It’s a common truth that following a team is a way to connect with other people, both close and far away. Liam Walsh relies on the anchor of Swindon Town FC of the English fourth tier to keep him close to his father, Mick, and his two teenage sons, Euan and Patrick. Over the course of several seasons, they experience hundreds of games together, both at home and on the road.
“Sometimes,” Walsh writes of their road travels, “we put more effort into getting there than the players gave on the pitch, sometimes it was simply dull, insipid and miserable – but it was our precious misery.”
It’s the collective experience that binds the three generations, regardless of the outcome out on the field. On an away trip to Scunthorpe, even an abject performance by their team can be usurped by a moment of wonder with no relevance to soccer at all:
“A disheveled and disheartened Swindon team were 4-0 down at half-time,” Walsh recalls. “Although later, as the sun set over the expansive flatlands, there was a simply stunning murmuration of starlings. It was nature’s way of saving the day, and with the open road ahead of us, of course, we looked forward to the next match and the next week.”
Those rare successes and triumphs in the sporting arena he describes as “magic in fleeting, taunting, gold-dust, authentic form.”
So Walsh knows how to deal with a loss on the road to an unglamorous opponent in farthest Lincolnshire. Like any of us, he’s less well-equipped when loss unexpectedly rips the heart out of his family and his life.
First, on the eve of the 2019-20 season, Mick is diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Then the following January, Euan and Patrick take a midweek trip to London to watch Tottenham play Middlesbrough. On their way home, Patrick collapses and dies. He’s just 15 years old. Two weeks later, Mick passes away in hospital.
"Red Balloons" at this point becomes a book about meeting this devastating double-blow head-on. Patrick’s death is deemed to be the result of Sudden Arrhythmogenic Death Syndrome (SADS), but the autopsy can offer no explanation as to why it struck the young lad when it did (“His heart stopped working and we don’t know why.”). Genetic tests on the rest of the family yield no clues. This adds an extra dimension of suffering to the family’s already torrid mourning. Why did this happen to him? How did it happen to him? He was just a kid on his way home from the stadium.
“There is no peace, and this is how it is,” Walsh writes of the grief that never goes away, but which can hit you in waves of savage, unrelenting emotion.
“Every night I walk past Patrick’s room on the way to bed. Every night, I look and check, but he’s never in it.” There’s no going back.
There is no way to stem or salve the wrenching, hopeless sense of loss. There are only ways of coping – running, grief support groups, the kindness of friends and their community, or going back to watch Swindon Town as a way of feeling some sort of connection to the deceased, despite the cruel and permanent severance. There’s very little relief, though. Even moments of light can prompt a reverse bolt back into the shadows.
“It is utterly impossible to describe how much I miss Patrick, his noise, touch, his sense, his just being,” the author writes. “Swindon have won, fortuitously and thankfully, it’s a Saturday and the house should see into the evening with joy and laughter.” Yes, the win was great, but why can’t Patrick be there to enjoy it too? “It’s heart-breaking to do everything without Patrick. But it’s especially heart-breaking to live these moments that he’d have loved, and to be without him.”
Writing this book has been a help to Liam Walsh and his family – his wife Kate, eldest son Euan, and his daughter Niamh. Real life’s not a movie, where the writer’s pen offers a convenient path to redemption. In a memoir, the pen instead serves as a weapon to help purge the pain. “Football comes in many shapes and sizes ... but it doesn’t do fairytales,” Walsh thinks after Swindon loses to Port Vale on penalties in the promotion playoffs at the end of the 2022 season. Just like life, really.
There is a path forward, though. “Our lives will continue to grow around the grief,” Walsh recognizes a couple of years on. “The grief is still with me, a scratch or a photo or comment or song away. It is so much a fundamental part of me, and always will be.”
Like all the best soccer books, this is about so much more than a mere game. Endlessly moving, honest, considerate, and at times elegiac, it’s a courageous book written by a kind and loving father thrown by fate into a turmoil that anyone with a caring heart is ill-equipped to handle.
Loss may be part of life, but it’s still a shock to the system. "Red Balloons" is a manual to managing the often unfair allocation of profound human pain.