Football Cancer Life Death
‘I thought that stuff like cancer was for other people. Not me. I was in the top sets at school, the football team, I got my 2:1 degree from a good university, got a good job, got married (twice, a few bumps in the road but I came out of it OK), nice house, three kids. It’s been a pretty easy life to be honest. Cancer, and other bad stuff, that’s for the unlucky ones.’
But then Michael Heinicke did get cancer. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and his life and attitudes changed.
I take my hat off to anyone who gets a book into print. Way back in 2003 there was It’s Burnley Not Barcelona, the first book I did. It was riddled with errors and typos. Within 3 months the publisher had gone bankrupt. It wasn’t the greatest start; but once I’d done that, I wanted to get on with the next one. Crude and unpolished that it was, it was a stepping stone and a learning curve.
So well done Michael H for writing his first book about such a difficult subject – cancer and the fear that goes with it. He is a Burnley supporter, now living and working in Belfast, so the football connection is simply that, and thus it enables him to draw on his experiences of games and events, of triumphs and gloom. The latter is the glue that holds all fans together. Even the most successful clubs go through bad spells; look at Manchester United at the moment, not exactly flourishing, with gloom and pessimism a frequent emotion for a few years now since Fergie left.
It is written in diary form, the style conversational, nothing fancy, no flowery prose, an account of the discovery that he had cancer, the resultant shock, the endless consultations, the treatment and eventually the conclusion. There are some laugh out loud moments along the way. Ripe language and expletives abound, but if that’s how you react to cancer and it helps you get along, then OK. I remember being in the ambulance 18 months ago being raced to LGI at 1 in the morning, lights flashing, siren blaring and thinking oh fuck this is it. It wasn’t the last time I used the word during the next ten days until it was all cleared up. Brexit and all the current shenanigans probably have us all using the word.
It’s 2014 and there is a long period of chemo treatment. All the while there are constant references to Burnley games and it’s a promotion season, the season of Ings and Trippier and some lovely football. The football provides a prop to keep him going. There are references to images of Dyche giving him the mental strength to be relentless in his battle to remain cheerful and endure the discomfort of the chemo.
One game (of many) that is mentioned is the Burnley v Wigan game on April 21, 2014. He wasn’t there; he was sitting at home with a mug of tea and Radio Five Live. ‘I don’t want to be here, in my garden in Bangor, with my cup of tea and my cancer.’ It’s plaintive.
Those of us who were at the game won’t forget it. This was a game that was all that was best about that season, the football, the poetry, the wins, the sheer unexpectedness of it. It was game won with two stunning goals, the first an end to end move of maybe 5 or 6 passes that went from end to end in less than 10 seconds and ended with Barnes slamming the ball home. The second was a stunning free kick from Kightly. Promotion was assured and Heinicke rejoices. But it’s also an anti-climax. The rest of the season is just a wind down but he still has several sessions of chemo to endure. The inspiration seems over now that promotion is assured.
How do you cope with cancer? Sense of humour certainly helps. He decides to do jobs round the garden in his time off work. There is a limit to the number of hours you can spend lobbing darts at the dartboard. He decides to take branches off a tree and needs rope. Off he goes not to a supermarket where he can anonymously choose the right rope, but to a DIY store where the staff follow him round trying to help. This is irksome. Eventually he chooses 20 metres of blue rope. The shopkeeper looks at him and conversation follows about the rope. The shopkeeper smiles, ‘that’s an awful of rope, there’s enough to hang yourself.’
More reminiscences: The Owen Coyle play off final at Wembley, a drunken, drinking weekend before there was ever any sign of cancer. 2014 feels different. ‘In comparison 2014 feels sad and lonely.’
His hair disappears, on his legs as well and this annoys him more than his head which he has shaved anyway. Descriptions of hospital lunches remind me of the ten days I spent living on tuna sandwiches. Anything else looked inedible.
When he was a lad still living in Burnley Frank Teasdale rang him up one day in connection with an interview in the Burnley Express. Drink plays a big part in his life; accomplishment comes from listing all he has consumed at various events especially weddings. Years later he bumped into Teasdale in a pub. ‘He was wasted and ended up getting chucked out.’ That was Teasdale not him.
Short of something to do Heinicke decides to become a kids’ football coach to fill the time. He takes a coaching course, loves it. Best thing he ever did, he says. They keep him going. By now we are halfway through the book, but this explains why he opens the book with the account of his boys’ team winning their first games of the season and the pride and sense of achievement it brings.
The chemo continues, each session likened to a football match that is won. Third one out of the way, another win, that’s 3-0. The final one is competed and all is well but no: there were unexpected problems on completion but they were ironed out. Throughout it all, football was his companion. Burnley and Dyche his inspiration.
The current favoured genre in sports books is ‘mind over matter,’ ‘triumph over adversity,’ getting back on your feet, coping and succeeding. Michael Heinicke did just that. There is a Burnley player who did all that as well; but it wasn’t cancer it was Colitis and then Crohn’s. Maybe there’s a story in that as well.
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