The fire spat out tiny chips of burning wood as it hungrily devoured the logs.
The room bathed in an orange glow as the kids ran and skidded onto the shaggy rug that formed the centrepiece of the room. They folded their legs underneath themselves, as only kids can do, and tilted their heads up toward the man in the long-backed armchair.
“Can you tell us what happened after the penalty Granddad?”
“Did you score Granddad?”
The man, sporting a few wispy white hairs atop his head and a beard that reached the collar of his knitted jumper, smiled warmly and reached for his spectacles, sitting on the arm of his chair.
“Hmm, is that where we got up to kids?”
The kids eyes sparkled. They each had a bag of chewy sweets that they plunged their hands into rhythmically, as their jaws pumped hard to dissolve the sugar in their mouths.
“Yep, definitely. We’ve been waiting all week to find out what happens next,” they pitched.
The older gentleman looked at his grandkids and planted his hands on his knees enthusiastically.
“Well, your mum said you’ve been good, so I guess we can carry on for a little bit. Right.”
He looked at the ceiling of the big living room they were sat in and took a large breath.
“The stadium was packed. You could feel the tension and the excitement like it was electricity. The whole country had been waiting decades for England to be good again and be in with a chance of lifting a trophy. Now we were within a kick of doing it.”
He went on, “No one else volunteered to step up for the next one. I had been playing well and I wanted the responsibility. I was always brought up to do that. So I put my hand up and when it was my turn, I took the longest walk I’ve ever had to endure.”
The kids had stopped chewing.
“Every step, I saw another face in the crowd. Every single eye was on me – and even though it’s impossible, I felt the tens of millions watching through their TV’s at home. And I like to think I’m quite a brave person – but I was a teenager about to take the most important kick of a football in years.”
“By the time I reached the spot, the Italian keeper had locked his eyes on mine, like an old-fashioned duel. My legs felt like they were made of lead – but I remembered the words of my coaches at Arsenal.”
The kids piped up.
“What did they tell you Granddad?”
The old man looked forward but was looking at the past.
“Pick your spot and don’t change your mind.”
“I took my steps back and I wanted to keep it as low as possible – but what everyone forgets is that the keeper I faced was rated amongst the greatest at the time. And he stretched really well to keep my penalty out.”
The smile had faded.
“Which meant Italy had won. And at that moment, I didn’t need to look at the faces in the crowd. I could feel every single one of them. The upset, sadness, anger.”
The kids looked crushed.
“But Granddad, it doesn’t end that way, right?”
The old man stood up slowly, his knees popping like the wood in the fire.
“No, it doesn’t. And that penalty, although one of the worst moments in my life, also gave me an opportunity to show I was ready for the biggest moments. A teenager had taken the initiative in a huge moment. I wanted to show everyone I had what it took.”
“It took a while to shake off the miss, but they key was my manager back at Arsenal. He knew what I was capable of, what my potential could make real. He gave me everything I needed to make people forget and instead, concentrate on what I could do.”
The kids had swivelled their heads as their Granddad walked around the room, like kittens following a toy.
“What happened next Granddad?”
The old man had his hands behind his back and was walking slowly in a wide circle around the sofa. He wasn’t there though. He was back in his pomp, blazing a trail on the pitch.
“Well, I got even better. The responsibility to push the team I loved forward sat with me. Even though the club kept buying big players, it fell to me to make things happen. I made assists. I scored goals. I did it in big games against our rivals. No one could stop me. And Arsenal climbed up the table. We had our disappointments of course, but we were evolving – and everyone could see it.”
The kids had gotten up and left their sweets on the rug.
“Granddad – what happened next?”
The old man turned to face them and stopped in his tracks.
“Kids, we had a big upset, but we used that as fuel to make us even better. The next season, we made our best start in Premier League history. We were top of the league. We were above Man City, who were managed by a man who many think was the best in the world at the time. They had a spending power unmatched by us. But we were above them – and I was playing football that made me among the best in the world.”
The kids chimed, “Did you win Granddad? Did you win the title?”
A woman came in from the kitchen and crossed her arms.
“Kids, it’s time for your bed! Stop pestering your Granddad!”
“But muuuuum! We need to know if Granddad won the league!!!!”
Mum looked at her dad with a wry smile.
“Dad, stop getting them hyped up before bed! Now kids, go and brush your teeth!”
The kids sloped off, not before giving their Granddad a huge hug. They bounded up the stairs, hopped up on sugar and stories.
The old man sat back in his armchair and looked into the fire and then looked at the mantelpiece above the fire.
Where all his trophies were on display. They shone tirelessly.
Just like Granddad Bukayo, all those years ago.