It’s hard to put the events of the last few days into words, but let’s give it a go.
On Thursday night a man, for whom I could use more than a few terms that would not be considered appropriate for daytime reading, decided to bring terror to our streets. This lowlife scum killed five people, including a three-year-old girl, before turning the gun on himself, mercifully ensuring he didn’t steal any more of the world’s oxygen from the rest of us. Understandably, it left the city and region at large in a state of pure shock.
For many, the sight of streets they knew so well being involved in national coverage of such horrors was enough to rock them, understandably, to the core. My experience of the tragedy itself was limited to checking in on a few friends, and answering messages from concerned friends of my own. That was still enough to leave me shaken, but in truth my feelings of the night are irrelevant. I can’t begin to imagine the experiences of those who were in the vicinity of the events of Thursday, let alone those of the poor families and friends of those killed.
That brings us to yesterday. Plymouth Argyle’s home game against Gillingham was always going to feel a little different. It was, after all, the first game without any restrictions on the size of the Home Park crowd for over 500 days. But Thursday changed that feeling from one of anticipated jubilation to…well…something else entirely. It’s difficult to specify.
How exactly were we meant to feel?
In truth, that was likely to be different for everybody. Some would have seen the day as a good escape from the city’s harrowing headlines over recent days. I include myself in that group, but it would be totally understandable if some felt a sense of guilt at having so much fun, given the experiences of their fellow citizens this week. When the worst mass shooting on British soil in over a decade happens in a city as small as ours, can any reaction really be regarded as irrational?
The feeling at the ground was predictably different. Flags were at half mast, the player’s wore dedicated shirts for the warm up, and a minute’s silence before kick off was well observed. But honestly? The celebratory nature of being together didn’t feel as though it was lost. Plymouth and Argyle sent out a message on Saturday afternoon that they would not be cowed. That the acts of one stain on humanity would not define us. That the lives of Maxine, Lee, Sophie, Kate and Stephen were to be celebrated.
I’ve occasionally watched other tragedies play out in the media, such as the Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks, and seen how community spirit brought people together. I’ve wondered in the past whether a city like Plymouth would be able to deliver the same community spirit in the face of adversity. I need never question that again.
As for Argyle? Well, the game probably ended in exactly the manner the city had hoped. It wasn’t the most exciting encounter, but nobody cared about that once Luke Jephcott notched the Greens’ 89th-minute winner in front of the Devonport End. A last-minute winner from an academy graduate after the week we’ve had? I’m not a religious man, but it feels as though there was a sense of destiny.
There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn from this victory and Argyle’s promotion from League Two at the start of the pandemic. I remember writing at the time that the promotion was still worth celebrating despite the horrors we were experiencing, and I maintain that to be true. Similarly, the circumstances of Saturday’s win are still worth celebrating despite the appalling acts of the week prior. This may have been a Plymouth-specific tragedy rather than a worldwide one, but many of the points raised still apply.
In my previous article, I quoted Jurgen Klopp about the importance of football being put into perspective by worldwide events. This time I’ll take one from either Carlo Ancelotti or Pope John Paul II, depending on which corner of the internet you look. An easy mistake, I’m sure you’ll agree. “Out of all the unimportant things, football is the most important.” It remains true. If something seemingly so banal as a bag of air being kicked around a field can bring us joy in the toughest of times, we should embrace it.
12 August 2021 will always be remembered as a dark day in this city’s history. The dramatic win over Gillingham hasn’t healed the wounds from Thursday night – football doesn’t have that power. But maybe, just maybe, that healing process has found its beginning.