Manchester United's David Beckham and Gary Neville celebrate at the end of the UEFA Champions League semi-final victory over Juventus at Stadio Delle Alpi, Turin, Italy, April 1999.

Memory, neurodivergence & Roy Keane beating Juventus in 1999


I’ve never eaten a madeleine. I have eaten Sainsbury’s beef grillsteaks though, and I know for sure I had them at around 7.20pm on 21 April 1999.

This essentially worthless piece of information comes to you in association with memory, neurodivergence and most of all football.

If you’re familiar with A la recherche du temps perdu, you can skip this awkward bit of exposition. In short, the French novelist Marcel Proust wrote of how the sensory experience of biting into a soft madeleine cake unexpectedly triggered vivid, precise memories of childhood. At least I think that’s correct.

I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu because, well, I’ve never eaten a madeleine.

Proust was talking about involuntary memory, the kind you might experience if, say, you caught an unscripted whiff of Joop! aftershave for the first time in almost 30 years and were instantly transported to JJ’s nightclub dance floor, where an earlier version of you appeared to be throwing shapes to ‘Don’t Stop (Wiggle Wiggle)’ by the Outhere Brothers.

Football is my primary source of both involuntary and voluntary memories, a nose ahead of music.

Some people have brains that remember sport, and life, in poetic terms; others are born to recall that, actually, Paul Ince was playing sweeper that day, at least until Fergie abandoned it after about half an hour.

I always knew football was the defining obsession of my life. But it was only when I dwelt on the greatest Manchester United performance I’ve seen, when they came from behind to beat Juventus 3-2 and reach the 1999 Champions League final, that I realised it was also the scaffolding.

The thought of Roy Keane, Andy Cole and the rest obliterating Serie A’s aura will keep me warm when I’m old and doddery.

And though I aspired to Keane’s tormented glory – he will always be my favourite player, even if we make chalk and cheese seem like conjoined twins – I was self-aware enough to realise that, when it came to classical masculinity, I was barely a tourist.

This peculiar capacity for recollection goes way beyond the match. I have a collage of memories of that night, ephemeral snapshots of small-town life.

Being picked up at the train station by my mum just before 7pm; getting into the car to hear the Five Live co-commentator Mark Lawrenson lament Ryan Giggs’s absence through injury and explain why Jesper Blomqvist, not Paul Scholes, was his replacement; wolfing down grillsteaks; drinking four cans at a steady pace during the game (Stella, probably, because this was at least a decade before beer snobbery, and definitely no more than four cans because at that stage of my life my binary mind could not countenance working with a hangover and I was due at the Firearms Compensation Section of the civil service in the morning); my dog Tiny, in the last months of her life though we didn’t know it at the time, barking in confusion as I embarked on an unusually unfettered celebration of Cole’s decisive late goal.

These humdrum memories are less relatable, far less relatable, than those pertaining to the match. They are also purer, more personal and more reliable, because they haven’t been massaged by watching highlights after the event.

• • • •

Manchester United's Roy Keane and Jesper Blomqvist during their game against Juvetus. Stadio Olimpico, Turin. April 1999.

READ: Irwin: ‘Blomqvist hid from Keane after poor pass led to UCL final ban’

• • • •

To test this half-arsed theory of football as the working man’s madeleine, I put on a Sky Sports compilation of the best Premier League free-kicks. The first was Norwich’s Ian Crook against Nottingham Forest in the inaugural season.

Instantly I recalled that it was the third instalment of Sky’s new Monday Night Football, that Norwich won 3-1, including a late cracker from David Phillips, and that I played indoor football that night from 9-10pm before walking home at a brisk pace, because at that age, in that town and with that binary mind, darkness meant only disorder.

Next up: Peter Beagrie v Coventry. That’s Match of the Day, staying at my dad’s; he was only in that place for a few months but I was definitely there around six weeks later when Lennox Lewis flattened Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock.

Many memories are not just of place and context but of almost pathetic minutiae: where the TV was in the room, what trainers I was wearing around then, what album was on loop, whether my mental state was half-full or half empty.

Third: Jamie Redknapp at Coventry. This was just before Christmas, the day our local team lost 5-2 and I made the first with a booming cross (this is the one memory I don’t completely trust), and I got into my mum’s car on Ufton Lane just in time to hear Eric Cantona score his first goal for Manchester United.

And finally, I’m relieved to say, a goal of which I have no memory: Neil Ruddock against Norwich in April 1993. If I was able to recall a personal detail for all 32,072 Premier League goals, the meaning of life would be even more elusive.

Even so, all major life events have at least one associated match or goal. My first kiss: the day after the Italia 90 final, and I went forward with the same conviction as Argentina the night before.

The death of my parents: two hours before the 2011 Champions League final, two days after David Moyes’ last game as United manager.

I even know when I last wet the bed, but we really shouldn’t dwell on that night in Leverkusen.

When I was younger I didn’t keep a diary, didn’t make home movies and got through maybe two disposable cameras a year. But if you give your life to this thing, and your brain is wired a certain way, it becomes your journal. I know that 30 June 1998 was the night before my graduation.

Not because it was the night before my graduation, but because we all watched Argentina and England’s World Cup classic in Union Square, and – I can see it now – everyone threw plastic pints of watery booze into orbit when Michael Owen scored.

Neurodivergence is increasingly described as a superpower, a well-meaning but patronising cliche that ignores the insidious discomfort of living in a world in which you don’t fully belong.

A more accurate observation, at least in my experience, is that it gives you certain powers. Some, it’s fair to say, are more super than others.

Neurodivergent people are responsible for, among other things, Microsoft, Apple, Symphony No 40 in G Minor, the theory of relativity, cracking the Enigma code, hundreds of gold medals and about 40% of Live at the Apollo.

So why the hell is my superpower the ability to remember that I got my first mobile phone in the week Martin Keown scored two late goals to help Arsenal beat Shakhtar Donetsk 3-2, because one of the first texts I received was an inexplicably memorable Keown-themed play on the lyrics of Craig David’s “7 Days”?

Arsenal's Martin Keown celebrates scoring the winning goal of the UEFA Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk at Highbury, London, September 2000.

Arsenal’s Martin Keown celebrates scoring the winning goal of the UEFA Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk at Highbury, London, September 2000.

I know this isn’t unique, but I’m equally sure it isn’t normal. Like many children of the 1980s, I was on the Spectrum; at the time I had no idea the capital S was optional.

I never went to as many live games as I should have done, professionally or personally, so the memories are largely mundane and personal. Beef grillsteaks, for f*ck’s sake.

Not that they were all formed in the armchair or the bar. I can still see Neil Webb’s chest-volley, on his Manchester United debut, coming straight towards me before swirling deliciously inside the far post.

Crystal Palace away in November 1991 means two things: the emerging genius of Ryan Giggs and the abject misery of spending an hour in a smoking carriage on the train, silently cursing my dad’s addiction to something I didn’t understand.

None of this, I appreciate, is externally interesting. But the millions of memories are a mosaic that creates something with a visceral profundity: my stupid little life.

And yours. Any regular reader of The Blizzard can probably relate to these scattergun neural connections and memories, even if some of us use more
storage space than others.

When I found out last year that I’ve been mentally disabled since birth, it didn’t come as much of a shock, because so much of my football-related behaviour
fits the profile.

I won’t bore you with any more details. But football, a game beloved by billions, helped me realise – and begin to accept – that I’ll always be different,
and that I might be one of the lucky ones.

What used to be a gauche party piece – go on, name the XI that started against Arsenal in March 1998 – is now more of a private comfort.

Old football is the most vivid available link to my past, a neurobalm that reminds me of when the world was a lighter place and life still felt like a crescendo.

Remember when, said Tony Soprano, is the lowest form of conversation. He was probably right. But only when it comes to external dialogue.

By Rob Smyth

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