Liverpool (surprise surprise) were struggling to defend. The ball pinged around in front of Simon Mignolet’s goal. A half-clearance found its way to Joe Ledley, who hit a low shot through traffic, fooling the goalkeeper. Seconds before the end of the half, Crystal Palace were up 1-0 over my beloved Reds in front of a raucous crowd at Selhurst Park.
I was consumed with despair and self-loathing.
It was my 33rd birthday. It was way too early in the morning. I’d woken up with a powerful sense of dread that had nothing to do with my getting older or the inexorable march of time. Palace had swiftly become Liverpool’s bogey team, and I’d told myself before the match begun to accept the three dropped points, file them away, go out for brunch with my friends and enjoy the day.
It wasn’t working. I felt confused, alone, and afraid.
The self-loathing wasn’t just because of the goal. And it wasn’t just because Liverpool were losing. And it wasn’t just because I was failing in my efforts to compartmentalize the game.
It was because I couldn’t summon my usual antipathy for the goalscorer. I just could not get mad at Joe Ledley like I could with, say, Harry Kane or Sergio Agüero.
And I realized why.
It was because of his beard.
So this is where I tell on myself. I love beards. A lot. No, really. A lot.
My love of beards defies reason and consistency. It overcomes all obstacles and dispatches all doubt. It is deep as the ocean and as vast as the night sky. The quality of beards is not strained, it droppeth like a gentle rain from heaven.
I can’t be the only one who feels this way, right? I know there are plenty of folks who find beards attractive. I know it’s something of a status signifier in some subcultures (various breeds of hipster, the bear community, et al). But sometimes it feels like I’m the only person in the world who gets this excited over something so common, so mundane.
I think the human body is universally beautiful in all its forms and all its functions. I abstain from bodyshaming not out of a sense of moralistic restraint but because I genuinely believe that all bodies are good bodies. This means I tend not to prize some bodies, or some physical features, over others. All bodies are good bodies. And yet there is something about the beard that shocks the heart, quickens the blood, and holds my very spirit captive.
I love all kinds of beards. I love well-trimmed beards and unruly beards. I love short beards and long beards. I love GQ beards and hipster beards. I love beards on men, women, and nonbinary people. All bodies are good bodies, but also, all beards are good beards.
My friend, voicing genuine concern for my wellbeing, worries that I will fall for any beard that comes along, untroubled by whether said beard would treat me well or care for me in old age. My problem, she says, is that I love beards not wisely but too well.
I don’t know why I’m like this (boy, if I had a dollar for every time I said that…) but I can’t help it. My love for beards is deep and it’s real. And, in an example of either a generous gift or a terrible curse from whatever higher power you deem appropriate, my love of beards intersects with another great love of mine – English football.
Where do I even start?
I can look to my own Premier League team. He recently left for more regular first-team minutes at Stoke, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Joe Allen.
— Kristian Johnson (@kristianj23) July 20, 2016
His beard appeared later in his time at Liverpool, but, like a friend that moved to a different city and occasionally came back to visit, it was always greeted warmly upon return. Generally well-trimmed, its tone and mood depended on his haircut. With short hair, he looked mature and professional yet not opposed to cutting loose. You could sit down with him and hammer out an important business deal, then wrap things up with sushi and drinks later in the evening. With longer hair, like he had last season with Liverpool and this summer with Wales at Euro 2016, Allen looked like a late 19th century impressionist painter. A British expat holed up in a dingy flat in a bad part of Paris, he would drink to excess and take on many lovers, and in the very dead of night he would stumble naked to his canvas and capture the city the way it might look in a dream. Allen’s was a wild beard that could only barely be tamed – much like his heart.
Though it pains me to leave, if I want to really appreciate Premier League beards, I can’t stay at Anfield. It’s time to, reluctantly, trundle on down the M62.
— Ali Muhammad Shahid (@AliMohddShahid) November 1, 2014
Juan Mata’s beard brings up such conflicting emotions in me. With his fair skin, fierce eyes, and scruffy beard growth, Mata has a look not unlike my stepfather. I look at him and my mind floods with false memories of flying kites in the park in the summer with Juan Mata, of setting up my Super Nintendo for the first time with Juan Mata, of surprising my mom with eggs on Mothers’ Day morning with Juan Mata. There’s a familiarity and also a distance with Mata’s beard that I can neither explain nor fully reconcile. Mata’s beard is the beard of a lost Spaniard at sea who is continually in search of gold and/or salvation – which also happens to describe his football career to a T.
— Beard Friendly (@Beard_Friendly) January 12, 2016
Across town I see Nicolas Otamendi and I’m never quite sure what to make of him. You know that kid in high school who started growing facial hair and it looked a little too advanced for their face? Like an 18-year-old mustache on a 15-year-old kid. That’s how it seems with Otamendi. Like his beard is just a little older than the rest of him. Almost like it exists apart from him, and that they just have something of an understanding. A partnership. It looks fetching on him, obviously. But it’s the kind of beard that seems like it could’ve sat on any face, and is just currently occupying Nicolas Otamendi.
Boaz Myhill’s only crime is that he plays for a club that most people sleep on. The fixtures with West Brom aren’t usually Must See TV. It’s a game you tune in for out of loyalty, and no one holds it against you if you sleep in or go out to brunch instead.
— Trainer Twelve (@rmsn12_) August 4, 2016
Which is a shame, because Boaz Myhill has a beard that lets you know who’s in charge. It’s the kind of beard that could get him work as a model if he ever has second thoughts about this football thing. It’s well-sculpted, thick, dense, and it maintains a near-perfect symbiotic relationship with the rest of his face. It’s the kind of beard you see in glossy fashion magazine photos. You can picture Myhill sitting on a friend’s fire escape in DUMBO, wearing a flannel shirt, smoking a pipe, enjoying some small-batch whiskey. It’s a beard that probably required some effort to shape and maintain, but looks positively effortless. It’s a beard you can put stock in.
Olivier Giroud just spent about 2 minutes grooming his beard while Arsene Wenger was talking pic.twitter.com/d1La8XazmL
— arseblog (@arseblog) February 22, 2016
There’s a beard in North London that can be perfectly captured in one word: luxury. Olivier Giroud doesn’t always grow a beard, but when he does, it’s the toast of Fashion Week. It’s a beard of high-end perfumes and Versace, of top-shelf champagne served on a private balcony in Monaco. It’s a beard that’s equally at home at a black-tie formal and aboard a yacht. It’s the kind of beard that Gatsby might grow to woo Daisy Buchanan if they were en vogue at the time. It’s a beard that has seasons in the way that wealthy socialites have seasons. It’s a beard you aspire to. A beard that knows it has no peer.
Giroud may have his troubles finding the back of the net, but make no mistake – his is a Three-Star Michelin beard.
And finally, back to Selhurst Park.
Joe Ledley has the most majestic beard pic.twitter.com/LT3vFlDhe6
— Tom O’Rourke (@Rourkie100) July 6, 2016
I would dream sometimes of walking in a narrow mountain valley. I had to get somewhere. I didn’t know where, but I knew I had to keep walking. At some point I realized the valley wouldn’t lead me there and I had to get on the other side of the mountain. It started to rain. Undeterred, I made my way toward the mountain slope. I climbed, endlessly, trying to find some quick way to get on the other side without going all the way up to the summit. The climb was steep. The weather grew harsher. I didn’t know how to forage and so a hunger crept up on me. After hours of little progress I sat down on a rock. No sooner had I sat down than a mountain lion slipped into view. It had marked me. I was gripped with terror. There was no time to get away. The great cat leapt toward me and everything went dark.
When I awoke I was laying on a bed in a wooden cabin. There was a roaring fire and a cast-iron pot suspended above it. The cabin smelled of stew. Outside a storm raged. In the corner a figure sat facing away from me. “Sleep well?,” asked a gruff voice. The figure turned around and I saw a worn face, piercing eyes, and a full, mighty beard. It was the beard of Joe Ledley.
We stayed up all night eating stew and talking about his life on the mountain. He was warm, in heart and in body, and his laugh was like the crash of the Irish Sea against the cliffs. He invited me to bed and I accepted gladly. I stayed with him for years afterward. We built an addition to the cabin. He taught me how to hunt. We started a bee colony. And in the evenings he would take me in his arms, tender yet indescribably strong, and I would run my fingers through his beard as birdsong rang out down the slope and into the valley. Those were the happiest years of my life.
And then, one day, he was gone.
I waited some time for him to come back but in my heart I knew he would not return. I packed up my few belongings and some provisions and made my way to the other side of the mountain. I completed my errand after all, but I did so with a terrible weight in my heart. I knew I would never love again.
Liverpool ended up winning that game. They flipped the 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead late in the second half. Both Liverpool goals came from players who, it must be said, did not have beards.
I went on and had a lovely day out with my friends and tried not to dwell on my age.
But birthdays are a good excuse to take stock. And on my 33rd, I realized that there’s no such thing as loving too well.
If I might paraphrase from the late great Eduardo Galeano: I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am. A beggar for good beards.
I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: “A pretty beard, for the love of God.”
And when good beards happen, I give thanks for the miracle, and I don’t give a damn which team has it.