WHEN the Kilmarnock players sat down to dinner on Saturday night, one subject dominated their conversation. The shocking collapse of Fabrice Muamba during Bolton’s FA Cup quarter-final at Tottenham earlier in the evening was uppermost in their minds.
Little could the Rugby Park squad have imagined how a truly sobering weekend for football would subsequently converge upon them in such grievous circumstances as witnessed at Hampden on Sunday afternoon.
The fatal heart attack suffered by Jack Kelly, father of Kilmarnock midfielder Liam, at the conclusion of the 8-1 underdogs’ outstanding League Cup final defeat of Celtic cast a pall of gloom over what should have been a scene of unmitigated celebration for the Ayrshire club. In tandem with Muamba’s critical illness, it has prompted many to observe that events such as these place football in its proper perspective. That is true to an extent, although no-one should expect football supporters to keep that perspective firmly in view for too long.
The escapism which the game provides, from the demands and stresses of everyday life, has always been among its biggest attractions, stretching back to the days when a half-day off on a Saturday saw men head straight from the pit heads to the terraces. Taking football far more seriously than we should is something of which everyone connected with the game is regularly guilty.
It is why Celtic manager Neil Lennon and his players felt so wronged when the final whistle blew at Hampden on Sunday. Lennon’s combustible reaction to referee Willie Collum’s denial of Celtic’s 92nd-minute penalty claim, when Anthony Stokes went down under Michael Nelson’s challenge from behind, was as instinctive as it was unreasoned.
As inappropriate as Lennon’s criticism of Collum may appear when set against the tragic backdrop of Liam Kelly’s sorrow, it was also evidence of the powerful emotions football provokes among those most closely involved in it. If that was not the case, if it really didn’t matter, then Hampden would not have been full on Sunday and the pages of this newspaper and many others would not devote so much space to the national sport.
Lennon, of course, requires no instruction on the harsher realities of life away from football. The well documented issues he has coped with, one of them being played out at the High Court in Glasgow at the moment, certainly lend him a unique degree of perspective.
When he rages with a sense of injustice at a refereeing decision, it should not be assumed he has lost that ability to rationalise. In common with so many of his colleagues in a demanding and highly stressful profession, it is simply set aside in the heat of competition and at moments which separate footballing success from failure.
Lennon shares Scottish football’s collective sense of dismay at the unimaginably painful circumstances which saw Liam Kelly travel from the highest point of his football career to the most desolate experience of his young life in a matter of moments.
The 22-year-old had performed admirably in Kilmarnock’s 1-0 win, achoring their midfield with great energy and considerable skill. Kelly, born and raised in Milton Keynes after his Scottish parents Jack and Sandra moved south for work reasons, has emerged in the past couple of seasons as one of the brightest prospects in the SPL.
Capped four times for the Scotland under-21 side so far, he was one of the stand-out performers in their stunning 2-1 win over the Netherlands in a European Championship qualifier in Nijmegen last November. Kelly’s display on Sunday further enhanced his reputation but it is now a day he will be unable to reflect on without anguish. Danny Buijs, Kelly’s team-mate, might have felt fate dealt him a poor hand when he had to limp out of the cup final after just 20 minutes. But as the Dutch midfielder reflected in poignant fashion yesterday, any personal disappointment from the biggest day in his career was superceded by Kelly’s agony.
“Ten minutes after we got the cup, we were called into the dressing-room,” said Buijs. “Within a minute, the mood changed completely. Players were lying on the floor, crying. Liam travelled to the hospital still wearing his playing kit. The mood in our dressing room cannot be described.
“The night before the final, the conversation at dinner was all about Fabrice Muamba. It’s quite striking now. Kilmarnock won the League Cup for the first time in its history but looking back now, you think it would have been better to lose 3-0 if it meant this did not happen. For me, it was the chance of my life to play in a cup final and why I took a risk despite the injury. I was glad I was on the field for a while and had a share in victory but, compared to other events, it doesn’t matter.”
Yet as Jack Kelly, rightly so proud of his son, would surely have agreed, football does matter. Just as it mattered to John Thomson, the brilliant young Celtic goalkeeper fatally injured in the heat of Old Firm battle in 1931.
Just as it mattered to Jock Stein, the iconic manager who collapsed and died at the end of Scotland’s World Cup qualifier in Cardiff in 1985. Just as it mattered to Davie Cooper, the mesmerising winger taken from us at the age of 39 by a brain haemorrhage in 1995.
Just as it mattered to Phil O’Donnell, the Motherwell captain who suffered a fatal cardiac arrest at the age of 35 during a match against Dundee United in 2007.
If it takes events such as these, and the ones football has experienced over the weekend, to place football in perspective, then that is our fault, not football’s.