Now and again something happens which exposes the superficial levels at which we sometimes conduct our mental and emotional lives. Take football. For football supporters the team dominates their worldview. Local economies react to the fortunes of the local team; the morale and hopefulness of whole communities is responsive to the results, the way the season is going, how well the team is playing.Like everyone else the least bit interested in football, I have my opinions, more or less informed, as biased as any pundit, and just as likely to exaggerate the cosmic significance of 90 minutes of grown men huffing and puffing up and down the park.
But as I said at the start, sometimes we are all reminded of how fragile life is, how precious and unique and irreplaceable a human being is. And we were so reminded last Saturday, when Phil O'Donnell, the captain of Motherwell Football Club collapsed and died during a match which his team won, and for once the result was an irrelevance.
Bill Shankly's famous quip, 'Football isn't a matter of life and death. It's far more important than that', remains a humorous piece of over-stated rhetoric. But even the most famous of Liverpool managers knew that was exactly what it was, and all that it was. No game is more important than life. The Motherwell manager Mark McGhee, in a statement on behalf of the Club, made it clear that for now, no one was interested in the training pitch, the football pitch or anything else to do with football, till due respect had been paid, till their friend had been remembered and his family cared for. Alongside such sudden tragedy and its human significance, football is relegated to its rightful place.
So yes, football can give rise to some of the silliest, overblown claims about the game's importance. And sometimes listening to those involved in 'the game', you wonder if the real world ever gets a look in. But countless football supporters live out their inner struggles through the ups and downs of their team. Their identity and sense of who they are is mortgaged to the team, the stadium, the colours, the names and numbers on the shirts. And that became so obvious as I watched the devastated groups gathering around Fir Park. Football has its problems alright, but when you witness the sense of loss, the genuine grief and sorrow of a community at the death of a young family man, you become aware of the social and humanising importance of sport when it is exemplified in such popular, respected and decent players; and when it evokes such humane and genuine affection.
With apologies to Bill Shankly, football isn't a matter of life and death; rather it is one way in which many people celebrate the life they live in their community, and live through the joy and sorrow that are the changing colours of every individual life. The current practice of a round of applause in appreciation of a footballer who has died is both moving and an important reminder, that life is irreplaceably precious, and that at its best, for football players, football is one expression of that hunger and vitality to achieve through effort, to excel in skill, to express the reality of who they are, through a game that when played both fairly and skillfully, and with all my prejudice admittedly showing, is a beautiful game. Phil O'Donnell was a player who graced the teams he played for, and who gave back in dignity and sportsmanship, easily as much as he earned.
One extra fragment of evidence to add to widespread testimony and appreciation - outside Fir Park there are scarves left in tribute from many different teams, including both Celtic (whom Phil O'Donnell played for) and Rangers. In sorrow and loss of such a good man, sectarianism is transcended, blue and green on the same side - no bad tribute in itself.