I told Oscar to wait outside and I went in and said to the barman: ‘Would it be all right if my grandson came in to watch the football?’ ‘Of course,’ he said. My notion that children aren’t allowed in pubs must be a quaint one because his harassed, hardworking face creased into a bemused smile and a man seated at the bar laughed.
We had four screens of various sizes to choose from: one behind the bar, one above the pool table, one above the fireplace and one fixed to the wall at the end of the bar. About a dozen customers were half paying attention to the screens above the fireplace and devoting the other half to obscenity-laden conversation. The swearing in this intensely local bar was unselfconscious, unemphatic and universal. Yet there was a civility and a welcoming warmth, I felt, in the polite manner with which we were ignored. Perhaps love of football was credential enough.
Vaguely conscious of one of life’s landmarks, I ordered a Coke for Oscar and a pint of lager for myself. The lager was served in a tall branded glass. I passed on the change (from a £10 note) to Oscar, who received it with such modest grace that I gave him all the money I had in my trouser pockets and all the cash I had in my wallet. Then, after a small hesitation, I gave him the wallet as well. Real snakeskin, it was; made in Italy.
We chose an empty table seven feet away from the screen fixed to the wall at the end of the bar, sat down and immediately devoted our attention to the game, which had been going for 20 minutes. Nil-nil still. It was a scrappy, frenetic game with little goalmouth action. But with so many skilful players on both sides, surely somebody, we thought, would show a flash of genius at any moment and open the game up.
The rest of the first half was largely un-eventful, however, despite the intensity of the play. The respective goalkeepers had little to do. The only incident of note occurred towards the end of the half, when our attention was drawn to a strapping, square-shouldered young man who stepped up to the bar and chucked his pint over the barman, telling him that he was lucky he didn’t get the glass smashed over his head as well. Oscar didn’t know what had provoked him to take this course of action and neither did I. Evidently we had missed the prelude. The beer-thrower was persuaded against his will to leave the premises. The barman carefully dried his head with a bar towel then dialled a number on a remarkably old-fashioned telephone and spoke calmly to someone. By the time he had replaced the receiver on its hook and returned to his post, all eyes were firmly back on the screens.
We wiled away half-time with a game of pool on the shabby and torn pool table, which Oscar won. Like the football match, it was a scrappy, unsatisfying game. When the teams came out for the second half we returned to our drinks with a hope of better things to come. But the second half was another scrappy deadlock. ‘Who do you want to win?’ said Oscar. (We both of us were neutrals.) ‘Dunno,’ I said.
With ten minutes to go, a young man with straw-coloured hair carried a plate piled high with chips and noodles to a nearby empty table and began hungrily to reduce it. Five minutes later, an emaciated woman marched over and gave him a piece of her mind. She had wanted fish and chips was the main thrust of her grievance, but it was mostly swearing and abuse. ‘There’s children here,’ he pleaded. ‘It’s a pity you don’t care for your own fucking children,’ she said. Then she took a swing at him, connecting with the side of his face, causing a whole chip to fly out of his mouth. Simultaneously the ref awarded a penalty to Manchester City. Jesus was asking for the ball; Mahrez was insisting on taking it. At last some excitement.
Unfortunately, Mahrez was about to commence his run-up when the woman’s head was in the way again. Swearing most foully, she plucked up the guy’s dinner plate and threw it at him. Oscar and I had to half rise in our seats and crane our necks this way and that to watch Mahrez blast the ball over the crossbar and into row Z. A general groan of disappointment in the pub told what the clientele thought of the dreadful miss. Then thankfully the woman departed and we had a clear view of the replay. The blond bloke stood up to pick noodles off his T-shirt and found more stuck to his jeans. He looked unhappy about it, but not upset. Of the two, it was Riyad Mahrez who looked the more upset.
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