spacer
Touched by Genius spacer Issue 11
Touched by Genius
by Robbie Meredith
spacer
I blame Derek Spence. He inspired a twenty year addiction. Let me explain.
spacer
I met Derek on a wintry night at Aldergrove airport. I can remember little about my reason for being there - picking up some elderly relative perhaps - but I can remember everything about Derek. He had blonde unkempt hair but respectably short sideburns, and he wore blue jeans and one of those awful Pringle type V-neck golfing sweaters. My mother saw him first, standing alone by the baggage carousel.
spacer
'I think he's one of them. Why don't you ask him?' she said, as she produced a crumpled blue envelope and a leaking pen from her handbag. Clutching both, tightly, in my eight year old hands, I shuffled shyly towards the wiry figure waiting for his executive cases. I stood beside him for a moment, feigning interest in the procession of luggage, summoning the courage to speak, and then I held my pen and grubby piece of Basildon Bond under his chin. 'Can I have your autograph please?' I said. He looked down at me and, without speaking, took the envelope and pen from my hands. When he handed them back, seconds later, 'Derek Spence' had appeared, in surprisingly rounded feminine script, on the blue paper. 'Thanks, Eric,' I said, I really don't know why, and give him a big thumbs up, before skipping back to my mum, already in awe of my golden hero.
spacer
He was a footballer, a member of the Northern Ireland squad in the late seventies, just as we were beginning to become better than rubbish. That night at Aldergrove the English based members of the side had flown in ahead of a game in Belfast, but the few I recognised were surrounded by men much bigger than I was, and I was too timid to disrupt their conversations. It was not until I got home, and took out an old match programme one of my dad's friends had given me, that I was entirely sure of Derek's status. My colossus smiled thinly in a grainy pen picture, and played for Southend, which I thought was wonderfully exotic. And so my fetish for the celebrity stardust brought to my life by football autographs began.
spacer
Derek's signature, when combined with my treasured programme, brought me instant respect and popularity among my P5 classmates, and inspired all of us to make up fantastic and entertaining lies about the other superstars we'd met. Apparently Pele was a regular visitor to Ards Shopping Centre, while Kevin Keegan frequently phoned several of my friends' mothers. However, my contentment was not prolonged. Soon I was craving contact and recognition from more famous names than Derek Spence.
spacer
I tracked my prey thoroughly. If I knew that any visiting football teams were likely to be flying into the country, I pestered my father, unsuccessfully, to take me to the airport again, and I scanned the local and national papers for details of any prospective personal appearances at sports shops or bookstores. I also wrote off to a number of English teams with requests for autographs, fondly imagining that the players would break off from training as soon as the postman delivered my letter, and, smiling indulgently at the devotion they inspired, would reply to me by return of post. I think my hatred of Manchester United stems from the fact that they never sent me anything, not even the standard, unsigned, squad postcard which I received from everyone else.
spacer
Touched by Genius
spacer
spacer
I was more successful in meeting footballers in the flesh. In a way, my childhood spanned more innocent days, when to meet a top footballer you did not need to be a party organiser with a Platinum credit card or a member of Atomic Kitten. A number of (relatively) famous players came to Northern Ireland to open supermarkets and sports centres, and I would always be there, clutching my autograph book, bought in Easons to provide confirmation of my autograph hunting professionalism.
spacer
For instance, I met Martin O'Neill, the current manager of Celtic, at the opening of a sports shop. I knew the owner a bit, so I got in early to have my photograph taken for the local paper. Emboldened, I attempted to josh with Martin, telling himthat I didn't really like him because he had recently scored a goal against Liverpool, my favourite team. He looked bewildered for a moment, then laughed kindly. Later, the caption under the photo in the paper read 'Martin O'Neill signs an autograph for a young fan.' The encounter has shaped my attitude to him ever since. Even if he was exposed as a Satan worshipping Nazi who sacrificed young virgins as a hobby, I think I'd still argue that he was a nice guy really.
spacer
On other occasions I wasn't so successful. Once, on the boat from Stranraer, I asked a drunken Scotsman for his autograph three times in half an hour, refusing to believe that he wasn't Denis Law, the former Manchester United player. I also experimented with innovative methods of displaying my growing autograph collection. My Easons book eventually became obsolete. When George Best appeared at our local town hall, I scorned those who asked George for his signature on mere scraps of paper, instead presenting him with one of my favourite football shirts to sign. 'Could you sign here please?' I said, indicating one of the few clean patches. He looked at the shirt, and then looked up at me. 'You could have washed it first,' he said.
spacer
When I got home I tried to blu-tac the shirt to my wall, but my mum took it down when I was at school and put it in the washing machine, erasing the dirt but also George's unsteady scrawl.
spacer
My predilection persisted through my teens, but by the time I was in my early twenties I was in rehab, convinced that I had weaned myself off my addiction. But then, one day, unexpectedly, I caught sight of a face I recognised while waiting for a Thick Shake in Burger King in Bangor. Standing behind me in the queue was Stephen Morrow, a Northern Ireland international whose most notable moment in football came when he broke his arm after falling from Tony Adams' shoulders while celebrating a cup final win for Arsenal at Wembley. It was, of course, only my appreciation of his contribution to pathos which made me ask him to sign a handy Burger King napkin with a pen I borrowed from the spotty teenager behind the counter.
spacer
Pathos, however, was to prove my salvation. I was at an amateur football club dinner, a pretty dreadful night, where the guest of honour was Howard Kendall, who had managed Everton in the eighties when they were the best team in England and one of the finest in Europe. Now he stood before a bunch of drunken fourth-rate footballers in a badly lit, and badly decorated, bar-restaurant in North Down, telling obscene jokes and risqué anecdotes. Every time he was about to swear, he prefaced the curse with the phrase, 'I'm sorry, I know there are ladies in the room.'
spacer
It was very, very sad. I thought of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, chewed up by the world he lived in and deluding himself with past glories. I'd had too many alcopops, of course, but that night I did not ask Howard Kendall for his autograph. I was free, free at last, and I've remained free. I can even walk past the sports trophy shop owned by Billy Hamilton, the big, brash Irish striker who hammered the Austrians in the 1982 World Cup, without being tempted to run inside and touch him. In fact, just pressing my nose against the window and giving him a double thumbs up satisfies me fine.
spacer
spacer
home | information | issues | artists & writers | columns | reviews
spacer