It’s 10.30pm and I’m driving up the Waterloo Road back towards the ring road. Molineux is on my left lit up by the stadium lights, Billy Wright’s statue standing proud, guarding the stadium against all who would dare to try and topple us as we build this new dawn of footballing greatness. “Goodnight Billy” I utter as I drive by. I’m smiling, yet at the same time I feel a little bit sad. I’ve had a truly memorable night, filled with the very best of everything that brought me to Wolverhampton today, that got me through last night’s anxiety nightmares and saw me actually relax for large swathes of the evening. So why would I feel a sadness? The truth, my dear readers, is because I was again leaving behind my true home. I hate departing Wolverhampton, and this chapter is designed to tell you why. Tonight has cemented everything about what makes these people the jewel in the United Kingdom’s crown & why Wolverhampton Wanderers as a football club can consider itself to be truly unique, truly special, and truly golden.
I’m not a believer in fate, but how fitting it was that on the day that Steve Plant chose to launch his book celebrating the achievements of last season’s promotion campaign, Nuno was confirmed as the Premier League Manager of the Month for September. It cements what we all knew of course, that this is no ‘flash in the pan’ and that we have something special going on at our club. I’ve talked about it in previous chapters, the turning tide of opinion in the press about Wolves, how the doubters are suddenly sitting up and taking notice. Now the likes of Shearer & Neville are calling for Coady to be picked for England, and pundits actually predict us to win matches ahead of kick-offs rather than scoffing at the mere notion of it. Opposition fans cast envious eyes at our style of play and covet our players. Have we got used to it yet? I don’t think so, but we’re learning.
Learning. It’s a thing I have to do too. Not only about the football, but about what is going on in my life, about my abilities to face the challenges I put myself through and, as tonight has brought home, that it’s ok to believe that people are real. However, before I go into all that I want to talk about the night itself and how I dealt with it, to keep things in context with the rest of the book. This chapter is obviously a little different than the others but warranted being included. There’s no match this week as it’s an international break. We have a great number of our squad representing their countries, notably for the first time Jonny Castro Otto for Spain (who also became a father this week), and Helder Costa for Portugal. Again, it’s a mark of how far we are going as a club that our players are being recognised for their achievements by being rewarded with international caps, though a couple are still being overlooked. It’s only a matter of time before their performances will demand those places though; Conor Coady is metaphorically smashing Southgate’s front door in with his stellar defensive performances!
Back to last night. Dean had invited me to go with him some weeks ago after I’d said I really fancied it but, as is the case with very social functions like this, had already ruled it out with it being something that would set my anxiety alarms chiming like a full peel at Westminster Cathedral. The idea of going with Dean still had me in ‘quarter peel’ mode, but it’s always with a sense of security that his company brings that I feel empowered and I’d taken up the invitation. I find occasions like this very different to going to the matches. The idea of being in one room with a lot of people, many of whom would be strangers to me, for a long period of time; for some inexplicable reason it strikes the fear of God into me. It’s the same with going to gigs or festivals. These are things I used to do with regularity, so much so that my entire summers were spent outside of work at gigs in the evenings or at festivals all weekend. I was hardly ever at home, I was every bit the ‘social butterfly’ that I’ve described myself to others as. Completely the opposite of what I am now. These days, outside of the football, I sit as I am now, in my flat, only seeing my mum every other day or my CPN once a fortnight. Away from that I go for walks as dictated by my eating disorder compulsions, but interaction with other people is limited to non-existent. Trying to explore the psychology of what has brought me to this is hard and is still being explored. I guess it’s multi-faceted. On one hand I believe it’s the fear of letting people in, or of getting too close to people and facing rejection or being let down again (I’ll come back to this later in this chapter.) On another it’s that I get anxious that I’ll commit some kind of social faux-pas by saying the wrong thing, face awkward silences, not knowing what to say to someone or appear to be lacking the intellect to carry off a conversation. Sometimes I just plain get overawed by people, indeed last night there was an example of that but it had a semblance of understanding about it (meeting Carl was always going to leave me a little awestruck.) And then there is the element that plays the biggest part, that brought about by the self-awareness and self-loathing that anorexia brings. Do I look thin enough? Do I look fat in this? Can I cope with food being around me? What if someone tells me I look well? If someone tells me they are on a diet is that going to spark a reaction in me? Can I cope with the criticism? What if someone tells me to get a grip? Would it not just be better to stay home and avoid all this hassle? And so the eating disorder voice starts again. “Stay home with me, don’t eat, go for a long walk, you look vile anyway. Who wants to know you anyway, you don’t deserve friends.” This is the stark and real reality of it all laid bare. Yes, this is what goes on in my mind, what I hear. The dialogue that goes on and taunts me. I don’t deserve you; I don’t deserve your friendship or your love. I work to battle this, this constant mantra that even as I stand talking to you is going on. Overcoming, or at least trying to work past these social anxieties is one thing, getting ANYWHERE with my eating disorder is another. It’s why I don’t even start with it; it’s too big right now.
Lots of people I knew through match days and from Twitter were going last night. Many of them I had already met, some of them I hadn’t. In the case of a couple we’d already made vows to ensure that we’d meet in the flesh at last, so I was very much looking forward to that. Dean, as one of the sponsors of the night through his work with the organisation ‘Never Afraid To Ask,’ was going up at 3 in the afternoon to help Steve and some of the others set up and suggested I meet him there around the same time. It felt like a good idea, I’d avoid having to walk into a room that was already full of people and have that instant “hit” of panic or, worse, avoid going in at all (this has happened in the past.) After having had a really rough night of nightmares, waking at 3am in an actual terror sweat, I’d calmed myself down in the morning, got ready and headed up around 1pm. I got to Molineux just after 3pm and met Dean outside. We went up into WV1 where things were already being set up for the evening and was greeted by Steve, Dave Foster and Steve’s wife Andrea. I felt instantly anxious, conscious that I wasn’t much use to anyone with my dodgy arm but yet wishing I could be more help. Andrea in particular was lovely and had a chat to me, telling me that at any point in the evening if I needed to talk to someone to come and speak to her. I was so grateful for that. We’d only once met before, very briefly in Manchester after the United match, yet here she was offering the hand of support and being very understanding. I thought about this as I wondered over to the window of WV1 and gazed out across the Molineux pitch and the stands. Andrea, Steve, Dean – they had all already been supportive, kind & reassuring. Within a short space of time I had gone from being shaky & nervous as I walked into the room, to feeling a lot calmer and welcomed. Wolverhampton, Molineux, it’s like it’s a beacon of force where a collective of all the positive people in my life congregate and get energised and then, in turn, radiate that energy into me. I become more like the version of me that I want to identify with, more free of the shackles that bind me on a daily basis when I’m not around them. I’m not going to pretend that they free me of my eating disorder binds, but those binds of anxiety? Looser, I can move, I can breathe, I can do things. I’m able to fight against the thoughts that are definitely there, but I am able to negate them better. I’m the fighter on the canvass, the referee is on the 7 count and you’re shouting at me to get to my feet and I do. You encourage, I battle, I get up.
As afternoon became evening both guests and VIP’s began to converge on the room. Chris & Louise Cobbold arrived as Dean & I were on our way back up from my “vape break” and I was surprised when Chris recognised me from Twitter (I’m always stunned when anyone recognises me!) It was lovely to meet them both, such warm people and Louise, an exceptional talent. Shortly after, Tim Nash & Kenny Hibbitt entered the room and it was my absolute honour to speak to them both at length. I recounted one of my favourite tales to Kenny, of a time some 25 years ago when he and I had a chance conversation during a short stint when I worked at the now defunct BT Directory Enquiries service. We had chatted then for some 15 minutes (Kenny had called for Swindon Town’s number) and I had got in big trouble with my line manager for holding the line for so long. I didn’t care; I was talking to a Wolves legend and one of my heroes. Kenny told me last night that he had been calling Swindon to try and get a player in on loan! Such a terrific man, down-to-earth, funny and engaging. From reading his book that Tim had authored with him, I just knew he would be that way. It will be one of those meetings in my life that I will never forget.
Not long after, Carl Ikeme came in. It had been my desire all week not only to meet Carl, but to say a few things to him, namely just what an inspiration he has been to me personally in the way his determination to fight his disease has given me the same determination to fight harder in my own battle. Myself, Dean and Chris (HugeWolf) took our copies of The Pack Is Back over to him to sign, get a picture and have a wee chat. Dean & Chris chatted quite freely with Carl, and, although I got him to sign my book, Dean & I had our picture with him, I did get overawed. It’s hard to put my finger on just why, but I am so full of admiration for the way he has battled something so huge & come out the other side that in the moment I felt like my own troubles paled into insignificance. Later, when I reflected on this I realised it wasn’t right to think that way, that I’m playing down the significance of the things I face myself. I don’t want to reel off stats the frighten me (yet, scarily, have no impact whatsoever), however anorexia alone has the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness there is, let alone the dark corridors that the symptoms of borderline personality disorder can lead you down. However, in the moment I forgot all that and just thanked him for signing the book, for the picture, shook his hand and listened as the others talked to him. It was lovely to meet him though, and it was great to see him looking so well, hear him taking things one day and one step at a time, but generally feeling positive about things. An inspirational man as I’ve said, a man I definitely draw a lot from.
The main part of the evening was just incredible. The video presentations looking back at last season swelled me with pride and the same sense of jubilation as it did at various points during that memorable year (as I’m sure it did for just about everyone else), the tributes to John (Foz) Hendley brought a lump to the throat and brought a sense of sadness that he’s no longer with us to share in what’s happening at the club now. The presentation of the Duncan Edwards Award to Steve Plant was just brilliant and, although his own humility made it hard for him, I could tell he was proud to receive it. Steve, sometimes you just have to accept that people want to show you that you are appreciated mate, because you are, and deservedly so. And again, that was further cemented when Chris & Louise Cobbold presented him with a painting that Louise had done of Steve with Steve Bull & Laurie Dalrymple from the End of Season Awards last year. A beautiful touch, a superb painting, and richly deserved. The fundraising auction (all profits last night were going to Birmingham Children’s Hospital) was remarkable. I had a bid on Louise’s original painting of Carl but it went beyond my budget, however the highlight was a stunning £1200 paid for the match worn shirt, signed by Ruben Neves, that he was wearing in the infamous 1-0 away win against Cardiff last season. The generosity shown by that room last night was just astounding but, again, I’m not surprised. When this club, these people, get together to do good things, they do them better than good, they do them to their very best.
Whilst the auction was going on an attractive young lady approached me and said my name. For a second I looked at her blankly, trying to put a name to the face, and then the penny dropped. It was Gemma Sephton, one of the people on Twitter who I had talked to a lot yet, somehow, had always sadly missed at all the matches we had both been to. It was fantastic to finally meet her (and her lovely Dad) and we spent pretty much the rest of the evening chatting, along with lots of the rest of Wolves “family” who were there last night. It was like a match day without the match and no football shirts. We were all dressed up to the 9’s, there was a band, and it was a lot warmer than being in the stands! Amongst the usual suspects were Pat, Phil, Jon & his dad, Horace and Mikey (once he escaped from the far end bar), Simon (simonsaysyow – who was on the door, who was going to argue with him??), Ryan Leister, Suzi, and the superb Steve Green. It was also a total joy to meet Kelly Burge for the first time who said some massively encouraging things, not least about how she could see that I am always happiest when I am in amongst this group of people…
This group of people. I come back to my opening salvo. I have lived and stayed in a lot of places up and down this country. Through the away games this season and through various away games over the years I have never known a support like ours. We have a passion for our team and our club that I have yet to witness anywhere else. Sure, it would be easy to say I have the blinkers on, but honestly, show me the same joy, anticipation, dedication and downright bloody mindedness when our backs are to the wall and I’ll back down. But it’s not just about that. There have been times in the past where on social media I’ve seen some people be a little bit uncomfortable with the term “Wolves family” or “pack.” Maybe they think of it as some “on trend” tag or cliché, but think of it another way. Think of it as a body of people with a set of very unique qualities. I was born in Gloucester. I have no (known) relatives from Wolverhampton or that immediate area. I lived in Bridgnorth for a couple of years from the age of 5 and then in Cleobury Mortimer & Highley for around 8 months when I was 19 before ending up on the streets in London. I declared myself a Wolves fan at the age of 6 when my dad’s RAF mate used to come round and talk about them relentlessly and that stuck. I started going to see them from the age of 16 whenever I could. I had a season ticket for 3 seasons when I was 25 and then new fatherhood and a pressured home life put a stop to it. However, I continued to come as often as I could. It was only last season that I got a season ticket again, before I got to know ANY of most of you reading this. I got it because I’d already spent over 2 years sat in isolation at home, suffering with these illnesses, and a combined 6 months in residential eating disorder hospitals. I needed something to look forward to, I needed something else, I needed ONE love back in my life.
I talk about that life before, me as that social butterfly. I thought I had a lot of friends back then. The truth is this. When I got ill those friends vaporised, almost overnight. Some simply stopped contacting me. Some pushed me so hard that I pulled away from them, and then they stopped contacting me. Some were just plain nasty so I stopped contacting them. The thing is, friends don’t treat you like that, friends stick by you through thick and (excuse my head) thin. When you’re up they celebrate with you, when you’re down they rally and do all they can to lift you. If they can’t lift you they come to your level and they comfort until you’re ready to rise again. Whether those friends are one or many in number is irrelevant, they do it alone or they do it as a group. What they never do is desert you. But that is what happened to me. It’s not a sob story, it’s not me telling you this to get sympathy, it’s just what happened. For a long time I grieved the fact, and then I just accepted and got used to it. The lasting damage was my lack of trust of people, and the resultant anxiety element. Trust is everything in friendship, without it there’s no basis on which to build a friendship in the first place. So, when I started to come back to Wolves on my own I had no expectation of forming friendships, this was just something I was doing on my own. Come to home matches, travel up, take my seat, watch the game, escape a little bit early to avoid big crowd surges, go home, be glad for the time out. And then I got to know some of you on Twitter.
Letting you in, or at least meeting up with you was the easy bit, mostly. Learning to trust again was never going to be given all that had gone. However, YOU lot MAKE it easy because of who you all are. You do all the things that people who care are meant to do, what friends are meant to be for each other. When someone is broken you spend time trying to put all the pieces back together again, when someone is poor you scrabble around together to make them solvent, when someone has nowhere to sleep you’re offering your sofas/mattresses/beds, when someone is hungry you offer a place at your table. It’s not just one or two of you; it’s all of you time and time again. And if you think “oh well it’s just what people do isn’t it?” Well no, it’s not. There is something VERY unique about the people of Wolves that I haven’t seen the like of anywhere else. You stand united, you stand proud, and you look after each other. When one falls you all pick him or her up. You sing together, you laugh together, you cry together. You celebrate together, when times are hard you share the sorrow, dust yourselves down and get ready for the next fight with an optimism that we can rise again. And with me, even on the days I drop my guard and let you know that “hey, I’m still feeling shit, and today it’s even more shit” you don’t say “ah fuck this guy, I’m done with him” – no, you say “Si, we’re still here, and we’re still standing with you. If you need us, we’ll carry you.” I’m typing that with a lump in my throat. I’ve never known a love like it. Big hard blokes who would normally scare the shit out of me, highly professional people, media people, people without two pennies to rub together, retired people, people a lot younger than me – you all stand there and help me, help others, help each other. Selflessly. Do you know how special you are? Wolverhampton people. Black Country people. Wolverhampton Wanderers fans. You are, very literally, the salt of the earth.
I was born in Gloucester. My heart belongs in Wolverhampton. You are my friends. I am blessed.
Last night was special. The book is sensational, Steve Plant is a hero, but above all else I realised I am standing amongst giants.