The Squat Pen: 'Is Gascoigne going to have a crack? He is, you know..."

THEY love their food in Tyrone. They adore going to restaurants and socialising.

Portion sizes are paramount, however, so the phrase “It was lovely, and there was plenty of it” is commonplace. Good meat and good spuds with good sides and good gravy and everyone is happy. Good job.

So, when Fionnuala mentioned that we were going to a gastro-pub in town on Saturday night I knew not to eat much during that day.

“There will be six of us. The McGurks and the Quinns are coming too."

“What’s the occasion?”

“Malachy and Ursula wanted to thank me and Leonne for helping out with the wee ones after his father died. You will be chatting with the men. Who are perfectly lovely as a matter of fact.”

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Saturday came, a succulent autumn morning with a soft sun. My new friend Kieran the dentist had messaged the night before about an Atletico Blow-Ins five-a-side game that afternoon.

“I thought you would be minding the children, Fabien. I have a lot on – remember we are going for dinner tonight.”

“Yes, I know. But this is my first time playing and Kieran was good enough to include me.”

She twitched a little. Fionnuala had a habit of thinking ahead with me as an ever-present in the house. Granted, she was the bringer-home of the bacon, and I was house-husband far from my home in Belfast, but I had a new commitment, and indeed obligation, to my soccer team.

After making lunch, putting on a wash and packing the dishwasher, I got my gear on and headed for the door.

“You’re not wearing that?” Fionnuala laughed. It was my old Spurs jersey. Beloved number 8 Paul Gascoigne 1991 FA Cup top.

“I might look funny to you Fionnuala, but this is no laughing matter.”

Her face broke, her gorgeous mouth wide open, laughing. She could barely get out the reminder to come straight home.

“Nice top,” Kieran said at the leisure centre. “1991, is it genuine?”

“Absolutely. My uncle got it for me for Christmas that year. He was my godfather, and a Spurs nut. But I still wear it.”

“Wise man,” he said. “Why save all the good things for a later that might never be?”

And so the game started. Now I haven’t played in a few years but I was handy. I could patrol midfield, could receive a ball and turn and despite my bony frame, I could shield a ball using my backside. And I had a particular trick that I was delighted to see was still effective. A step-over.

“You’re decent,” one of the other players said. “Better than most of us.”

I was effervescent, slaloming along like my nom de plume, ghosting past the statues on Wembley all those years ago.

“Pass! What are you at? Pass!”

It was Kieran. Snottery.

“Stop hogging the ball.”

“I’m not hogging the ball.” I was taken aback. Where had this come from?

“You are. Stop messing about. Knock it on the head. We play as a bloody team!”

Kieran had a personality change again after the game, all smiles and patting on the back and everyone laughing and see you next week.

But I got home with my nose out of joint.

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“He’s obviously quite competitive,” Fionnuala said, spraying perfume on. “A lot of those successful men tend to be.”

That was rubbing salt into the wound. “He was a pig, Fionnuala. Venting on me? Not bloody on.”

“Poor Fabien. Oh, and by the way it’s just you and me and the two girls for dinner.”

“What?” My heart moved an inch or two down my diaphragm. “Where are the men?”

“Malachy McGurk’s a part-time fireman and has been called to a job.”

“And Shay Quinn?”

“Oh, I dunno. Leonne didn’t say. So, it’s a sort of girlie night out.”

I was bewildered at the men’s insouciance, just not showing up, whilst the girls nattered and giggled and guzzled; but the food was surprisingly good and my countenance improved with an exquisite rack of lamb and a Lebanese red wine.

My phone pinged. Kieran had added me to Atletico’s WhatsApp.

“Mighty stuff today. See you Tuesday for training Gazza!”