Between Ourselves: 'Geoff Hurst's historic moment is so gripping I missed the dancing'

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You see them at the side of the road, and generally you just speed past. They are the modern form of remembrance, bunches of dead flowers, taped to lamp-posts where the cars go too fast to see what is written on the fading cards in the yellowing cellophane, and too fast, it seems, to stop when an unwary pedestrian steps into the road.

But I was on foot when I came across one of these makeshift shrines the other day. The flowers, withered as matted sedge, were fastened in stiffening tape to a barrier by a station in Manchester. I glanced at the cards, expecting to learn of a teenager who had dashed across the road without looking a few weeks before. But it took me aback to read the tributes on the drooping flowers, in their windbeaten wrappings.

They were there to mark 12 months since the death of a middle-aged man. Tributes on flowers laid the day after a death are full of shocked incomprehension, but these recorded a more dragging reality. The spidery handwriting of his elderly mother showed the disorientation which comes when death unnaturally takes a child before a parent. The big round lettering of a young girl could find no words beyond "I still love you so, so much" to articulate the loss of her father. The stumbling grammar of his widow offered news, of a child who has now left primary school, and another who has had a job interview, and wondered aloud whether the dead man could see his children growing up and be proud.

To the passing stranger, the words were like a flash of lightning briefly illuminating the bottom of a deep dark pit. Then I moved on. Behind the cars passed by, at speed.

The train took me to Liverpool. Coming down the steps from Lime Street station the city always looks half-finished, with a tower block being prepared for demolition, something being built behind a gigantic plastic shroud bearing the words "City of Culture 2008", and a hideous Eighties shopping block amid some of the finest Victorian public buildings in Britain.

Unfinished was an apt conceit for what I was about to witness at the Liverpool Playhouse, which on Tuesday evening saw the premiere of a new work by the English National Ballet in celebration of the 85th anniversary of the Football Pools, which are based in the city. The Pools PR people had made valiant attempts to highlight the similarities between stage and pitch, but the resulting depiction of the greatest 10 iconic moments in recent football history – as picked by Pools customers – was largely unconvincing.

It had its moments, most particularly in its celebration of Maradona's notorious Hand of God goal in Argentina's 2-1 win over England in the 1986 World Cup. The corps of nine dancers elevated a ballerina, her hand held aloft, in a stylised expression of the infamous handball, to the Vincero! climax of Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma". And Gazza's 1996 Dentist's Chair celebration was done with amusing artistry. But other great footballing memories were more problematic. David Beckham's dramatic last-minute match-winning free-kick against Greece in 2001, as the choreographer Jenna Lee put it in the post-ballet analysis, was, "I don't want to say just a goal, but...."

The best bits were linking dance routines based on football stretches and keepie-uppies, which came between the miming of the iconic moments, some of which were anti-climactic. But the company made the mistake of back-projecting footage of Geoff Hurst's final World Cup-winning goal as the dancers were enacting it. The historic moment, with its "they think it's all over" commentary, remains so gripping that I missed the dancing.

Afterwards, I sought out a bar and watched the Liverpool vs Marseille match. The Scouser in the hoodie gave me a funny look when I told him about the ballet. Or may it was because he learnt I was from Manchester.

The late-night drunks' train from Liverpool to Manchester stops at every station in the rugby league zone between the two great soccer cities to allow the locals – Liverpudlians call them "woollybacks" – to alight.

To pass the time, I had pulled the slimmest volume from a bookshelf at home. It was George Orwell's England Your England. Fifty five years ago he celebrated us as a nation of flower-lovers, stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans and old maids hiking to Holy Communion. The gentleness of English civilisation, he concluded, was perhaps its most marked characteristic.

Ours is a very different world, it seemed, as I looked at dozing drinkers and an iPod-plugged youth in an Armani beanie. Then two check-out girls from Asda boarded. A young drunk began to chat the pretty one up. When he became too persistent the old gent behind whispered quietly in his ear. The young drunk sulked but then turned and offered his elder a handshake. "Fair enough, grandad," he said.

Perhaps the civility of the English is with us still, even when its accent is broad and its vowels flat.