The influence of football

5th March

Far be it from me to disagree with the late great Bill Shankly, but there is one point on which our views differ.
The great Liverpool manager was reputed to have said: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." 
Taken in that direct context, Shankly's quote is ridiculous. Football doesn't come anywhere near being as important as life and death.
However, what I will concede is that while football is not a matter of life and death it does play a massive part in the lives of people who follow it - and not just because it has become a multi-billion pound global industry.
Football has a far more direct and important influence on the vast majority of people who love the game.
For many people, football is a massive escape from the day-to-day worries and problems of ordinary life.
How many times has "going to the football" been a welcome relief to each and every one of us?
A short period of our lives when the most important thing we have to worry about is how many times 22 men can kick a ball into a net.
When I was playing local park football, I would eagerly look forward to every Saturday afternoon - even if it generally meant  being up to your ankles in mud on a rubbish pitch, half way up a windswept, rain-lashed hill in the back of beyond.
But whatever had been going on during the week in work or at home, for 90 minutes the most important thing in my life was also the least important - stopping my opposite number scoring a goal.
I wasn't a very good footballer, so my sole aim during the game would be stopping someone else from playing.
I would generally be detailed to mark the opposition's biggest attacking threat. A task I would carry out by following him absolutely everywhere - never allowing myself to be more than a couple of yards away. I used to take the term man-to-man marking absolutely literally.
There were a couple of occasions when I was so engrossed in my task that I followed my opponent over to the touchline blissfully unaware that the whistle that had just sounded was for half time and he was on his way for his interval drink and team talk. 
More than once I even followed my opponent over to the touchline, not realising he was being substituted.
I would get so lost in games that whatever else was going on in my life would be completely forgotten for those 90 minutes.
It's exactly the same now when I come and watch the Swans. Although the stakes are obviously a lot higher where the Swans are concerned, football is still just a game, but also a wonderful and distracting escape from everything else that is going on in the world.
For some, that distraction and pleasure is even more important than it is to the average fan like me.
A few weeks ago I saw a television report about Sunderland's initiative to provide a sensory room at the Stadium of Light which allows supporters suffering from Autistic Spectrum Disorders to go along to games and watch their team in surroundings tailor-made for their needs.
Young Nathan Shippey absolutely loved the Black Cats, but couldn't cope with the noise and hustle and bustle of the stadium on match days.
So Sunderland adapted a room at the stadium where Nathan and other autistic fans could watch the match.
"It's absolutely incredible," Nathan's mum Kate. "It's opened up a whole new world for him - it's emotional, really. It's amazing to see."
Although not a matter of life and death, football has the power to be so much more important than just three points or promotion and relegation. Perhaps that's what Shanks was trying to get at all those years ago.
The wider importance of football is worth remembering as the Swans and Norwich "battle it out" in a so-called "must-win relegation dog fight" today.
Yes, Premier League survival is hugely important in terms of finance, publicity for the respective cities and even people's livelihoods.
But both clubs have been through enough hard times in the past to understand that their overall survival is far more important than their Premier League futures.
These clubs have been here for their communities for decades. They have provided those communities with so much, both in good times and bad.
They have provided something to believe in, something to fight for, something to care about and sometimes even something to be angry at. 
But they have always provided entertainment (well, most of the time) and more importantly an escape and distraction when times haven't been so great for the cities in general or for the individual fans who follow them.
A matter of life and death? No. But there is plenty of life left in both clubs - that's the most important thing.
And guess what would make this afternoon an even more pleasurable distraction (for most here this afternoon) . . . three points for the home side!
C'mon you Swans.