Joe Boyle ran as fast as his teenage legs would carry him down past the front of the Tunnock’s factory with its familiar big clock and giant, luminous caramel wafer high on the wall. ‘Aye, run ya bastard’ shouted his tormentor, the lumbering, and thankfully slow, Colin McPhee, ‘I’ll get ye at school on Monday ya dick.’ Joe didn’t reply but continued to run until he was sure he was no longer being chased. He then headed for home and pushed his way in his front door, running straight upstairs. ‘That you Joseph?’ his mother called from the kitchen. ‘Aye, Ma. Just going tae ma room.’ He closed the bedroom door behind him and slumped breathlessly onto the bed. He exhaled and looked around him at the smiling faces of Celtic players on the many posters which covered the walls of his room. Opposite the bed, a dreadlocked Henrik Larsson grinned at him. Larsson was his hero, his all-time favourite player. Joe wondered how the tough little Swede would deal with a bully like McPhee. ‘It’s aw right for you Henrik, at least you’ve got a referee tae stop big Amoruso kicking ye. Who’s gonnae stop McPhee battering me?’ The man in the poster just stared at him, his dark eyes seemingly locked on Joe’s. Joe rolled over and closed his eyes. Saturday afternoon and he couldn’t even go play football with his mates because the pitch lay near the house of the local bully who for whatever reason had decided to pick on him. McPhee was thick as mince thought Joe but he was older and had a fearsome reputation as a fighter.
The following morning Joe was up bright and early doing his Sunday paper round. His battered old bike covered a fair part of Uddingston and some of the new houses springing up in Bothwell. For a 16 year old it was worth doing as the money allowed him to get to Celtic Park and occasionally to the cinema. He was on his last few deliveries as a slow drizzle began to fall from the grey Scottish sky. He cycled faster and swept along past the hedgerows which lined both sides of Castle Avenue. He guided his bike around a right turn and into Duke’s Gate, a horseshoe of expensive detached houses which backed onto the green fields of Lanarkshire. He made the error of cutting the corner as he often did on quiet Sunday’s when there was little traffic on the roads. As he glided around the corner a car flashed past him, missing him by millimetres. In his shock he lost control of his bike and crashed into the hedge at the side of the road. He fell heavily feeling a stab of pain in his right shoulder. His last few newspapers lay sprawled in the puddles of the wet road, ruined, but at least the car hadn’t hit him. As he stood, feeling his scraped knees gingerly with his hand, he glanced to his right to see the same silver car driving back into the quiet cull de sac. It parked near him and a blonde woman in her 30s got out. ‘Are you alright?’ she said in an accent which sounded German or Scandinavian to Joe. She approached him, looking somewhat anxious. ‘I’m so sorry, I was driving too fast.’ Joe nodded, ‘I’m fine thanks, no damage done.’ She glanced at him holding his shoulder and then at the ruined newspapers which lay by his bike. ‘Listen, come in for a moment. My husband will check you over.’ She picked Joe’s bike and wheeled it towards one of the plush houses. She let herself in, leaning the bike against the wall, ‘Come into the kitchen and I’ll get my husband,’ she smiled. Joe stood a little nervously in the big kitchen which looked about the size of his living room at home. He could hear the woman calling upstairs in a language he didn’t understand and a man replying in short sentences. Joe considered heading out the back door and cycling off on his bike but before he could do so the kitchen door opened and the man entered. Joe stared at him, open mouthed. It was Henrik Larsson.
‘I hear Magdalena was driving like a maniac?’ he smiled. ‘Are you OK? Did you knock your head?’ Joe nodded, ‘I’m fine, just a few scratches on my knees, Besides, it was my fault I was on the wrong side of the road.’ The footballer, dressed in jogging bottoms and a white Celtic polo shirt, smiled, ‘Slip off your jacket and we’ll check your shoulder.’ Joe stared at his erstwhile hero still feeling a little shocked that he was actually in the home of his favourite player. He took off his jacked and the sallow skinned Swede looked at his grazed shoulder and then gazed into his eyes as if checking that Joe was fully focussed. He rotated the joint, nodding. ‘Still in place but I’d let your Doctor look at it.’ Joe finally gained enough composure to speak, ‘Henrik,’ he mumbled nervously, ‘I’m your biggest fan.’ Larsson smiled that smile Joe had seen a hundred times when the striker had scored for Celtic. ‘Ah, you’re a Celtic fan! That’s good. Come through to the lounge and have a seat. What’s your name?’ Joe reached out and shook Larsson’s hand, ‘I’m Joe, Joe Boyle.’ Magdalena appeared at the living room door as Joe sat on a huge white couch, ‘I’ll make us some tea or cola if you’d prefer?’ Joe shook his head, ‘Tea’s fine, thank you.’ His hero sat opposite him in a big white chair, ‘Best you stay a few minutes till we’re sure you’re ok.’ Joe nodded and replied, ‘Honestly, I’ll be fine.’ Larsson nodded, ‘Yeh but we’ve ruined your newspapers too so I insist you let us pay for them. Don’t want you losing your job.’ At that point Magdalena entered with a tray and laid it on the coffee table, ‘Help yourselves, I’ll go see to the kids. Jordan is on that computer again.’ She smiled at Joe, ‘His Daddy is too soft on him. I’m the bad cop in this house.’ Joe took his mug of tea and a biscuit and nodded, ‘I enjoy playing computer games too so I can’t comment.’ Larsson smiled, ‘You worry too much Magdalena. I was the same with my Sega games as a kid and it didn’t do me much harm.’ She shook her head with a grin, ‘You’re just lucky you could play football or you’d be driving a bus in Helsingborg.’ Larsson laughed out loud as she left the room.
Joe Boyle spent what was for him an incredible 45 minutes chatting to his hero about Celtic and the many games he had seen Larsson play in. From Old Firm games to the big European nights, Larsson had his young visitor spellbound with his tales and insights. Joe asked the Swede how he dealt with the tough tactics adopted by the defenders in the SPL. Larsson leaned forward in his chair thoughtfully, ‘When I was a kid at school in Sweden some idiot would call me a nigger or some other dumb name because my old man was from Africa. I got into so many fights, I didn’t win them all but people soon figured that if they wanted to call me names then they’d better be prepared to fight. That attitude helps me on the field. They may be bigger than me but I tell myself before every game, Yeh, it’s gonna hurt and so it should but I’m bloody strong, stronger than they are. Even if it hurts, it’s going to hurt them more. That’s the attitude you need to succeed in any professional sport.’ Joe listened, mesmerised and somewhere deep inside he realised he had to stand up to McPhee.
As Joe left the house Henrik Larsson gave him a signed Celtic shirt and two crisp £20 motes to cover the loss of his newspapers. He also wrote down the name of several Swedish magazines and asked Joe to see if his newsagent could get them and add the Larsson household to his weekly round. As he cycled slowly out of Duke’s Gate, he turned and waved. Larsson stood in the doorway and waved back. Joe shouted to him, ‘Thanks Henrik, Hail Hail!’ before pushing down the bike peddle and heading for home. He heard a faint voice behind him call to him, it sounded like ‘Hail Hail.’
As he got home his Mother opened the door, ‘What happened to you? Fall off yer bike?’ He smiled, ‘Aye Ma, you’ll never guess who helped me though.’ They sat in the kitchen as he told his tale to his mother who listened in silence. He opened his newspaper bag and took out a plastic bag in which his hero had placed the Celtic shirt he had given to Joe, ‘Look at this Ma, Henrik signed this for me.’ His mother smiled, ‘God, yer Da would love that. I’m sorry he’s not here tae listen tae this.’ Joe nodded, his old man had passed a few years earlier and it was still a painful wound for them both. ‘Aye he would, I still miss him.’ His mother smiled ruefully, ‘so do I Joe, so do I.’
The following day at school McPhee caught up with Joe. His moronic hangers on grinned stupidly as McPhee started on him. ‘You no gonnae run Boyle ya wee dick?’ Joe looked into his dull, unintelligent eyes and decided that for better or worse enough was enough. ‘I’m done running Colin, you want tae hit me, I’ll be hitting ye back this time. Your call.’ McPhee seemed slightly surprised at Joe’s change in attitude and regarded him with disdain. ‘See you’ve finally grown a pair.’ With that he pushed past Joe and headed for the P.E. Hall. Joe watched him head off along the corridor and suddenly he didn’t seem so scary.
Joe Boyle was beginning to learn that standing up for yourself was an important part of growing up. He might not be out of the woods yet as far as big Colin was concerned but something had changed. Words spoken to him the day before by a tough little Swede came into his mind…
‘Yeh, it’s gonna hurt and so it should but I’m bloody strong, stronger than they are. Even if it hurts, it’s going to hurt them more.’