So What? Now What?: A Personal Experience Of The Euros, Through Pain.
This is an explanation of the circumstances surrounding my (Andy’s) public acknowledgment that I wasn’t doing too well. Sincere thanks to all who reached out. It really is okay to not be okay. It’s not a pity party though - and aims to offer some constructive insight to Scotland’s Euro 2020 experience.
All the best,
Zeitgeist. Spirit. Fervour. Swell. Wave. Call it what you will, but there's a very real thing that sweeps the nation when the Scottish Men's (and Women's) National Teams are doing well. Now add in the fact that the Men's Team had been missing for 23 years, and you'll understand that the Euros was a pretty big deal.
My barometer is that even my mum and dad were making an effort to talk to me about football, and that is saying something after near-on four decades of topical silence.
In fact, as we've chatted, I realised that football has helped me to an extent I didn't previously recognise as being that important.
I actually began to get quite emotional thinking about it, because for me, and perhaps you, it's tied up in a whole host of other things that are not easily loosed.
It's subconsciously how I chart significant moments in my life. For example, our third daughter was born on the 10th June 2016; the same day France beat Romania 2-1 in the opening game of the European Championships. I watched it on the laptop. It was the third child, after all, I was prepared. ;-)
As you might have gathered, I write to think. I'm often not great at actually speaking these thoughts to friends. To tell the truth, important issues tend to sneak up on me and say 'boo' when I'm not paying attention, or when I’m looking too hard somewhere else. Pride doesn’t really come into it, I’m not consciously ignoring or pretending, I’m just not very good at recognising the signs I’m not doing well, but listening to these tiny inclines is important.
So it is, that these little, tiny, conversations with my parents and my wife's family - as we've been able to meet up - have done the sneaking, they've said 'boo'. They addressed something. Now... well now I need to react, and initially, publicy, it has been quite messy.
Here's an explanation why this is important and how it gives me perspective on the Scotland NT's next steps.
When I was 29, I was fit. Two games of football a week, young kids, long distance running... I didn’t think about my body because, well, it worked for what I used it for. I ran to work. I worked long days. I did DIY on the weekends (mostly because we were skint). Then my back literally “popped” during football and gave way. I couldn’t stand. Before long, the pain I’d been ignoring in my toes began to affect my walking and general being. It wasn’t long before I was in constant low-level pain.
Fast forward to little over a year ago, six bone-locking years later, I was admitted to hospital with an infection concerning the operation I had on my foot. As the infection cleared, I had some more tubes coming out and some more needles going in, as they tried to work out what was going on with the ongoing problem related to my toes and back.
My Greek surgeon, a lovely man but obviously used to speaking in quick facts, asked a question he asks every time he sees me, and it's just as unsettling each time, chiefly because the answer is still 'no'; “have you been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease yet?”.
I'm an interesting case-study apparently, as I'm not yet 40, wasn’t overweight, didn’t drink to get drunk, I run, or ran, frequently, played football, had an active job. Basically, it doesn't make sense that my body should be like this. Sure, you'd expect some wear and tear, and at first it was just assumed as osteo-arthritis, but to this extent?
I remember the same surgeon's face looking at the X-Rays on my toes for the first time and breathing in through his clenched teeth before turning and saying, 'That must be very painful. You probably have an auto-immune condition, I'm going to refer you to rheumatology. you need surgery on both toes, which one do you want to fix first?'
Now - I'm not for one minute saying this for pity. What I mean to say is highlight the fact that human beings are vulnerable, we're not immortal, and sometimes, things come along and arrest this in our minds; like an unforeseen obstacle might suddenly jar a vessel to a shuddering halt.
What accompanies this is, obviously, fear. Fear, and questions, lots and lots of questions as we try to find some stable ground, the same way the onboard crew might've. 'What was that?'
'Where did it hit us?'
'Who's down there?'
'Is everyone alright?' 'Are we seaworthy?'
"How far is land?'
To overcome fear, you need a positive and proactive thing to do. To take your mind off of it. Zeitgeist. Spirit. Fervour. Swell. Wave. Call it what you will, but there's a very real thing that sweeps the nation when the Scottish Men's (and Women's) National Teams are doing well; this was my antidote to fear.
This was my focus. My way out from asking questions like, 'what kind of auto-immune condition?', 'is it serious?', 'how serious?', 'my kids, my kids, my kids. My wife. Our kids. What's going to happen?', 'How far is land?'. Funny thing is, I started A\M from a hospital bed when there really wasn't much to cheer over Scotland, there was no dark blue on the horizon, no obviously positive distraction.
However, as a default optimist, committed to supporting Scotland, I believed that if you looked hard enough, there might well be a dove with a branch in its mouth. There always is.
I'd stood beside my mate Davie as Robbo scored a screamer against Cyprus, as Burke snatched a last-gasp winner, as Forrest bagged a hat-trick against Israel. It would be more accurate to say that I'd stood, barely. I leant on what was around me, crumpled. My back had packed in again. I made it back to the car, just. Just as I had when I watched Radiohead in Glasgow Green and hobbled on my brother-in-law's arm back to the car. Just as I would when I visited my mate in London and we went to the Tutankhamun Exibition I'd waited my whole life to see.
My mate and I checking out King Tut in his Wah Wah Hut.
That's the other thing about pain. It doesn't care if you're having a nice time. It's completely indiscriminate.
So - what has this to do with Scotland? Well, as I say, they gave me an out. Specifically, Billy Gilmour's debut gave me an out. A focus. A positive distraction. A sapling in the dove’s mouth that, in turn, grew to a branch, and because I like recognising and talking about growth, before long, I was imagining the tree and the roots.
On that hospital bed, I began writing again, bought a website, and, quite amazingly, a year and many thousands of views, interactions and near-on 30 articles later, here we are.
It is truly very humbling.
I didn't have any grand expectations, and truthfully, I'm amazed anyone would read it at all. I see the numbers, I know how fleetingly people stay on websites with other things vying for their attention, so I’m grateful for every minute someone might engage with our material.
I'm writing this now following a second operation. I'm about to go and see my Greek pal and then physio again this afternoon to see how things are going. We'll rank my pain out of 10 and I'll see him again in 7-10 years or so to do the same operation again on both toes - with my age we tried a new thing to preserve movement as much as possible but it's not long-lasting.
We still don't know what the underlying problem is. I don't know if we'll ever get that answer, my wife and I, but what we can say for certain is that it's not that important anymore.
Of course, diagnoses inform treatment, and that's good. But it's a bit like when the parents and families and schools of children I support say to me, 'we just need a diagnosis'.
I understand why they say this - they need answers. Fear is real. They need a focus, and an explanation. I just try to comfort and help where possible, it's not my place to do otherwise and certainly not to tell them how to think. Sadly, they need to experience this on the journey. It's a station on the road, unfortunately, this pain. But what I would say is that as good as a diganosis is, and it is important, it doesn't change the thing you do next; whatever that is, and whenever you're ready to do it.
In other words, when things go, 'boo!', we are faced with a very present fear, perhaps even grief, before then encountering the next question - and one my disseration tutor would constantly ask (in a very warm way - he cared deeply); 'So what? Now what?'
'So What? Now What?'
Seems abrupt. He and my surgeon might get on, you think. Well, facts are abrupt; they don't pander. These people had the content knowledge and skills to deliver the news I needed to hear; not out of malice, but because they care. They want to do a good job by me, or by their patients/children in their care.
Scotland reaching the Euros has been painful.
Scotland participating in the Euros was, at times, painful.
Scotland exiting the Euros was painful.
Indiscriminate pain can be an inevitable station on the way to growth. And this Scotland team have unarguably experienced pain, and growth.
The question now is, how do we sustain it?
Let’s acknowledge that we’re hurting, now. Let’s get a diagnosis.
To do this, we need to understand the history of the patient.
We’ve plumbed depths that we don't want to return to (Kazakhstan/Russia). We've encountered some very acute and uncomfortable experiences along the way, highlighting areas for improvement. But what is it we know about growth and subsequent improvement? It takes time, and is often painful.
The question is, is it worth persevering with? Or to ask it another way, is pain really ever avoidable?
Is my personal rehabilitation worth doing when it’s chronically painful? Yes. One thousand times yes. It will be worth everything when I can run with my kids again. When I can play football with my pals. However, that’s the goal, and I know that there’s more pain ahead... that’s the mature response.
I’m also immeasurably grateful for the pain and capability that I do have. I certainly don’t take them for granted anymore.
Other than pain, and growth, I honestly don't know what the future holds, no one does. What I can say, is that the same questions my tutor posed to me, the most helpful questions I've been challenged by, remain pertinent for any growth, in any situation, even, or rather, particularly those situations which are most painful:
'So What? Now What?' We qualified for the Euros. That's the 'So'. We were there. It happened. We boogied.
However, I really don’t think this is the end. Diagnosis: failure, isn’t the end.
What has impressed me so much about the growth under Clarke, is the whole team's commitment to pursuing the 'Now'. Robbo spoke about it post-exit;
“We want this to be the start. We want more.”
In other words, sometimes obstacles come along that bring the vessel to a shuddering halt. Fear. Anger. But then... So what? Now what?
Fear and grief and anger are natural, and we’ve seen all of the above laid out methodically on the Socials over the last few days. However, if left to fester without direction, they become poisonous abs harder to uproot. Sure, we learn from the pain, but we don’t dwell. After a period of time, it’s up to each of us to ask what must do now.
In other words, pain and fear must be harnessed. Mastered, if possible. Redirected. Repurposed.
The beautiful thing is, some pain can be harnessed, it can sometimes even be mastered, and channelled; believe me.
My pain led to making a poem with my best mate and a childhood hero, for our National Team, on the eve of our first tournament in 23 years. This is scarcely believable and closer to the realm of fantasy than anything I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of fantasy. But it happened.
Pain, leading to growth.
You might be experiencing some of that yourself.
Maybe you’re only seeing or feeling the pain.
Like others helped me, you’re not alone. Reach out. Acknowledge the fear, maybe ask ‘how far is land?’ But please do it, please look for that dark blue horizon and dove with a sapling, because it is there, and revealed through kindnesses scarcely imaginable beforehand.
That‘s what makes growth worth fighting for.