Farewell Tom - knowing you was a life-changing experience
A year or so ago I promised my friend and neighbour Michael Kustow that I would never again use this column to write about sport. Apart from a couple of mentions about the Olympics, I think I ve honoured that pledge. However, I have to break it this week
A year or so ago I promised my friend and neighbour Michael Kustow that I would never again use this column to write about sport. Apart from a couple of mentions about the Olympics, I think I've honoured that pledge.
However, I have to break it this week because of the passing of Tom Martin, my 93-year-old uncle.
When I'm asked why I've been a lifelong fan of Chelsea Football Club, I have to repeat the story I've been telling people for years: how my Uncle Tom moved to London soon after the Blitz, settled in what is now the extremely des res habitat of Cheyne Walk, and once normality had returned to London, started spending his Saturday afternoons at Stamford Bridge - even if it meant watching the Reserves.
As soon as I was old enough to read, he would post me Chelsea match programmes and other souvenirs. Even better, he would sometimes deliver them personally on his regular return visits via boat and train to County Antrim.
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I remember his jubilation when Chelsea, then nick-named The Pensioners, won promotion from the old second division to the top rung with, ironically, one of the youngest squads ever assembled for professional competitive football. Jimmy Greaves was the goalscoring hero.
Through those 1960s programmes people like Tommy Docherty, Terry Venables, Bobby Tambling, Peter Bonetti, Charlie Cooke and Peter Osgood took on an iconic status for me.
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Now my son Paul regularly makes 1,000-mile round trips to watch Chelsea, and his son, James, will walk on to the hallowed Stamford Bridge turf as a club mascot sometime next year.
Through Tommy, a Chelsea legacy has been established in the Martin household, spanning four generations.
Tom was at the Bridge in 1955 when Chelsea won their first league title, and he was there exactly 50 years later when we won it again, for only the second time.
My brother Raymond and I travelled to London for the Cup Final in 1970. Along with Tom and his son John, we set off from Tom's new home in Barnes for the famous Twin Towers without a single ticket between us, and managed to buy four on the black market for the princely sum of £24.
Like Blues fans everywhere, he stared for ages at the television screen in silent bewilderment as we somehow failed to turn our domination of this years Champions League Final into a victory.
On his 90th birthday, his devoted sons and daughters threw a big party for Tom. He wore a Chelsea shirt with his name on the back and the number 90. Jose Mourinho sent him a letter thanking him for his support for more years than Jose had been alive, and John Terry got the first team squad to sign a shirt.
The story of how Tom ended up in chic Chelsea after growing up in the small village of Ahoghill, County Antrim, says a lot about the man. During the war he met and fell in love with Peggy, who was serving with the Wrens. Tom was an Ulster Prod and Peggy was a County Tyrone Catholic. The relationship was frowned upon, not by either family, but by the close-knit communities in which they lived.
When Tom boldly announced his intention to make Peggy his wife, the local Orange Order offered him a car, a house and 'a good job for life' to abandon the plan. They would even pay his fare to Canada or Australia if he wanted to build a new life - anything but marry the Catholic girl he loved.
Tom told them where to go and married Peggy. At her funeral Tom asked for only one song to be played, Dame Very Lynn's We'll Meet Again. I'm not a religious man, but when we say goodbye to Tom on Friday, it would be nice to think that he and Peggy are smiling down at us, together again - as inseparable as they were for so many wonderful years.