Dyslexic, written off... til England's World Cup goalie saved my life
I THOUGHT I was stupid. Adults did too. One teacher in Derry, Master G, preparing our class for the infamous Eleven Plus examination, asked if I wanted to sit the examination. When I answered "Yes", he mumbled, with caustic cynicism, "You've no chance!"
The laughter of my classmates burned a groove into my brain that replayed his voice, over and over again, for decades.
I was 38 when I discovered I was dyslexic. As a child, the stigma attached to reading difficulties and assumed low intelligence led to low self-esteem.
In 1966, during the World Cup Finals in England, the first to be broadcast live on television, boys from my street would gather in a nearby field in the Creggan Estate to fantasise about being Pele, Jimmy Greaves, Eusebio and Bobby Charlton.
The two best players picked their teams in descending order of perceived ability. Last picked had only one option -- goalkeeper. And that's how my great adventure began.
I discovered I had good handling, reflexes and agility.
And then, on 30 July, 1966, my life changed forever when I watched my first live game of soccer, the World Cup Final: England vs West Germany.
In the England goal was the Leicester City goalkeeper Gordon Banks. After he had pulled off a double save from Wolfgang Overath and Lothar Emmerich in the 38th minute, I was captivated by the adulation heaped upon him by the legendary BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholm: "Well done Gordon Banks, the hero of England!"
I wanted to be the hero of my street football team and, one day, be the hero of Ireland too! I may not have been able to read or write very well, but I could do something far more important -- play football!
And, better still, I had found a hero who could fly and who inspired me to fly too.
I began to go in search of every piece of information I could find about the two words that now dominated my young mind: GORDON BANKS.
Scrapbooks began to bulge with all the newspaper and magazine cuttings I could find. Then, one day, while visiting a paint and decorating shop with my mother, I saw the potential of the wallpaper books to house my collection of Gordon Banks memorabilia. The owners of the shop, Tom and Jim Canning, kindly gave me one and thus began a wonderful odyssey.
The scrapbook led to me meeting Gordon Banks in person. It occurred on August 2, 1970, just six weeks after 'that save' from Pele during the Mexico World Cup.
Banks was, by then, a global sporting icon, yet his gentleness that day and the respect he showed to my working class parents left a profound impact on me. The meeting happened 18 months before Bloody Sunday.
When the centre began to fall apart and many of my contemporaries were choosing the path of violence; that meeting with Banks assured me that the paratroopers who had visited such horrendous carnage and trauma on my community were not indicative of all English or British people.
Because of Banks I rejected violence. Later when the troubles intensified, an aggressive raid on my house by the British Army suddenly evaporated when soldiers discovered my bedroom wall festooned by posters of Gordon Banks, Stoke City FC and England.
Two years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pele accepted my invitation to unveil the first phase of a major sporting monument I am creating to Gordon Banks with Staffordshire sculptor Andrew Edwards and the help of former Republic of Ireland International Terry Conroy. My motivation is simply one of gratitude.
Perhaps I best explain the source of that gratitude at the conclusion of chapter 10 of my memoir: " ... we lived in an era when sporting heroes were ordinary and unassuming people whose very modesty was the oxygen of dreams.
And across the water, on a neighbouring island with whom we Irish had been in conflict for centuries, I had a hero who could fly. His name is Gordon Banks. From being a timid, fearful young boy, he taught me that impossible doesn't exist.
Unknown to him, he helped save a young fan from making choices that had brought too much sorrow and sadness to Irish and British alike.
"Who knows? Perhaps it was his best save ever."
The Boy Who Wanted To Fly (Legend Press, €10.55) is out now