You’ll Never Walk Alone

by | December 2020 A (Day 2)

My best friend Jordan was a Liverpool FC fan. The club went thirty years without winning a title – longer than Jordan was on this Earth.

Growing up, I used to take great pleasure in reminding him how awful at football Liverpool were. Jordan was bigger and more popular and better looking and better than me at everything. It was the only leverage I had.

In 2014, when we were young men living together in the first place that wasn’t our parents’, the team went on an incredible run. I’d never seen Jordan loving life the way he was in those weeks. Like all Liverpool fans, his swagger increased with every win. Then in one of the last games, Steven Gerrard – Liverpool’s captain and talisman, the apple of the fans’ eyes – slipped and gave the ball away at a crucial moment. It cost them the match and ultimately that elusive title.

I often think of the images of Gerrard after that slip. A local working-class boy turned global icon, pushed down by the world of expectation on his shoulders in front of a hundred television cameras. Truthfully, I felt for him as a man, as a human. But I could never show it.

I used to send Jordan relentless comedy GIFs and memes of that Gerrard slip, accompanied by laughing emojis. He would retaliate by threatening to tell everyone all my embarrassing little secrets. I knew he wouldn’t, though. I knew all his embarrassing little secrets too.

In 2019, Liverpool went close again. By the time it slipped through their fingers once more, we knew the tumour that had been discovered on Jordan’s brain was inoperable.

Even when he lost his speech; even when he could only just use his hand to send messages, there were always new Gerrard slip memes to send him and I couldn’t resist.

But the last message between us was something innocuous. A thumbs up emoji in response to me telling him I was five minutes from the hospice.

That animated yellow thumb became a remnant of him, I guess. I look at it often and always will.

Tonight, Liverpool Football Club became champions and it’s the top national news story. I’m on my own. On the TV, there’s images of the players and fans in tears. There’s champagne and red and white ticker tape everywhere. Everyone’s singing the club’s anthem – You’ll Never Walk Alone.

I’ve been looking at Jordan’s thumb the whole time.

I message back.

I tell him ‘About time’.

15 Comments

  1. David O'Connor

    As a cule–Barca fan, I remember these games well. This line jumped out–He would retaliate by threatening to tell everyone all my embarrassing little secrets–as a place to explore, show some of the juicy bits…

    That said, this line–By the time it slipped through their fingers once more, we knew the tumour that had been discovered on Jordan’s brain was inoperable.—is like scoring on a corner in the 93rd minute, brilliant. The shift from one-upmanship laddism to… well tumour is a brilliant hook. And from then on, to the end, almost brought me to tears from the tenderness, the juxtaposition between the winning and losing is powerful. Hits home hard. Thank you, and excellent work.

    (ps…Maybe slid some Klopp quotes in there as a title–the guy is a master of optimism…)

    • Neil Clark

      You’ll have loved that 4-0 game in 2019 then!

      Thank you so much for the kind comments, David. And yes, I’m sure a search of Jurgen quotes would throw up plenty of potential titles!

  2. Bud Smith

    Whoa. I liked this a lot and I have no knowledge of these games, or any of the players. The writing stands alone and is universal through its specificity. My one note is a silly one. In the beginning of the story when the name “Jordan” popped up I thought of Michael Jordan and the thirty years thing threw me for a small loop because Jordan didn’t play for 30 years, is not dead, and is number 23. Then I thought, oh, maybe Jordan is a typo for Jesus who died when he was 33. I’m silly, and I’m American. Haha. But that was how the initial reading went down, didn’t cause much of a hiccup but just wanted to mention it, whenever the name Jordan comes up, a lot of people will think of Michael Jordan just like if you had used a biblical name it would be associated with the bible, for instance, Moses will always make me think of the Moses who parted the red sea even if it’s Moses Malone. That being said, I liked this story a lot and it was sad and heartbreaking and I liked the secrets the men had that were private and not relayed to us the reader and how the man on the field slipping is representative of the friend who’s life is slipping away. <3

    • Neil Clark

      Glad you liked it, Bud!

      Yeah I forget how big a thing Michael Jordan is over there! The Last Dance recently got people talking about him, but he’s not so ingrained in the culture here that we’d make that association so quickly. Plus, Jordan is a very common first name in the UK.

      It’s not a big deal to change it, though, so I will do that so as not to distract any American readers. Thanks for pointing it out – it would never have occurred to me.

      • Bud Smith

        cool cool, also, you know, pandering to American readers isn’t that big of a deal, not something that would probably matter much in the grand scheme of things, these damn Americans don’t read anyways

  3. Janelle Greco

    I really liked this, Neil. The end felt so heartbreaking and perfect. Like Bud, I have no knowledge of the players or the game. My mind wandered in some of those spots on my first read when the narrator talks about Gerrard, but on the second I felt more attuned to how the game paralleled Jordan’s own journey. I want to know some more about Jordan too. What were some of the secrets between the narrator and him that they threatened to tell? Also, instead of telling us how much Jordan loved life during the weeks when the team was ahead, maybe give some examples that might better show him loving life. Was he cheering? Exuberant? Lovely piece. Thank you for sharing!

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks Janelle! I will definitely take your advice about examples that show Jordan’s personality.

  4. Amy Barnes

    Love how your first lines sets the stage for how the story is going to end, with a statistics/sports tie-in. That gives this narrator and their friend a voice from the beginning. Great pacing interspersing the sports facts and events with the life events as the friendship progresses. I like the suggestion of putting in a few quotes to further the story — maybe a tie-in to the friendship? But in a non-saccharine way.

    “My best friend Jordan was a Liverpool FC fan. The club went thirty years without winning a title – longer than Jordan was on this Earth.”

    You should check out Stymie Lit as a potential sub option. They just relaunched after a hiatus and are a “journal for sport, games, and literature.” No guarantees but this feels like a great fit for them. http://www.stymiemag.org/p/guidelines_14.html

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks Amy! They seems like a perfect fit once I’ve polished this.

  5. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Neil, Tender story. I loved it for several reasons.

    First, too often tenderness between guys (lads in DOC’s appropriate comment) is missing, and in the GIP way you show the both the tenderness and the difficulty of directly expressing that. Well done.

    I love the story of Liverpool also. I did know a little about that history, which amazes me because I’m neither British nor a consistent soccer fan (apologies for the US diction). But the analogies in the US are there. Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox.

    I also love the deeper understanding of Girard’s slip, the working class, pushed down again, brought tears to my eyes, and then this: “In 2019, Liverpool went close again. By the time it slipped through their fingers once more, we knew the tumour that had been discovered on Jordan’s brain was inoperable.”

    I really have no edits to suggest. For me, it stands as it is, and I will never hear stories of the Liverpool club the same again. Thank you.

    • Neil Clark

      Aw thank you so much, Martha! Glad it resonated with you so much.

  6. K Chiucarello

    Such a gorgeous piece and a soften side of voice than the last one. Very appreciate to have looked into this moment.

    Here’s some lines/fragments/passages I was especially drawn to: “It was the only leverage I had.” “He would retaliate by threatening to tell everyone all my embarrassing little secrets.” “There’s champagne and red and white ticker tape everywhere. ”

    This piece pivots so well through so many different emotions and ultimately examines everyday friendships that we would be lost without. The brutality of the piece midway comes at the perfect time and in general the piece hinges so well on nostalgia, loss, and created memory. There’s just something about the emoji presence that is beyond aching, this action that we do with everyone, a lighthearted gesture that conveys so much when we are unable to communication. Very well done, Neil. Hope to see this piece circulating soon.

  7. Kevin Sterne

    this really hit me. sports are such an odd thing that seems to unify us. Sometimes they’re the only thing we can talk about with someone. There’s always double speak, the unsaid. A person talking sports can say so much about themselves and who they are. It’s really worth exploring and I’m glad you’re doing it with this. My advice is to keep thinking about this one and keep plugging away at it. Seek out stories like this, talk to people. You’re onto something really big here

    • Neil Clark

      Thank you Kevin! Everything you said is so true. Sometimes to be able to bond with someone over sports is like knowing a different language.

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