When I was still training twice a week at Glenavon F.C. I would sometimes see a girl with long blond hair walking past the football ground. She was always on the opposite side of the road and I don’t think she ever noticed me. I was never really all that interested in going out with girls, there were more important things to do and for some reason I never felt overly interested in dating seriously.
I did go out with a couple of girls but there was never anything serious. Before becoming a Christian my time was completely taken up with football, fishing and shooting. I loved being out in the countryside, there was peace and tranquillity to be found in abundance and there was never any harsh words or domestic violence to cope with. Now that I was spending more time at the church something had to go out of my full schedule and to my amazement it was football.
I think it is accurate to say that I stopped playing seriously when I was approaching eighteen. I was playing for Glenavon seconds and Sunnyside at the time and was on top of the world that I was playing in the second team. I got into the team when the regular goalkeeper had to go to England due to his work. He was away for a couple of months from my recollection. I can still remember the feeling of elation when the manager came around the dressing room at the end of a match and give the players a pound. I could not believe it that someone would pay me to do something that I absolutely loved to do, in fact at that time I would probably have paid to play for my town club.
I felt small when I was playing in the under eighteen league, in the B division I felt like a miniature pigmy. I will never forget one day when we played Dungannon Swifts away from home, their players looked like giants to me. As I mentioned before that opposing teams would comment to one another about my height and they would often try to lob the ball over my head but I had no problem jumping and reaching the bar. What I lacked in height I gained in agility and determination. During the match Dungannon got a corner kick and my position was always the same, I had both backs guard a post each and if the ball would come into the six yard box I would go for it. Their centre forward was massive, it was David v Goliath but I was confident in my ability to jump and take the ball of his head. The corner kick came into the six yard box, I ran and jumped and took the ball of the giants head. Boy did I feel good, sadly the good feeling ended abruptly as I found myself hitting the back of the net with the ball still in my hands.
He hit me full whack while I was still in the air and who knows where I might have landed if the net had not stopped me. I gathered myself out of the back of the net and put the ball down for a free kick only to be told by the referee that he had given a goal. Like the rest of my team I could not believe it, I chased the referee up towards the halfway line protesting against his unbelievable decision but he did not change his mind.
Eventually the regular goalkeeper returned from England and I was dropped without any explanation so I went on the huff and stopped training. I was told that if I did not train I would not be allowed to play but my stubborn streak manifested itself quite proudly and I held my ground. On the Friday night before the match the next day my manager came to the door checking if I was ok to play on Saturday. I told him no because he had told me that I could not play if I did not train and I had stopped training. He told me he would make an exception for me but I still said no and that was the end of my football career.
I was not sure how I would cope with football no longer being such an important part of my life but I did not miss it at all. I was becoming more and more involved in the local church of the Nazarene and my time was given to working in the church in whatever way I could. There was a very good Friday night youth club in the church and there would often be around eighty young people milling around. There were three table tennis tables down stairs and badminton and football up stairs.
Do you remember the girl with the long blond hair that I mentioned earlier, well one Sunday night she turned up at our church with a friend. I thought I was dreaming, I had never been up close to her before as we always passed each other on the opposite side of the street. She was beautiful, I tried not to stare at her but I could not help myself. I knew absolutely nothing about her, where she lived, what her name was or anything else. I was still quite shy around girls and I made no effort to communicate with her because I was afraid of embarrassing myself.
We had a youth fellowship in the church that met after the church service and both girls started to attend that as well as the youth club on Friday. They had been coming for a couple of weeks and I still had not had a conversation with her. One night I found myself playing doubles with her at badminton, we were on the same side and her friend and my friend were on the other side. My timid little heart was pounding with both excitement and fear, what would I say to her if she spoke to me? It did not take long before disaster struck, I hit her full smack in the eye with the shuttle cock and she left the hall with her friend, in tears.
I was worried that I had damaged her eye but also that she would avoid me now. Thankfully they both returned to the hall and I went and apologised to her, that is my first memory of speaking to her. I think it was a couple of weeks after this that her friend who was also good looking came up to me in the church foyer and asked me a direct question that nearly sent me to glory. She asked me what I thought of her friend, did I like her, would I like to go out with her? I thought that I had suddenly been struck dumb, no words would come out of my mouth and I felt the blood rushing to my head and I was aware that my face was glowing like a red traffic light in the dark.
Eventually I said one of the stupidest things that I could have said, I said something like, “I suppose she is all right”. It was a Homer Simpson moment, “D o, h”. She told me that her friend liked me and would go on a date with me if I was willing. I was taken by surprise and found it hard to believe that this beautiful girl could see anything interesting or appealing in me. My feelings of low self worth and low self esteem were still a real stumbling block to me; I had no real self confidence either.
I can remember making up all kinds of excuses as to why I had no spare time to meet her but her friend was very persistent and she could think quicker than I could. After processing all of my excuses she said to me that I would be free on Saturday evening. That was the only time I had not made an excuse for and she had picked it up. Before I knew it a date had been arranged between me and the beautiful girl with the long blond hair. I did not sleep very well that night, I was worried that she would not turn up the next day and if she did what would I say to her. What was unknown to me at this time was that I had a deep potentially crippling fear within me that would only manifest itself in the months that lay ahead.