The death of Mitchell Cole will bring personal sadness for those who knew him. As much as we can try to empathise with what his friends and family are going through, it simply isn't possible. What the aftermath should remind us is that footballers are people too. Why is it we forget?
His death on Saturday was undoubtedly a tragedy on a human level but it is easy, particularly in the hyperbolic world of football, to convince ourselves that we're affected by it as much as those who actually knew him. One person on Twitter described the happiness he felt when he’d heard that Cole had signed for us. To which we’re presumably to surmise the depth of grief he was apparently now feeling.
I find it difficult to attach myself to someone else’s grief. It seems mawkish and voyeuristic. Unfair on his family and friends who have enough to deal with without me or others hanging around sobbing crocodile tears. When I heard that he’d died I had to Google him to check a) he was the guy who used to play for us and b) that he wasn’t Josh Payne, another midfielder of apparent greatness who arrived around the same time and disappeared into the ether. I couldn’t pay an emotional tribute to Cole without feeling I was, in some ways, a bit of a fraud. His death is someone else’s tragedy. It makes the situation no more or less sad because he briefly played for Oxford and I’m an Oxford fan. I don’t know whether that’s selfish of me, or the right way to feel, I doubt there’s a right answer.
The news swept through Oxford players both past and present. Mark Creighton and Jack Midson, Damien Batt and James Constable were all on Twitter on Saturday morning. First confirming the rumour, then expressing their shock and finally paying tribute to the player.
Twitter gives us an insight into many things; we get to see a bit of the players on a personal level. Midson and Creighton expressed genuine shock at the news. Constable tweeted a picture of him and Cole. But it wasn’t a picture of him playing for Oxford, but when they were together playing for England C. They knew Cole not just for the 4 games he played for us, but before, during and after his time with the club.
To us, footballers are actors in a rambling, incoherent and unending play. They are evil and heroes to be cheered and booed. But they are also people who knew Cole as a person and continued to know him after he left the Oxford stage. Cole had been at our games after he left, Midson talked to him last week, Chris Wilder had been speaking to him in his office only recently, and he had been at the launch of Batt’s company last week. We don’t see these things and we don’t consider how much life off the pitch impacts the actors on it.
This was summarised best by Chris Wilder after the ding dong 3-3 Cup draw with Accrington. Audibly upset, he struggled through his interview on Radio Oxford. He’d had to cope with the personal grief of hearing of Cole’s death, kept his team organised and focussed, maintained his professionalism throughout the game. It was no crafted PR statement, no bland platitude; it was a man who’d had a very very difficult day personally and professionally. They just have to pull on a shirt, focus on their job and get on with it. It is a massive credit to all of them that they're able to do this. Perhaps we need to consider this when we're hollering abuse at Chris Wilder and anyone else we choose to.
Perhaps most fittingly, the 94th minute equaliser was scored by Michael Raynes; a guy who is constantly maligned because he’s not as good at Michael Duberry or Johnny Mullins and has been labelled as – to quote Jerome Sale ‘The whipping boy’. But he seems like a decent guy, he’s always the one talking when heads are dropping, and he got his moment late late late on Saturday. He may frustrate, but does that mean we should have the right to abuse without restraint?
It’s a glib statement to say that a death puts football into perspective. But it would be nice to think if Mitchell Cole’s death offers something, it’s the opportunity for one or two to take a step back and consider the people behind the players that they scream abuse at every Saturday.