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Bowler's Over: Celebrate the King

6 April 2015

No tears, just joy

“For God’s sake, let us sit down upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of kings."
Richard II given speech in the eponymous play by William Shakespeare. Powerful words, emotionally striking and, in this of all weeks when we come to celebrate our King, deeply, deeply evocative.
And, as advice goes at the moment, lousy. Bear with me.
For we are in danger of taking away the wrong message, the wrong impression of the man who would be king. I don’t mean in terms of the Jeff Astle Foundation and the work that it’s doing, but in the impression that we are going to get – and to give to younger generations – of Albion’s perennial number nine. 
A lot has been spoken already of Astle, plenty more will tumble out this week. There will be suggestions that the only response to it all is tears for the great man but I’d argue that should not - must not - be our reaction for, if it is, we betray everything that Jeff Astle was and everything he stood for.
Football, the national game, the one in which we gather in huge numbers to pay communal worship, is one which also distorts the perspective more than somewhat. The game creates a strange kind of intimacy, offers a suggestion that we know the combatants, that we are on terms with them, that they are as much friends as heroes. This is especially true of those who have a long spell at a club and who are attached to those seismic moments that define it. 
Beyond that level still, up there in the rarefied air, there are the cult heroes, those who create a special association with the fans, above and beyond the general acclaim that most players receive, those who climb upon a special pedestal and can claim the undying love of the support in perpetuity. It’s a privilege accorded to very few, and it is one bestowed upon Jeff Astle.
Yet in having that very special relationship with the fans, one that was wholly honest, utterly reciprocal, a falsehood springs up. For such is the intimacy of that hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon, we came to feel that we knew him.
But to say that we, the ordinary rank and file of the Throstletariat, knew Jeff Astle is mere conceit. We did not know Jeff Astle. We knew a facet of him, the facet that Laraine and the family used to let us borrow every time he went onto the field. But to pretend that that was the whole man is a nonsense. In truth, we no more knew Jeff Astle than we really know Ben Foster, Jonas Olsson or Chris Brunt.
It is because of that that I would urge supporters not to give in to the modern day rush to sentimentality, to mawkishness, to tears, to being seen to be moved, but instead to recall our Jeff Astle, the bit that we knew, the bit that transformed us, the part that hurled great buckets of colour onto our monochrome lives, like Jackson Pollock off on a colossal bender. 
Let me try and make sense of it this way. Coincidentally, this Saturday, it’s 11 years since I lost my dad, the man who had to give me the dreaded news back in 2002 that my other hero, Astle, was gone. I still shed tears for my dad at times but it is insane to expect those that simply knew him at work or as friends to do likewise at this distance, yet more absurd to imagine those that merely knew him by name or by sight to do so. My hope nowadays would be that they remember him as somebody who added to their lives, not somebody who has left a gaping hole in mine.
It is the same with Astle. Jeff, the whole man, the real man, he belongs to Laraine, to Dawn, to Claire, to Dorice and to the rest of the close family. He does not belong to us. The tears are theirs. The smiles should be ours. 
Because if you were to ask me what I would like us to take away from Astle Day – apart from the Foundation being given a huge kick start – it would be a smile.
Why? Because that was what Jeff Astle of the Albion lived for, that was why he is our cult hero, that is why he lives on in the heart of the Birmingham Road and the Smethwick and the Halfords and the East Stand. 
That was the Astle we were privileged to know and the Astle we should be celebrating, not mourning, these 13 years on, especially not now that the Foundation established in his name will go on to do such important work. 
For Astle the footballer was about enjoyment, about loving the life he had been given, the chance to escape the normal working life, the day to day, relishing the opportunity to provide for his family in a way he could never have otherwise imagined, thrilling to the chance to stand in the limelight which he so clearly loved.
Astle’s every action on the field of play was about enjoyment, about fun, about having the time of his life. His goals excited us, enthralled us, brought the world vividly, electrifyingly to life around us and then the referee’s whistle went and we went back to our lives and he went back to his.
Jeff Astle, especially at the rose tinted distance of 40 years and more since he last played for us, is a figure of legend, almost of myth. Honestly, that is just not good enough for a man of his warmth, his humour, his irrepressible zest for life. He should be recalled not in moments of mawkish sentimentality but as flesh and blood, just like the rest of us who were part of his congregation. 
“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all Jeff Astle” as Lennon and McCartney so nearly put it, because his greatest gift was that he was one of us, he had the common touch, he was the personification of the working man, the Albion shirt his overalls as he embraced the dignity of his labour and made all our lives all the better for it.
Can you see anything for an Albion supporter to cry about there? I can’t. Instead, raise a glass to the great man, close your eyes, visualize that goal at Wembley and smile the biggest smile you can find, just as he did on that day in May 1968. But smile. Always smile.


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