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- Alex Paylor -

"Vacant Chair"

A Chelsea supporter died on Saturday, July 25th, and I cried.

I don’t know how far I can get into writing this column before the tears begin to flow again.

His name was Geoff Williams, and he died just 10 days shy of his 46th birthday.

Geoff came to Canada in the early days of 1967, some 14 months after my family moved here from Manchester. Geoff was 14, and I was just a few months younger than he.

His family came from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and he was a dyed in the wool Chelsea supporter. I had spent as many afternoons and evenings at Old Trafford as he had at Stamford Bridge. Probably more, since United were usually involved in Europe, something Chelsea could not claim at that time. And that was a fact of which I reminded him constantly. His was the Chelsea of Osgoode, Hollins, Hudson and Bonetti. Mine was the United of Best, Law, Charlton and Herd.

But, there is a common bond which forms right away between youngsters who move from their homeland and meet in another country. Geoff and I were the first compatriots each had met in this new country of ours, and that fact formed the foundation of a friendship which was to last nearly 32 years.

Until that Saturday.

Our parents met, and became friends. Geoff and I did all of the things most teenage friends did. We learned to skate and play ice hockey together, which was mandatory if you were going to be a lad in Canada. We swam together in Lake Huron, the Great Lake at the foot of which our new hometown of Sarnia, Ontario was situated. We sailed together on that same water in his fathers boat. We joined our high school soccer team, and played in the local league for youngsters together as well.

We shared the first cigarette either of us would ever smoke. It was filched from Geoff’s mother’s fag packet, and we lit up, inhaled, got dizzy and damn near vomited together in the garage of his house. From time to time, we shared a beer taken from one of the family fridges, and occasionally raided our respective household liquor cabinets, curious as to the lure of these liquids for our parents. We chased girls together, denying to each other any real emotional feeling for those we occasionally caught.

Other lads from the UK came into the picture too. Tom from Redcar, a Middlesborough supporter, Pete, from Glasgow, a Rangers fan. Graham, a Prestwich lad, and, to my delight, a fellow Manchester United supporter. George was born in Canada, but his mother was from London, and George supported Millwall.

Football brought us all together. Each played for his school, and most played together on a team in our local men’s league, young lads in their mid teens cracking the line up, with all the skill and ambition of young lads everywhere who love and play this game.

We spent almost every waking moment together, as boys became young men. We pubbed and clubbed together, gathered at each others houses, and as we gained girlfriends dated together. We became inseparable, as good friends do in adolescence. And even as careers and marriages took us in different directions, we remained close in heart, even though at times we were spread almost from one coast to the other of this vast land. And when we got together again, usually at weddings or on return visits home, we took up where we had left off. It may have been months, perhaps years since we had all been in the same room, but you wouldn’t have known that by our conversation, our humour and our easy camaraderie. It could have been just the night before that we had said our last good-byes.

A lasting friendship had grown among this group of men, akin, I feel, the to kind of bond my father used to tell me had grown between him and the lads he served with in the forces in wartime. And it all really began with a meeting between Geoff and me, that first conversation which, although I don’t remember, am sure included a discussion of football, rabid fans as we were. And it was football through which all of the others were met.

We stood with Geoff on a cold day 25 years ago, in a cemetery where we laid his father to rest, the victim of a heart attack at the age of 46. We spent countless hours mourning with him in the months to come, trying to help ease the pain of his loss, trying to understand, and to forgive the rage he felt, and of which sometimes we were the targets.

But if football, and our common heritage, brought us all together, real bonds of friendship kept us together, and still does, 30 years and more later.

Well most of us. 11 years ago we gathered to say goodbye to Pete, dead at the age of 33 from cancer. The remaining members of our group joined together to comfort each other on the loss of the man who had been, I would venture to say, the finest footballer of us all. I mean this lad could hit a ball equally hard, and with the same precision with either foot, a skill of which I could only dream. My left leg was there only because football boots come in pairs, and there had to be somewhere to put the left one.

That awful day, we who were left, cried, hugged, and tried to comfort the others as best we could. We drank a toast to Pete, remembered times shared with him, bad and good, and went back to our own lives, a little poorer for his loss. Our lone Ranger was gone.

Graham, George, and I ended up living in London, Ontario, 60 miles away from Sarnia, where Geoff and Tom remained. Although we didn’t see each other often we kept in touch. Knowing any of the others was available at the end of a phone line was enough to keep the bond alive.

Which football club each of us supported was only a subject for light hearted joking. If United beat Chelsea, Geoff knew he was in for some ribbing. If the result was reversed then I would brace myself for what I knew was to come. Had we still lived in our respective hometowns in England the exchanges would have been less friendly, I know.

A few years ago Geoff called to say he had recently undergone surgery for cancer in his mouth. I prayed he had won over this hateful affliction, this devil disease which had already robbed us of one of our group, and had attacked another, Tom, not so long before. Tom, I am happy to say, won his battle. And I prayed it would be so for Geoff.

But in April of this year Geoff’s girlfriend, Linda, called me to say Geoff had undergone radical surgery to remove cancer from his mouth once again. He was in hospital in the city in which I live. I went to the hospital to visit him, and what the disease had done to my friend broke my heart. Yet he showed me a courage I could only wish for had the situation been reversed. He would fight back, he said, and he would win.

On subsequent visits to him the talk would always turn to football, and the day Chelsea won the European Cup Winners Cup, I was as happy as I would have been had I been a “Blues” fan myself. Geoff was unable to see the game so I called the hospital right after the final whistle to tell him the final score.

Geoff was coming back to London five days a week for treatment. Last Tuesday I went to the cancer clinic hoping to see him. Sadly I missed him. No problem, I would catch him there some other day. And on Saturday his sister called me to say he had gone, quietly, in his sleep early that morning.

Yesterday I stood on top of the grave of Geoff’s father as my friend was taken to his own grave nearby. I touched his coffin and told him I will miss him, and the tears began to flow, as they are again now.

Geoff’s favourite song, the Stones 'You Can’t Always Get What You Want' was played at his funeral. No, Geoff, you can’t. Because if you could always get what you want, and if, as Mick sang, “If you try sometimes you might just find you get what you need”, then you would still be here, so I could call you to rub it in when United thrash Chelsea again this season.

Hell, I would even accept a loss at Stamford Bridge this year for that to happen.


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