It was Boxing Day 2009, and we were playing our traditional village tournament in Y Felinheli which began as far back as 2008. There is no documented evidence on how the event began, but oral history and an oblique reference in the Mabinogion suggests that a few of the has-beens in the village still fancied themselves and invented an opportunity to prove they “still had it”. It would be childish of me to mention that I saved four penalties in the event, but I need to refute the cruel insinuations that I was unbeatable only because I was wider than the goal.
Whatever the unimportant details of that glorious day when I saved 4 (FOUR) penalties, the important thing is that I went into the matches with a dodgy knee. Yes, I “still had it”, and I’ve still got it now – “it” appears to be a torn meniscus – my cartilage has gone.
Big men have no business playing football – there are a couple of other “former pro’s” in the village who also turn out on Boxing Day, and without fail they are injured for several weeks after the event. We promise ourselves that we’ll take it easy, but in the heat of battle all sense is lost and we stretch, tackle and dive as if we were playing an FA Cup Final. I once saw a man sprint. Can you believe it? But we can’t help it – we’re still kids at heart and it all seems worth it when I think back to the incredible scenes at Tafarn y Fic after my tournament-winning penalty save from Carwyn Dafydd in 2008. As I entered the room, every person in the soon-to-be-refurbished lounge bar stood as a man and chanted “We all want a team of Phil Steads”. I felt I had arrived.
While I was lying in hospital morbidly considering my mortality, I got to thinking about my relationship with my sons. It began to occur to me that maybe I have been treating them as small footballers instead of children. I sometimes forget Ifan’s birthday, but I can tell you now that it was on October 13th, 2009 that I realised his best position was centre-half, preferably playing in a kind of libero role. When he was a baby, I would repeatedly roll a ball to Gruff’s left foot, knowing that left-sided players were more scarce. (It worked!)
They say that you try to give your children the things you never had yourself – and my biggest regret (apart from my misplaced honour and reluctance to take advantage of some seriously vulnerable young girls in my youth) was my failure to play football at any decent level. I won’t go so far as to say that “I coulda been a contender”, but I could have played for Grange Albion 3rds if I’d looked after myself.
Here I am (back-right) with our school mini-rugby team at the finals of a National tournament at the old Cardiff Arms Park in 1978. I wish I could have been a better rugby player – I tell my boys now that the social side of that game is better than football – but I was hopeless. I hated having my toes stepped on, and scrums hurt my ears. Rugby was not for me.
It was around this time I had my trial for Cardiff Schools as a goalkeeper. I did OK and progressed to the final trial on the Marl in Grangetown when I made the biggest mistake of my limited sporting life. As I was rolling the ball to the edge of the area I was tackled by a quick centre-forward and conceded the goal which put an end to my hopes. The keeper they did select that day was a lad from Llanrumney called Wayne Russell, who went on to play professionally for Burnley.
After that disappointment I moved upfield to centre-forward. It seems bizarre now to think that I was the tallest boy in the team. Here I am playing for my club, Fairwater Boys (in yellow), on our tour of Belgium in about 1980. This pre-match photo was taken to show people back home how much older and bigger our opposition were. I was having none of it. I was an old-fashioned charging-bull of a player, and I didn’t want to be intimidated by the opposition. So while everyone else crouched down to emphasise the unfair odds, I refused to cow-tow and stood at the back alongside the Belgians.
We were a good side, and I wasn’t a terrible player. I know that a few of the better kids had decent Welsh League careers, and I really regret not playing some form of competitive football. One problem was that I simply stopped growing at the age of 14. I was 5ft 9″ and I stayed 5ft 9″, though I suspect that I have already started the shrinking process. The other problem was that I discovered music at about the same age. I still played football, but my youth scedule was filled with orchestras and bands. I turned out in goal for a hapless Cardiff Medics team while in college, and then later for “Inter Ifor”, a team formed by regulars of Clwb Ifor Bach which played on astroturf, but I just didn’t have the fitness and gradually let it go. I remember turning up to play in the evening after a lunchtime drinking session on a Sunday, and was subbed early on to be replaced by Cerys Matthews of Catatonia.
So when the Felinheli Boxing Day tournament arrived to give me the chance of a glorious Indian Summer, I couldn’t let it pass. And with that single goal kick at the top of the screen I felt my knee go. That was 15 months ago now and it still remains untreated. I’ve seen 3 GPs, two orthopaedic, and 3 different physotherapists – I’ve had X-Rays, anti-inflammatories and stretching exercises. But for 15 months I’ve been unable to cycle, walk any distance or play football with my kids. My knee is knackered.
The current diagnosis is that it is a torn meniscal as a result of trauma, wear-and-tear, and let’s be frank, the sheer grind involved in supporting an 19 stone man who still imagines himself as a 17 year old. The injury needs an MRI scan to be fully assessed, and I’ve been waiting for my appointment to come through for about a month now. The delay is partly my fault – I’ve refused an MRI scan throughout, due to my fears over claustrophobia, but it was only last month that somebody told me I wouldn’t need to be fully entombed. And also there is an option for an “open MRI” in Aberystwyth where they have a machine specially built for people who can’t face the usual procedure.
I anticipate a 3-month wait, and then a further length of time before treatment once the diagnosis is confirmed. Then it will be keyhole surgery. During that time, I can’t run, cycle, or even use my legs to swim. I’ve got no idea how I’m going to get fit enough to train for the Alpe D’Huez, but I’ll think of something, even if it’s a nightly dose of illegal steroids.
Many of you will only know me as a fat man. But this photograph was taken in 1990, just before I began my era of debauchery with Welsh National Opera. I must have been about 14 stone. With a life sentence of practical sobriety ahead of me, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to drop the 5 stone that would get me back to this size. If I want to take on the Alpe D’Huez, I’ll need to go a couple of stone further.
So there we are – the barriers to success. A couple of blood clots, some residual damage from a bout of myelitis, morbid obesity, and the least serious, but most pressing – a torn cartilage. It’s probably not worth mentioning the heart defect they found on my ECG tests. I’m sure that’s nothing to worry about.