Colin Randall explains a much more pressing reason than close-season for his absence from these pages in recent days …
My kid brother, Phil, which I’ll accept is an odd description when you consider our great ages, is lying in a critical condition in St Thomas’ Hospital, London after a long and tricky emergency operation to remove an abscess from a heart valve. Without that intervention, I am told, he would probably have died within a fortnight.
The surgery was technically a success but internal bleeding presented a new threat to Phil’s life. This has now slowed but was at one stage worrying enough for his sons, my nephews Steven and Matthew, both still in their teens, to be warned to prepare for the worst. The boys had already lost their mother tragically early, seven years ago; the thought of them as orphans is devastating.
Phil is a tough old fighter. He had serious heart surgery a couple of years ago but had returned to rugby refereeing. Steven reckons he officiated at 108 games in the season just ended. He was previously a good standard player, having steadfastly stuck to union despite youthful temptation to switch codes and play professionally. And before early retirement from the civil service, he was involved in running the office gym.
He was always fitter, as well as brainier, than his older brother. He boxed as a boy, laughing off my taunts that this amounted to training as a killer, and played whatever I played but slightly better. I’d beat him at badminton but only because he never took it up. Our sister, Sandra, has a better memory and would remember what it was he did once in a talent contest during a childhood holiday to win, if I am right, five Premium Bonds which he shared between us (three for him, one each for us).
When doctors found the defect that led to the earlier surgery, they told Phil his lifetime of demanding physical activity may well have saved him from an early death.
I am writing this in the hope that Phil will recover to read it, and also the heartening thoughts that have appeared at the Salut! Sunderland Facebook page and Steven’s. I am writing it, too, because I know there are people who visit this site who know him and will want to wish him well.
The rugby passion made Phil a less active Sunderland supporter than many of us, but he has never lost the faith. At one point in our teens, when I had entered what I call a fallow phase and was no longer getting to matches, Phil was going home and away.
We’ve not attended many games together, but then both of us have lived away from the North East – where he, unlike me, was born – for most of our lives. We did sit watching the Milk Cup Final defeat to Norwich at Wembley, pints in hand (you could in those days, and going to the bar was more fun than watching the game). And he once joined in a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” after a string of awful decisions at the Valley or Upton Park, the accuracy of the sentiment making up for the lack of refereeing solidarity.
But football seems irrelevant at times like these. All that is on my mind is Phil’s health, or rather my fierce desire that he should triumph over his current predicament and regain it.
I have a great photo of the pair of us in St Tropez last year when he came out and stayed with me along the coast. Sadly, that picture is trapped in a broken Mac. The one I have used is taken from Steven’s Facebook page.
It shows a smile I desperately want to see again. Doctors’ orders permitting, I’ll have some of the Provençal red wine he loved so much last year waiting for him when he arrives for his next visit. I just hope with every ounce of inner strength I can muster there will be a next visit.
Get well, Phil.