I had a friend in Sheffield.
Mike and I had much in common. We both liked beer. We both liked football. That’s usually enough for two 18-year-old males to bond.
Mike was a one-paced-but-gritty central midfielder for my football team, the hilariously titled David Mellor’s Football Task Force. Think Steve Stone, or Mark Noble in today’s money. And he was a reliable drinking companion for Monday nights glued to the early days of the Premier League, on its new home of Sky TV.
More nobly, Mike accompanied me on cold, underwhelming trips to watch our respective football teams play in the small towns around Sheffield. If Swindon were away at Chesterfield, I knew who to call. And to return the favour, I would begrudgingly tag along whenever Palace were playing nearby.
It was on the way back from an incident-of-any-kind-free 0-0 draw at Barnsley on a dull grey November day (I am yet to be convinced Barnsley has any other type of day) when Mike shared a pearl of wisdom that I cherish to this day.
“We’re probably not going to keep in touch after university” he said, with curmudgeonly insight that defied his 18 years, “but I’ll always give you a thought when Swindon are mentioned on Final Score.”
Mike, you see, kept a mental list of people – friends, associates, randoms – who he associated with one club. Quickly I realised I had my own list, which persists to this day. For Aston Villa, it’s Andy, my friend Julia’s boyfriend (now husband: he even checked the Villa score between the speeches at their wedding). Scunthorpe are Christopher Davis, the son of my dad’s church warden; he’d never been there, he just picked them just to be different. Stoke City are Matthew Cubley, who turned up one day at my primary school without warning and left six months later. His was the first Northern accent any of us in darkest Wiltshire had ever heard, meaning we treated him with Elephant man-eqsue curiosity for the first few weeks.
It also works for bands. If it’s the Super Furries, I think of former housemate Gordon. Should Ben Folds Five make a rare appearance, then it’s Charlotte. With the Doors, I think of my brother. And change the radio station.
And if it’s Ash – see, we always get there eventually – then I think of Mike. Even before we got to football, we talked music. He revealed his love of Ash on the first night we met. And, as we sat around our one-pound pints in the hall bar, I drunkenly shared my own Britpop secret with him.
I didn’t like Ash.
The music, that was fine. Great, actually. They even pulled off that rare trick of having album tracks better/as good as the singles.
No, it was the mocking, goading, taunting title of their (officially) debut album which grated.
The year Tim Wheeler was born. Also the year I was born.
And that’s what hurt. He may as well have called it ‘I’m not even 20 and I wrote this: what the feck have you done with your miserable life, eh? EH?’. Wheeler might claim it’s a Star Wars reference, but we all knew that’s what he meant.
Time heals. I’ve mellowed now. I’m seeing Ash in Berlin in a couple of weeks and will look them in the eye as an equal. For I too have now achieved. Has Tim Wheeler written a book that reached #2 in Amazon’s bestselling snooker-related titles? No, he has not. Not according to Wikipedia, anyway.
So I can listen now to 1977, revel in its glorious energy, my cheeks no longer burning with shame and jealousy and fury. I’ve even smoked a Henri Winterman cigar. Without coughing.
The pints will cost considerably more than one pound, but I will raise a couple of them to Mike. Who – just as he predicted – I haven’t seen or heard from since university.
Top three Ash songs: