I have always been a little uncomfortable with the links that some make between football and religion. There is a danger in attaching too much meaning to the sport, many of my previous articles have tried to promote this message. However, on Wednesday night, I do believe I witnessed an act of God.
One of the more surprising statistics I heard this week was that the average number of people attending church services was expected to drop to about 88,000 this year. To put this into context, that’s only a few more people than those who attended the recent FA Cup matches between Everton and Liverpool. In a much changed society, so few people seem to "believe", instead often putting faith in celebrities or material possessions. In these troubled times, religions are still important to many, but lots more see little relevance of God to their lives.
Often, the TV cameras will focus on fans offering prayers during a game, footballers labelled Messiahs or Gods or making Second Comings, and banners which quote the Bible too. Indeed, the title of this very piece has regularly been seen painted on white sheets in stadia, a tradition started by the fascinating character Rollen Stewart in America, referring as it does to the "Gospel in a Nutshell":
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
And, as we know, some players—the best known currently being Kaka—in fact offer their own messages to the heavens on a regular basis.
Despite some of the clear indications that religion is losing importance to our generation, some people will still turn to prayer when they are close to desperation, and have a rather one-sided relationship with Him.
I won’t bore you with what’s been going on recently, but I admit I’m one of those (rather selfish) people. Let’s just say I needed us to win on Wednesday. Some things in my life are going great, others not, and a derby win meant so much that I’ll be honest, I said a little prayer towards the end of the first half.
There had been good omens right through the day and the match, but having had so many "false dawns", and Liverpool’s seemingly incessant good fortune despite the behaviour of their players and fans (more of which later) I felt it necessary to pray for a favour.
Now I sit only a few seats away from St Luke’s Church, watching a team that started out at St Domingo’s, and Steven Pienaar is one of my favourite players, who plays in boots that have "God is great" stitched on the tongue.
After his goal at Tottenham earlier in the season, this quote was also seen to be printed on a vest he wears. However, he was apparently lucky not to be sent off during the derby before his substitution on the hour mark…well, that’s according to a bitter red I spoke to the day after the game.
This might just be coincidence of course.
But when Van der Meyde (at this point I refer back to his being the focus of a piece I wrote before Christmas…) crossed on 117 minutes and young Dan Gosling did the rest, I looked skywards and said a big thank you.
Lest we forget that from 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.
Many newspapers when reporting on the match made tedious links with a gosling being a baby goose and Liverpool’s goose being cooked etc etc. None, that I saw anyway, recognised that in the popular song "The Twelve Days of Christmas", the six geese a laying are commonly understood to be a reminder of the six days of Creation as outlined in Genesis.
Now I could just leave it there and believe that God answered my prayers for a winner. I have done similar before and though we have scored quite a few last minute goals, have never felt such divine intervention as I did on Wednesday. But it was only on the way home from the game that the real story unfolded.
Many of you will have been watching the game on itv, and had coverage interrupted to a various extent by an ill-timed advertising break. A friend texted to congratulate me and mentioned what had happened to his TV but I thought it an isolated incident. However, the subsequent news coverage explained this was not the case.
I immediately recalled a scene from one of my favourite films, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, when the titular beauty recounts a tale in retrospect of a childhood prank. The little girl wanted to take subtle revenge on a neighbour, and so perched herself on his rooftop during a big game and listened to the radio commentary whilst he watched, unwittingly, below.
At important points she would jiggle the aerial around, thus spoiling his reception, so that he missed penalty shouts or goals.
Perhaps this was a message from God, to alert us to the dangers of commercialism over old values such as going to church? Many of you will not know that exactly the same thing happened last week during the Superbowl, when a television audience in Arizona were "treated" to 30 seconds of soft porn following a cross-wire with another cable channel (remember what Tyler Durden showed a cinema in Fight Club) and in 1968 during another American Football game, when an episode of Heidi (in which a paralysed girl made a miraculous recovery) came onto screens instead of an amazing comeback by the Oakland Raiders against the New York Jets.
Or, perhaps it was indeed a more personal message. I’d promised God that I would try to do things a little differently if he answered my prayer, respond to things more positively, and would put up with other hardships, that was how important it was to me.
The following day I could not speak, and for 36 hours, could not talk let alone shout at a class.
As you have read, I have now refound my voice.
Thanks be to God. (And David Moyes.)