged on Facebook. I’ve rarely participated in what I see as trite offerings that seemed to be an exercise in box ticking. I don’t feel that way anymore. As word leaked out about my mom’s stroke, texts started coming in. Twitter DM’s. Emails. It was pure warmth that helped with the chill. They were valued pegs, mainly unaware of each other but had exponential strength.

A bumper sticker, seen for the first time on my way to the hospital one day brought a rare smile, “Seniors against mortality!”

Seeing my mom’s dead body. I had been there the morning she died but then left with Cole. We got some lunch and then headed home. My dad texted when we were still en route home that she had passed away. The first word of this arrived by text eight days earlier and the definitive one did as well. We went back to the hospital. The image of her corpse will never go away but gales have to be acknowledged.

Waiting too long to invite my parents up to our cabin on Hornby Island again. Mom loved it there. I had ferry reservations for us all to go up this past Thanksgiving long weekend. Too late.

Staying through the night at the hospital the first evening after the stroke with my dad. Having the expectation, from conversations with Emergency room nurses, that most people in this condition lasted a matter of hours.

Leaving the hospital around 7am that Saturday morning so I could be home to tell Carlisle and Tavish my two younger kids, 24 and 17 respectively, what had happened when they woke up. Tavish had been given an overly optimistic version when we left to go to the hospital. Carlisle had been working and came home very late so she knew nothing. I had rehearsed what I would say to her. Then she walked in the room and saw me. I looked at her. No words came out. “What? WHAT!?” “Grandma…” Sobs. An explanation that conveyed no consolation, devolved to mumbles and ended in a long, tearful hug. Tavish had been woken by this. He now knew Grandma was not going to survive this. I hope there are not many more things I have to tell my kids that are as upsetting as this was.

The days of seeing mom breath steadily with no other sign of life. It was disconcerting knowing that at some point this would quite quickly end, as it did.

Cole had introduced me to Angel Olsen a few years back. Her new album came out the day mom had her stroke. In the afternoon I texted him after listening to Lark from that album, blown away by it. He’d already heard it. It’s song about a different kind of grief and loss but its spiralling, orchestral beauty became the soundtrack for the week between the stroke and her passing. We’re going to see her show here in December.

A hospital staff member poking her head in the room and matter of factly saying, “We’ve been asked to move her to the End of Life room on the sixth floor in about an hour.” Your chest just physically recoils. Your ribs seem to tighten around your lungs.

Our family dinner the night she passed away. All five of us there, something that becomes rarer as your kids get older and become young adults. Stories, funny toasts, tears, dark humour – all tension breakers that engender a feeling of support.

 ***

Within hours of her passing, what must have been a layer of physical numbness lifts and is replaced, both for Lyanne and myself, of physical pains. It seemed that every knock, injury and ailment from the past many years had just decided to drop by for a visit. It was so strange. Upper back pain I hadn’t felt for over three years. A forearm I’d hurt moving a heavy piece of furniture two years ago… It seemed to be another manifestation of the physicality of grief. Some only lasted a day or two, others longer.

It’s just over two weeks since mom died now. It doesn’t feel like two weeks but that’s another incursion grief makes. I am innately, boringly time-sensitive and time-aware. I iCal almost everything that is and could happen. That all went out the window as all sense of time left me for awhile. It’s coming back now. Everything is and will come back to a slightly greyer reality. The departed don’t want us to remain in grief, maudlin and removed from everyday life. They want our tents to work as much as need them to work. Mine worked. Memories battered it, Lyanne kept it upright. Regrets riddled it, texts and conversations held it in place. 

I’m looking forward to honouring my mom’s wishes (she wrote me a letter a few years ago about what she wanted when she died) and I’m looking forward to taking an upsetting experience and shifting the focus to the kindness and helpfulness of those around me and using it to make me a better person; make me kinder. And so I think the best way to end this is to quote a line I wrote for her obituary, “In lieu of flowers, please reach out to someone with a kind word.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How kids really benefit from soccer

I have three kids; 27, 24 and 17. Eldest and youngest boys, daughter in the middle. They all played through to U18 with my youngest just entering his U18 this season. I coached the eldest until U13 and the youngest two from U6 all the way through. Which means after this my kids are all done so my inclination towards nostalgia is increasingly being heightened.

They have all pulled different things from being on their teams but many of them are common and I see personality traits that are borne of success, failure, frustration, determination and joy that were at least partially crafted on soccer fields in each of them.

Soccer is a compressed version of the many human interactions we confront regularly in society. It’s physical. It’s mental. It forces you to be aware, to make decisions and act on them. The range of emotions and experiences you can work through in a game could take a month to materialize in life off the pitch. And you don’t do it on your own or with just a partner. You do with ten others and are confronted be eleven in different jerseys who oppose you. So it’s co-operative and confrontational all in the space of one or two training sessions and a game per week for the most part.

Factor in that we have kids playing it as they experience the world at large and as their brains are growing. Some play it casually and don’t engage to the degree where the lessons are imprinted as fiercely. But some do and the legacy of their participation in the sport can and should be a series of formative experiences that  if managed well by those around them (teammates, coaches, parents primarily) make them, and I’m certain of this,  better, more resilient, more social, more empathetic, more aware and more focused, determined and successful people in whatever they pursue off the ball. Or as my good friend Colin Elmes from TSS Academy says, more succinctly, “Our main role is building better citizens through the vehicle of sport.”

Here to me are some of the things every youth player, ideally, should experience in youth soccer. They all contribute to the goal of making well rounded adolescents and eventually adults.

  • Have a coach that makes you want to come to training, makes you want to get better and be excited to play
  • See your parents being supportive on the sidelines and enjoying watching you play
  • Score a goal. Not a tap in but a goal that makes you realize you are improving as a player and can do something special and important in a game; that you have contributed positively to a team effort and are appreciated for it
  • You should play with kids who are different than you. Who have one parent, two parents, grandparents. Two moms, two dads. Who get to practice in expensive new cars, who get to practice by bus or bike. Who are a different colour than you, speak a different language, have been here a long time or just got here. Play with boys and play with girls. Play with kids who are quieter than you, louder than you, who learn differently than you, who need more help, less help. See how different people are and then realize how similar they are. (That almost got a bit Dr Seuss-ish there…)
  • Join a team where you don’t already have a core of friends so you have to negotiate the terrain, learn about people, gain their trust and in the end make new friends or at least be an accepted member of a group. Broaden your network.
  • Get cut from a team. One you really wanted to make and use the experience to become resilient and want to do better so you don’t experience that again
  • Welcome a new player to your team and make them feel comfortable. Be a leader and set that example of inclusiveness.
  • Win a competition. A tournament or better yet a league or a Cup. Experience shared work and commitment that results in shared success.
  • Lose a competition. One that makes you feel gutted. Learn not everything is given to you just because you want it. Success is earned and not automatic. Share that experience with teammates who feel the same and remember it.
  • Get out there in your shorts and jersey on a freezing cold, wet day and play. Claim dominion over the elements and earn your post-game hot chocolate and laugh about how cold it was.
  • Tackle someone much bigger and stronger than you. Hard. Learn that you are not made of glass and you will be more successful than you think with this approach.
  • Get a knock and play through it. There is a difference between a knock and an injury. Knocks can hurt more than an injury but they are temporary. Just pain. They don’t inhibit your ability to play after a few minutes and there is no physical risk to playing through them. To teach players, and in fairness it’s still more an issue with girls for parents, coaches and refs, that they don’t have to come off because they got a knock is important. It just encodes a frailty that is unnecessary and limiting. If it’s a knock, run it off and know you are not broken that easily.
  • Get blown out and remember how it feels so that when you beat someone 8-0 in the future you don’t act like a self-absorbed knob.
  • If you’re going to take a red card, take one for the sake of the team not a selfish one. Could be to stop a goal, could be to put someone in their place that well and truly deserves it. Time and place of course and don’t make a habit of it…
  • Get to the point where you see training as a valuable opportunity being offered to you and not a necessary evil to attend so you get playing time on the weekend
  • Overcome pre-game nerves. This is a big one. Don’t hide on the field, don’t feign injury or sickness. Get on the field in games where you are over-matched and force an opponent to play as well as they can to beat you. Be exhausted at the end of these games.
  • Score a brutal own goal and put it behind you within a minute. Don’t sulk. Clean up your own mess and make up for it the rest of the game. Experience forgiveness from your teammates after the game and appreciate it
  • Go to a tournament and stay in a hotel and have the time to get to know your teammates away from training and games. Be goofs, annoy the hotel staff and other guests (within reason) and come back knowing some of your teammates on a different level and having some stories
  • Recognize that learning can be fun. Sometimes it’s difficult and frustrating but mastery is empowering and the realization that you can master a task or skill is valuable on and off the field
  • Learn it’s okay to argue with teammates during a game as long as you resolve it by the next practice or even better before post-game
  • Experience leaving games feeling embarrassed, regretful, joyful, satisified, bitter, vindicated. Ask yourself why you feel that way and fix the reasons for the negative emotions and double dip on the positive ones at future training sessions and games.
  • And when you’re finished your U18 season, feel like the game has been good to you and you would like to continue playing and look for opportunities to give back to the game

 

A few things should clearly stand out about this list. The first is that none have anything to do with learning particular technical skills. It’s not about learning how to shoot hard or pull off rabonas. The main benefit of the experience of playing youth soccer over the course of many years is it heightens the pace of exposure to situations you will face in life and gives you the opportunity to learn how to process them and deal with them in a confident, mature way while you’re young.

Secondly, none of these, aside from the youngest ages being exempt from things like Cup competition etc, are a function of age or, more importantly the level you play at. You can experience all of these things playing at any and all levels of youth soccer.

Enjoy the season everyone.

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Planes, Trains and Tickets – 9 days seeing games in Europe

The jet lag is gone now and so, for the most part, is the Tube cough that I picked up from the not so great air in the London Underground. It was a fast-paced, hectic, often tense ‘holiday.’ Nine days in England and Spain with my 16 year old son to see games. It’s becoming what we do but this one was pretty ambitious. I timed it so we could potentially see all four Champions League semi-finals with the potential to fill in many days with league games. We were never realistically going to see all four semi-final games but we didn’t know which, if any, we would see as we got onto the plane. That was the twist. Every other soccer trip I’ve done, I’ve left with tickets in hand for all the games we planned on seeing.

Chronologically, here’s how it went…

April 29 – Vancouver

This day actually began the night before when I tried to check in for our flight and got a strange message saying I couldn’t and would have to do so at the airport. I started wondering why that would be the case. I knew  my passport was fine and I knew my son’s expired in June but had checked and the UK allowed entry as long as you had 30 days left on it after your planned return home. I looked further. Spain did not have the same rule. You needed three months. Shhhiiiittt.

Up early and off to the passport office. “It would really be up to the airline and immigration agent to let you onto the flight or into the country when you land. Can’t guarantee it but we have the ability to do a passport today for you. Just fill out these forms and get back here asap.” Had to boot out to UBC to get my wife to sign off on the passport application and then back downtown. Super helpful woman there then went through them all and got them set up for a quickie passport. Then she asked for Tavish’s current passport and saw that he was 16. “These are the wrong forms. These are for people under 16 years of age.” We looked at each other, her already thinking of a solution, me crestfallen, Tavish fully distraught. “We can do this though. Here’s the adult form, you can be the guarantor. Give me two references we can call and we’ll do our best.”

1.5 hours later we had a passport and were making our way to the airport, arriving in plenty of time. Government offices take a fair bit of flack but I was so impressed by the professionalism and willingness to go the extra mile of the staff there. When I left the pick up window with passport in hand I went back to the people who had made it happen and thanked them individually.

Practical tip: Check your passport before you leave and don’t make assumptions about how long it needs to be valid for.

April 30 – London

Trips like this take an unusual amount of planning. Spurs v Ajax at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was on the day we arrived. We then had a flight to Spain that left the next day. We had arrived at Gatwick and were leaving for Barcelona through there as well. Our trains to and from Gatwick went through Victoria Station so we stayed walking distance from there in Pimlico.

We pushed through the jet lag, dropped our bags in our room and used our Tube day pass to full effect. Tavish knew where he wanted to go. This would be stores like Palace and Supreme in SoHo which because they are so cool are closed far more days than they are open. That was the case for Palace who apparently needed a few days to put their summer stock on shelves. Supreme though was open and had a line and a security guard outside. I let him do his thing and wandered around waiting for a text to let me know he was ready. The mythology around Supreme is mind-blowing if you’re not familiar with it. Tavish now has a pair of purple nylon Supreme pants that cost more than I have ever spent on a pair of pants. His money though so good for him getting something he says he can wear for a few months and then sell for more than he paid (this is a big thing for teens these days).

Game time loomed. We went back to the hotel. We’d got a text from the person who said he might be able to help us get tickets letting us know it wouldn’t be happening. We knew that one was a stretch. We looked online at viagogo.com. Prices starting at GBP 400. We tried Craigslist. One ad for a pair of tickets. GBP 300. Texted offering 300 for the pair. He agreed. Asked us to come to his hotel in Leicester Square. Queue Benny Hill music as get over there by tube, taxi and foot as quickly as we can only to discover it was some kid having a laugh at our expense. No tickets and time wasted. Headed to the stadium to see if we would have better luck.

Spoiler: we didn’t.

Prices held at GBP 400 per ticket even once the game was 15 minutes in and Ajax had already scored. More buyers than sellers and the guys selling were pros and not worried about time ticking by. Ended up being on the same tube back as one once we gave up and talked to the guy. Showed me all the events he was going to the next few months. Must have been more than twenty and they were all over the world. Young guy with several guys in his ‘crew’ working with him. Some scouts for police, some likely security given the money he must have had on him.

So a long 30 hours with nothing but stress and disappointment ended up with us going to bed but not before I went online and made the most extravagant purchase of my life: two tickets for the Barcelona v Liverpool game at the Camp Nou the next day. No way we were going there and not seeing that game. And given our flight got in about 2.5 hours before game time there really wasn’t time to source tickets once we got there.

Practicals:

  • The tube in London is awesome. It’s also packed most of the time but trains come every few minutes. Get a day pass. Way more economical than individual tickets and saves you having to buy tickets all the time. Gatwick is a surprisingly good airport. Security is staffed way more than Vancouver (we waited over 30 minutes in line when we left YVR; we were through the whole process in under ten minutes both times we flew out of Gatwick on this trip).
  • Buying tickets on Viagogo.com is not pleasant. I found it a deceptive site that didn’t list their fees clearly and did not make it as obvious as it should what currency you were dealing with. At the end as you pay all of a sudden you are paying in Polish Zloty as they are based in Poland. You’re looking for a professional, credible site that gives you confidence in the process when you’re dropping a lot of money in tickets. In the end, I got PDF’s of the tickets right away and there were no issues with them.
  • If you’re going to be moving around a lot on a trip like this put a priority on location for your hotel. Your early morning commute to airports and train stations doesn’t need to be complicated by adding 30-60 minutes to the trip because your hotel is nowhere near your departure point. The hotels we stayed in were picked for convenience of location more than anything else. They are not the places I would have booked if I was travelling with my wife. Amenities were irrelevant. We barely spent any time when we were awake in any of them. Comfy bed, decent ratings online and modest prices (the money was all going into tickets) were the criteria.

 

May 1 to 4: Barcelona

Flight mercifully was not delayed. Having just dropped a serious wad on tickets I was a prime candidate for ending up on the evening news if a flight delay was going to cause us to miss FCB v LFC at the Camp Nou. All good though. Picked up four day Metro passes at the airport, checked in to our hotel 400m from Camp Nou and joined the party. Tens of thousands of people all outside, on the streets, in adjacent parks. Loads of people selling cold Estrella beers on the streets for 2 Euros. Super festive. Got in soon after the gates opened an hour or so before kickoff. Front row of the top tier behind the goal (three tiers behind the goal, five on the main stand on the sideline). Fantastic view of the rest of the stadium and a great tactical view of the game.

IMG_2828

View from our seats at Camp Nou for Barcelona vs Liverpool

By the time Messi scored his second on a stunning free kick to make it 3-0, we felt we had experienced what would be the high point of the trip. A crowd of over 98 000, two Messi goals right in front of us on a beautiful night in an iconic stadium. It was what I had talked about wanting the trip to be before we left: Exciting, meaningful games featuring the best players in the world playing in iconic stadiums in great cities. This would be hard to top.

The game was on a Wednesday night so we had two game-free days to see Barcelona before seeing Atletico Madrid playing Espanyol at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat. That meant a return visit to Futbol Mania, an epic soccer store we’d been to five years earlier, for a needed pair of boots for Tavish and seeing some of the sights. He ended up with some newly released white Copas. If I’d had to convince him to get those instead of an eyeball searing pair of Nikes made of tinfoil and plutonium I’d have considered it a stalemate but he went with the leather Copas. So even though they’re not black that’s just good parenting plain and simple.

Futbol Mania in Barcelona (left) and Tavish with his new laceless, white adi Copas

It’s now much easier to buy tickets for La Liga games online than I remember it being in the past. They generally aren’t available until a week or two before the day the game is being played but you can buy them relatively simply. Getting the Espanyol tickets was no problem and the Metro got us to within a 15 minute walk of the stadium (Barcelona’s Metro is fantastic by the way. We never waited more than three minutes for one and they were always clean and much quieter than London’s).

Action from Espanyol v Atletico Madrid. Griezeman (left) not as popular here as he is in Madrid and France.

This game was a pleasant surprise. Well-designed stadium built ten years ago. Open concourses, great sight lines and tight to the pitch. The fans are unapologetic in their support for the city’s “other” team. We had joked that you never see people wearing Espanyol jerseys in Barcelona and it’s easier to find a Barca jersey there than a bottle of water but Espanyol fans look like they know how to have fun at games. Didn’t hurt that they ended up beating a listless Atleti side 3-0 but it was a really enjoyable game day experience for us and for everyone but the 50 or so Atleti fans who travelled to watch.

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More from Espanyol v Atletico Madrid at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat or RCDE Stadium in Barcelona

Had to race back to the hotel to pick up our bags and head to Barcelona Sants train station to get on the train to Madrid. The high speed trains in Spain are fantastic. It took three hours to get there on a very smooth train that hit 300km/h. Like the rest of Europe for the most part you leave and arrive from a central point in the city. Grabbed a cab, there must have been over fifty waiting to pick up people from our train and others outside the station, and got to our hotel around midnight.

Practicals:

  • Go see games where the home team is not a global brand. The supporter culture is very real and there were very few turistas like ourselves there. Same for Getafe v Girona below.
  • Even in May, Barcelona was packed with tourists.

 

May 5 – Madrid

We had tickets for the Getafe v Girona game in the south of Madrid and planned to go straight to the Bernabeu to see about tickets for that knowing that we had a flight that night back to London.

Getting to Getafe was frustrating. I allowed two hours and we still missed close to 30 minutes of the first half mainly due to our journey being interrupted by a closed section on the Metro that forced us above ground and onto a bus to a station that we weren’t planning on going through.

Getafe FC are a great story this year. Formed in 1983 (from the ashes of previous iterations of clubs that had operated there) they had risen from the bottom division and spent all but one of the last ten or so seasons in La Liga Santander (the top division in Spain). Now for the first time they were battling for fourth place and the last berth in Champions League for next season. Their opponents were also battling. They were fourth from the bottom though and trying to stave off relegation. So not exactly a UCL semi-final but still a highly relevant game.

On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning in the 17000 seat Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, Getafe controlled play after an early goal (that we missed) and then notched a second soon after a Girona red card. The game tailed off after that and Getafe got three points nearer to playing Champions League soccer next season.

Getafe v Girona. One trying to get into Champions League for the first time; the other trying not to get relegated. And yeah, so much for thinking seats in the second row would be a good idea…

Getting to the Bernabeu from Getafe was much simpler than getting to the Getafe stadium. We joined the surprisingly long line for the ticket windows and had a scalper swing by within seconds. Chopped his 300 euro gambit for a pair of good tickets down to 150 very quickly and he escorted me to a nearby bank machine. Tough day for scalpers. Demand for Real tickets seems to have plummeted in light of their poor season and Villareal were not a big draw. The stadium was less than half full. Factor in that Ramos, Bale and Benzema didn’t even dress and the game didn’t have much lustre. That said, it ended up being full of attacking play with those who were playing, especially Marcelo, seeming very loose and wanting to put on a show. Final score was 3-2 Real.

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Once again it was a race to get out of the stadium and into a cab to go pick up our bags and get to the airport. We spent 22 hours in Madrid but managed to see two games.

Practicals

  • Barajas Airport in Madrid is excellent in terms of layout, staffing and getting through security quickly
  • Getting tickets for both games (one in advance; one at the stadium from a scalper) was easy
  • We flew EasyJet back to Gatwick because it was one of the few flights we could do at that time of day back to London. First time flying it. They dinged me $110 for having a back pack in addition to my one carry-on suitcase. It was buried in the terms of the ticket. The cost of the actual ticket was right around $110. Buyer beware.

 

May 6 – London

Arrived at our hotel near Shoreditch, which has been in the news recently as an example of resistance to gentrification in London. Did another day walking around London sites before getting a fish n chips takeaway and getting to bed fairly early as we had an early bus to Liverpool waiting for us in the morning.

 

May 7 – Liverpool

As I alluded to, trains are the way to go for inter-city travel in Europe but the only trains we could take that would comfortably get us into Liverpool from London in time for the game were 6-8 times more expensive than the bus so we went with that. It was not enjoyable. Six hours getting to Liverpool with no stops (and no wifi).

This was the game we knew we had the best chance of getting some friend of a friend free tickets for. And after shelling out for tickets in Barcelona, I really wasn’t in a position to splash out again for the return leg. Problem is we wouldn’t know until sometime the day of the game. Finally got the text fours away from game time soon after we’d checked into our Air BnB (hotel prices in Liverpool the night of the game were outrageous). Our tickets were waiting for us. Met up with friend and friend of a friend for a couple of drinks and then jumped in 12 seater van for a two quid ride to Anfield. We were on a total high. The game could have been a nil-nil drabfest and we would have been okay with it. Just seeing those two teams again and being at Anfield for the first time, down low with the Kop looming to our left was enough.

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Us and the Kop

 

But it would be much more than that.

No Salah, no Firmino. Down 3-0 from the first leg. There really wasn’t much reason for Liverpool to be optimistic, be it players or fans.

The combination of atmosphere and comeback in a game this big will likely be something I never experience again. To beat Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League semi-final when you have to beat them 4-0 is extraordinary.

The Kop was not buying that narrative. Capacity is just over half of what was at Camp Nou. The noise, mainly from the Kop, was relentless. I’ve been to two World Cups, two Euros, EPL games and many other games in Europe, North America and Africa. This was the best in terms of atmosphere. And with each goal Liverpool scored it just intensified three fold. Not only were we spitting distance from the Kop, 14 rows up from the field, but we ended up being at the end where Liverpool scored their second, third and fourth goals. The combination of atmosphere and comeback in a game this big will likely be something I never experience again. To beat Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League semi-final when you have to beat them 4-0 is extraordinary.

Perhaps the saddest part of the trip was after the game while we were still in the stadium just looking around as the players celebrated on the field. I turned to Tavish and said, “You know you’ll never see a game like this again?”. He quietly replied, “Yeah, I know.” It’s easier to take when you’re in your fifties to know that you won’t see a game like that again. Not so much when you’re sixteen.

We soaked in some of the post-game celebrations on the way back to where we were staying but we were drained and had another bus ride back to London waiting for us in the morning. Our 18 hours in Liverpool had been well spent though.

Practicals:

  • Go see a game at Anfield. The bigger the game the better I’m sure but I asked guys behind us if it’s always like that and they said it’s always pretty close to what we saw and heard.
  • I don’t use AirBnB much but this one was almost a life saver. Great host and great location

 

May 8 and 9 – London

As mentioned at the outset, I booked our dates to allow for the possibility of seeing any and all of the semi-finals but with no line on tickets for the Spurs v Ajax game in Amsterdam and the only combo of flights from Manchester to Schiphol and back to Gatwick that would allow us to catch our return flight back to Vancouver clocking in at close to $900 for the two of us by the time a final decision had to be made, it was a no go.

Unable to access my DAZN account in the UK, I had to use a VPN and pay for the game on B/R Live (Bleacher Report). It was the best $3 I’ve spent in a long time. Just as people were recovering from the drama of the Liverpool comeback, Spurs decided to take it a step further. If you know of two games in the same competition, in any sport, that pulled off the same degree of drama that these two games did, let me know. I’d like to see that because Spurs scoring three in the second half away from home with no Harry Kane and the last one coming on the stroke of the five minutes of injury time being up was one-upmanship of the highest order; pure “Hold my beer Liverpool.” It left Tavish and I half shouting, half laughing at the laptop when Spurs scored the goal that makes the Champions League Final an all EPL affair.

  • VPN’s come in handy, just not for DAZN
  • Hotwire is generally great for booking rooms when you’re not fussy about too much but since you don’t know what you’re getting until after you book (to get the best deals) it can cause a problem if you need to be highly sensitive to location. I tried to get something close to London Bridge Station but ended up a 25 minute tube ride further away than what I thought we’d be. When you’re on your fourth or fifth day of being in a different city each day and getting ready to head home. I should just have splurged a bit and got a hotel much closer to where we had to be in the morning.
  • Train service to Gatwick is excellent and really no longer than taking the tube to and from Heathrow. There’s no advantage to buying these tickets online ahead of time though

We flew home the next morning. I’ve done a few of these dedicated soccer trips now starting with the World Cup in 2014 but for all previous ones I had tickets for all the games we planned to see in my hands before we left. For this one, of the six games we hoped to see, I only had tickets for two (Espanyol v Atleti and Getafe v Girona). We ended up seeing five as we couldn’t get in to Spurs v Ajax in London and that was enough numbers-wise and more than enough quality-wise. Tavish is not prone to hyperbole at all but his Instagram posts after the Camp Nou and Anfield games were “best two hours of my life” and “life changing” respectively. I’d have to agree with him. The two legs of the Liverpool-Barca tie will go down as being among the most memorable in Champions League history – and we saw both of them.

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The impact of cars

UPDATE Nov 29: So six weeks, almost to the hour, after my brother in law was admitted to hospital, he was released. He went home last night with 20 boxes of medical supplies related to his tracheotomy and feeding tube. He’s seven surgeries in with more to come in the short and long term but he’s home and we’re all very happy. The medical attention he has had has been amazing. His friends have been just as amazing in their support for him, my sister and their kids. Seriously, you want friends like his. Both his and my sister’s employers have been models of how you hope companies react in these situations. There’s good that has come out of this but it’s come at a heavy price.

As much as I argue below for better awareness of cyclists on the road the biggest thing I will take away from this is my brother in law’s resilience and calm, measured determination to get through this and get back to a regular life. He’s not kidding himself about any of this. It’s a serious trauma he went through and is still going through but the acknowledgement of this and the willingness to confront it with a positivism that is very real, that knows the many challenges that still lay ahead, despite still being in an acute phase of recovery, is frankly stunning and very inspiring.  

 

This is the first MMCB article not about soccer.

My brother in law just spent his third night in an Intensive Care Unit last night. He will be there at least another week. He has had several surgeries already and has many more to come. He’s married to my sister and has two kids and a dog. He works and he has been a volunteer coach in his community in both hockey and soccer. He’s also an avid cyclist who completed the Whistler Gran Fondo in September. And as I told him a few years ago, he’s the nicest guy in our family.

He was riding his bike late afternoon on Tuesday, wearing a bright green cycling jersey and clearly had the right of way. A car, seemingly in a hurry, didn’t see him. 

He took pretty much the entire force of the collision on his face. Everything there is broken in multiple places. Everything. Plus a broken arm. He has no brain injury though. The doctors have made it clear his helmet saved his life.

My sister, niece and nephew (and many, many others) are a razor’s edge from grieving his death. My sister’s voice has never sounded like it did when she first called me. It was just so heavy with shock, detached from its normal vigour.

There are more and more cyclists on the road and even though this means fewer cars in traffic, too often they are seen as an inconvenience to drivers at best and the enemy at worst. Cyclists have an equal entitlement to the road. There is no eminent domain for car drivers when it comes to roads vis a vis cyclists.

Vancouver has built several bike lanes and instead of this being broadly embraced, too many drivers and radio hosts, who seem to feel their job is to create civic frenzy, demonize those who created them and those who use them. The derogatory caricatures I’ve heard applied to cyclists is just another example of how divisive western societies are becoming. This insistence on creating the “other” that “regular folks” can and should oppose is dangerous and leads, in this case, to drivers not believing they need to look for, see and, yes, accommodate cyclists because they are somehow less worthy of the spaces they are sharing. Cyclists are not an inconvenience to their commute, not a drain on their tax dollars, not an undesirable element in society but too many see it this way. In reality, they are very much like the rest of us. Fathers, mothers, partners, sons, daughters, commuters, coaches, volunteers and generally very nice people who live and work in your community. The message needs to become that using roads, whether in a car or on a bike, carries more responsibilities as these roads increasingly are shared with a variety of things on wheels. 

So please re-think how cyclists fit into our transportation network and start acknowledging the benefits of separated bike lanes in high traffic areas and bike friendly streets in quieter arterial routes rather than focusing on perceived negatives. As I write this I’m resisting the impulse to spew anger towards those who oppose this idea because it somehow impinges their birthright to shave a few minutes off their travel time. I really want to but that’s divisive too so I’m just asking that you recognize the very real life consequences of not respecting cyclists and how vulnerable they are on roads. I’m also asking that we all get a bit more organized and allow more time to get to where we need to go so the trip is not characterized by tension and impatience. Yes, some cyclists are assholes and reckless and yell rude things to drivers. That’s wrong but the damage they can cause is completely asymmetrical to that that a disengaged or angry driver can in their fast moving 2000 pound torpedo.

I’ve just started to teach my youngest son to drive. We’ve already covered how to look for pedestrians and cyclists. It will continue and be repeated many, many times. It starts there.

I started riding a bike again this summer. Partially motivated by my brother in law, partially by other friends. I really enjoy it but I’ve already had close calls. What I already see though is that cyclists can do their part too. Where there are bike lanes, use them instead of busy roads (I will never understand seeing bikes on Broadway when there are excellent bike routes a block away for the most part). Be courteous. Communicate your intentions with hand signals. Try to make eye contact with drivers at intersections. Wear a helmet. Wear a helmet. Wear a good fucking helmet and strap it on properly

It’s been an eye opening last few days. My brother in law has a long recovery ahead of him but he will recover. My sister’s voice will recover. Some cyclists are not so lucky. Don’t wait until it’s a cyclist you know that is badly injured or killed before you start to change your behaviour. Please.

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Going straight to the top

Ran into a former coach at our club yesterday and it reminded me of one of my favourite coach stories. Most people who read this will know what an International Transfer Clearance (ITC) is but briefly for those who do not it is a FIFA initiative designed to curb unscrupulous agents preying on young players, generally from poorer countries, who are desperate to get tryouts and contracts with professional clubs in Europe. It forces clubs to get an array of intrusive questions answered so as to ascertain that the player and his or her parents are legitimately in the country to eliminate the chance that an agent has charged them a large sum of money to arrange a trial when in fact many, in the past, have just been abandoned to the streets when they reach Europe.

So ITC’s serve a purpose but their implementation has been extended to every player between the age of ten and 17 regardless of the level of play or country. That means we get 10-20 players every year who move to Vancouver and need to fill out an ITC just to play low level recreational soccer. Clearly ITC’s were not intended to stop kids who have moved to Canada from playing recreational soccer but there are no exceptions to the policy.

In theory, once their ITC application leaves Canada and goes to the national association of the country they moved from, if it is not responded to in 30 days, the player is free to play. There are often side issues that lengthen that though.

So back to Tim, the former coach at our club. He was coaching a U16 or U17 Silver team (fourth of five levels of play) and had a new player who was keen to play. The 30 day deadline came and went but there was no clearance from our governing body. Tim asked our admin staff to look into it and the query flowed from our club to the District to the Provincial body and to the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA). And then nothing. We couldn’t get an answer. Tim was not impressed and was increasingly upset at the ridiculousness of this player new to our club not being able to play. He persisted, going through the established channels, but with every non-response he got more impatient as this dragged out over close to three months.

So, as is not too unusual on the west side of Vancouver, a very affluent part of the city, Tim decided he was done dealing with underlings. Instead he decided to go right to the top to get this sorted out. He picked up the phone and called the then new CSA President (and now FIFA Vice President) Victor Montagliani! Tim had never met or talked to Victor before so it’s not like he was leaning on him as a friend to get something. He just called him and asked, persistently, that Victor figure out what had happened and fix it.

And the best part is…Victor, to his credit and my amazement, did just that.

He took down the details, made a phone call or two and got back to Tim days later saying the problem was solved and the kid was now eligible to play.

I’m not going to hang anyone out to dry over what the problem was but it was a simple clerical error on the Canada side of things and Victor was able to get someone to look into it quickly, realize what the mistake was and rectify it.

So the next time you don’t have a ref show up to do your game or you’re not sure if a field is closed due to inclement weather, you know who to call.

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Messi’s El Clasico goal: so many coaching points

It was spectacular theatre. Thirty seconds left in injury time when the clip starts with Pique receiving the ball three yards off his end line. Eighteen seconds later the ball is in the Real Madrid goal and Barcelona have won the Clasico at the Bernabeu 3-2. How does that happen? This is how…

91’30” : Sergi Roberto plays a pass back to Gerard Pique drawing Mateo Kovacic and James Rodriguez towards the centreback. Pique audaciously lifts a pass beyond both to Sergi Busquets.

91’32” : Both Roberto and Pique are already moving forward to support the ball. Sergio Busquets does what Busquets invariably and flawlessly does. He takes a silky touch to settle the ball, drawing Kovacic back towards as well as pulling Ronaldo forward to him. His second touch breaks the press from Ronaldo and Kovacic and does two things. It is placed in Roberto’s path in such a way that he receives it in stride and so that Luca Modric is tempted to pinch in and intercept it. Roberto gets their first and in four seconds from the time Pique plays the ball, Barcelona have played two passes that have allowed Roberto to break clear of four Real Madrid players.

At this point, context is important. Beyond the score and the time remaining, keep in mind that Real Madrid have lost Sergio Ramos to a red card and did not bring on another defender because they were losing by a goal at the time of the ejection. Having had to replace the injured Bale with Marco Asensio and Casemiro with Kovacic, due to Casemiro being on a yellow and likely just one more foul from a red, Zidane opted to take Karim Benzema off and put Rodriguez on. Real Madrid were essentially playing with three at the back: Dani Carvajal, Nacho Fernandez and Marcelo. As Kovacic had pushed up, Toni Kroos had dropped off.

91’35” : If you freeze the video at 91’34” you see Marcelo move over to try to tackle Roberto. You also see Asensio on the far side. Real Madrid have six of their nine outfield players in the attacking third with less than thirty seconds left and the game tied when they are down a man. Add in the fact that Messi is on the field and this is unforgivable on their part. It’s about to get worse though. Marcelo can end this madness and preserve the draw by simply fouling Roberto for the price of a yellow card at 91’36’. One tactical foul and Roberto does not charge forward across the halfway line. Real Madrid get goal side before the free kick is taken and the game is done. This does not happen though and Roberto is into the Real Madrid half in what becomes a 6v3 at 91’37”. Note where Pique is and note that you cannot see Ronaldo at all. In fact the next time you see him is at the end of the clip complaining that others should have done more.

91’39” : Barca’s 4-3-3 utilizes width in attack and you see it here from Andre Gomes, Jordi Alba and even Ivan Rakitic to some degree. The ball to Gomes forces Carvajal to go wide and Alba, having made an amazing overlap run pulls him even further. Rakitic maintains width on the right that forces the recovering Modric to pay attention to him. Messi at this point slows as he sees Alba’s run has forced Carvajal, Kroos, and Fernandez to drop deep while Modric drifts back rather than sticking tight to him.

91’45” : If you pause here you can see the combined effect of Alba’s wide penetration and the deep runs by Pique, Suarez and Roberto. They have opened up room at the top of the box for Messi to swoop into. He holds his run until he sees the space will be there and Alba will be able to first time the ball back into it. To top it off, Suarez uses his body perfectly to ensure Fernandez will not be able to get close enough to block Messi’s shot. It’s a crucial piece of the puzzle. As the ball goes in nobody is closer to the Real Madrid goal than Pique. He started the play 18 seconds earlier a few yards from his own goal line.

You can categorize the mistakes made as felonies and misdemeanours. Here’s how I see the crimes stack up:

Real Madrid pressing so many players forward to win the ball back with 30 seconds when they are down a man and do not need to score: FELONY

Modric pinching to try to win the ball off Roberto and failing: MISDEMEANOUR

Marcelo (who had a great game otherwise) not taking Roberto down when he had a chance: FELONY

Ronaldo not chasing back: MISDEMEANOUR

Once it got beyond this point I don’t see much blame for Carvajal, Kroos and Fernandez. They were dealing with a 6v3 that incorporated Messi and Suarez. If they had denied a goal in that situation they would have deserved medals. Barca played it perfectly though and Messi lived up to his reputation as the greatest player ever to score with ten seconds remaining.

Rarely does such a high profile game end in such a spectacular manner and with a passage of play that offers us so many coaching points as coaches. You may find more. If so, feel free to mention them in the comments.

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Analyst analysis

Just sent a DM on Twitter to a group of like-minded soccer moaners and groaners. It was regarding one of the colour commentators on a Canadian broadcast of a game.

“XXXXX makes Capt Obvious look like an enigma.”

With Jason de Vos’ decision to leave TSN and take a position with the CSA, there was been a handful of suitors pushed in front of the camera in the hopes that one will bring the quality insight he was known for. The bar was raised and while it’s maybe unfair to expect the same standards of those new to the craft it’s still important that those selecting and those selected aspire to a high level of analysis rather than falling back on generic banter and passing off the obvious as expert analysis.

Current production values seem to favour candidates who were former players, have an accent relatable to the masses and/or a degree of confidence that is not aligned with their  current chops as an analyst. So far I remain underwhelmed.

Here’s a better recipe.

Take someone with a keen eye for the telling detail, with the ability to relate it economically and clearly. Viewers don’t need to be clubbed with gegenpressing details for three minutes amid a digital swirl of lines and circles on a monitor. They need relevance delivered coherently with the occasional bit of humour that oscillates between cutting and self deprecating.

Focus on specifically why goals were either created or conceded without incessant cliches. Simply regurgitating what the play by play guy has said with no embellishment beyond whiter teeth and a hipper haircut does not pass for analysis.

Yes, there will always be the realities of TV production values and the concomitant necessity of putting someone in front of the camera that can string words together smoothly while not being physically repulsive. But really it has to be both function and form and when in doubt favour the former over the latter.

 

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