Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Why I'm Learning to Love Football

I'll confess, I wasn't keen on my son getting 'into' football.  This makes me a traitor to my upbringing where football was the sport of choice and rugby was for "posh kids" or fat retired policemen.  I liked Chelsea because my dad supported them, but my mum supported Liverpool, so our living room featured a mirror for each team, which alongside the Coca-Cola mirror they had purchased, made it look quite a lot like a social club.
Can't see the mirrors?  Download the pics!
Frankly, a home is not a home without a selection of these...

Can't see Roy?  Download the images!
The man behind the song
(image sportworld cards)
My Great Uncle was a West Ham fan who taught us "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and took the time to try to instil in us a love of local football with trips to Camrose to watch Basingstoke FC.  My brother and I wandered around the ground taking in the banter and the smell of Bovril, while we waited for goals that would never come.  These formative experiences prepared me well for secondary school where football chants were frequently sung in lessons.  My personal favourite was one that would be sung with incredible gusto and was beautiful in its simplicity.  It was about the QPR player Roy Wegerle and required just two things: his surname and the tune to "Here We Go". 

By the age of 14 I was going to matches with friends. We bought tickets via a friend of the 'QPR Boy' to go and watch Spurs vs Arsenal at White Hart Lane.  I don't even know how he got hold of them in the first place.  This is pre-internet - did he write off including a stamped addressed envelope?  Did he phone up the club and promise to send a postal order?  It matters not, we got the tickets, enjoyed the buzz of the tube on match day, went to the stadium, sat at the home end and then as the final whistle blew and people made their way out of their seats....my friend unzipped her jacket to reveal...an Arsenal shirt.  We ran the rest of the way out.

I have experienced the thrill of the terraces, been caught in a crush as people rushed to the barriers to celebrate a goal, enjoyed the independence of going to a match with my mates (and nearly got lynched) and felt the excitement of walking up to Wembley for a Cup Final (and seen piss cascade from the bottom of an advertising hording as men relieved themselves behind it) so why on earth wouldn't I want my boy to enjoy all this?

Here's a sentence that explains why I didn't want my son to like football:

"Oi you f**king c**t! Pass the f**king ball for f**k's sake!"

I heard this at my local park from the village football team.  As I walked my children to the swings.  I wondered if their families on the sidelines had selective hearing...

Here's another one:

"Pass it to Alfie!  Pass it TO ALFIE!  PASS. THE. BALL. TO. ALFIE. NOWWWWW!!!"

This sentence was bellowed by a parent at their 6 year old.  At another village park.  At what was billed as a "friendly football club".  Nice.

So whilst our son has always enjoyed football at school and is devoted to Reading FC, when he showed an interest in rugby I was pleased as I did not want to stand next to Mr "Pass it to Alfie" every Sunday.  

Here's what I heard at rugby:

"First things first, we respect the ref."  "We play as a team."  "If someone has a bad game we don't single them out."  "We have fun."  "There is a place on the pitch for everyone."

And here's what the parents said:

Not much.  Most people were gently nursing Sunday morning hangovers but when they did speak it was to say hello.  Nobody shouted at their children.

At local rugby tournaments people are friendly, at major games opposing fans can be trusted to have a pint in the stands together.  Without exception I have found rugby to be a welcoming and well-mannered game where it is possible to attend a match without hearing someone call the ref a "f**king wanker".  And there's the added amusement of some roaringly middle-class things happening like the time I saw a mum take her son's teams' sports bottles to the pitch in an Ocado wine carrier.....

But there is a little something missing with rugby.  And I think it's best described as this:

Anyone can take part in a kick-about.  It is nigh on impossible to have a 'rugby-about'.

The 'jumpers for goalposts' adage is true.  In Devon our son was kicking a football on the grass, and within a couple of minutes was joined by another boy.  Our daughter decided to join in too.  Three soon turned into four with the arrival of another girl, the dads followed on and before long I was in goal and the pitch was awash with dad-running, silky-skills and clumsy kicks.  We had over an hour of unprompted exercise and bloody good fun.  Everyone knew what they were doing and no-one needed to get grabbed by the legs. 
Can't see the Reading kit?  Click to download the pics.
Treasured and very, very lairy

In Poole a few weeks ago we saw 20 kids playing on an artificial pitch, with two dads loosely in charge.  On the first day our boy just watched them, counting the different team shirts and trying to suss out if they all knew one another.  We concluded that they didn't.  On the second day he looked over at the pitch then looked at me and said "I'm going to ask if I can join in."  And as I watched my 8 year old son, clad head to toe in his cherished fluorescent Reading kit, trot over, introduce himself and then get heartily welcomed into the swarm I realised that perhaps football isn't so bad after all. He had 90 minutes of being part of a team, the kids all calling each other by the names on their backs and no-one being told that they couldn't play.  The team sizes fluctuated up and down as children came and went but the game carried on.  He was in heaven and I saw how inclusive football can be.  And how it needn't be like the other examples I'd come to believe as the norm.

He's still playing rugby, but now he wants to join a football team too.  Perhaps I could learn to love it.