Monthly Archives: April 2013

Taking my eye off the ball

For five years, I had one footballing son. One weekend morning and an evening eye on the ballwere spent each week on touchline duty. Then, a couple of years ago, no.2 son joined the club. Twice at the weekend and at least twice during the week. Something had to give.

I had already called a halt to my own football playing, as the Monday night 5-a-side games had given me a broken nose, fractured wrist, sprained ankle and pulled groin muscle in relatively quick succession. So there was no capacity available there.

What did happen, occurred organically. Something else just slipped out of my life, creating just enough space for my boys’ football to crowd in. I stopped following professional football.

I gained fresh air: instead of time in front of the TV, I was outside. I didn’t just swap an indoor inactive pursuit for an outdoor inactive pursuit. Because around football practice and matches, I have fitted running and lots of kick-abouts with whichever son isn’t playing or practising.

And there’s a social life. Lineker, Hansen and boring, boring, self-satisfied Lawro can live without me. Obsessed Dad, Marine Dad, Christian Dad, Injustice Dad, Earnest Dad, Twitchy Dad, Marathon Dad and many other Mums and Dads provide better insight, or at least no worse appreciation of the game and its participants than their TV counterparts.

My team no longer sells its best players to stave off bankruptcy or sells itself to inscrutable owners. We see our boys build team spirit from seasons together and get pleasure from their teammates’ performances, not just their own.

Coaches and managers change, but only at year-end, not mid-season after a cup defeat, and always with a handshake and a chance for words of gratitude for their efforts. Their post-match explanations are no more reliable than those of the managers on the box, but it’s not out of cynicism, just dedication to their team.

Even if the boys teams won’t always, it’s been a win-win transition for me. What possible downside could there be of taking my eye off the professional game?

Well none, until now and the realisation hits me that such is my detachment I didn’t notice that Mrs TL had scheduled no.1 son’s birthday party for the same hour of the same afternoon as the FA Cup Final.

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Eleven year old hat-trick hero

hat trick

I am cricket obsessed and I have a son with a natural aptitude for bowling. Were no.1 son to take three wickets in three balls, it would be one of the most perfect conflations of personal and family pleasures. I can imagine the hat-trick. Ball 1: batsman drawn to play at an outswinger which is edged and caught by the keeper. Ball 2: new batsman deceived by a slower ball which is chipped up and caught by a fielder. Ball 3: next batsman yorked by a ball that bounces at his toes and clatters middle stump.

Recently, in the pre-season practice sessions, no.1 son was my hat-trick hero. Here’s the story of those three balls.

Ball 1: younger brother (no.2 son) had been to two cricket practice sessions, then suddenly decided he didn’t want to go again and missed the next week. Conscious that my enthusiasm for the game may make the discussion difficult, I didn’t press no.2 son on his reasons for stopping. Instead, on the morning of the next practice I asked no.1 son if he could find out what was behind his brother’s change of heart. The boys talked. No.1 son enquired, listened and helped. He found out the reasons, made suggestions, gave reassurance and guided no.2 son back into the fold.

Ball 2: no.1 son’s age-group practice in the second of the two hour session. For several weeks, he stayed at home, with playstation or weekend TV sport before getting a lift to arrive for the second hour. This week, though, he came for the full two hours. He might have bowled to the boys practising in the nets, picking up some cheap wickets. But he didn’t. Instead, he offered himself as a helping hand to the coaches of the very young boys, who put him to work assisting with games and demonstrations and technical tips.

Ball 3: when the second hour came, no.1 son volunteered to move from the under 12s to the under 14s to balance up the numbers. He wanted to test himself against the boys two years older and, given his slight build, much bigger than he. He batted bravely against the fastest bowling he’s faced and persevered with the ball, bowling a 14 year old in the closing minutes of the practice.

It was a notable hat-trick, if not as dramatic as the three wickets in three balls of a conventional cricket hat-trick.

No.1 son is no angel and by bedtime that night, whether it was the prospect of school the next day, tiredness, or just the sheer difficulty of being eleven, he had a falling out with brother, sister, mother or me. But to have at his control the ability to help someone close to him work through a problem, the generosity to give up his leisure time to assist some younger children, and to be bold enough to challenge himself to play at a higher level, will turn out to be an even better combination than the away-swinger, slower ball and yorker that I had in mind.

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Let ’em play… We bloody won!

A cup semi-final on the middle weekend of the Easter holidays: no.1 son’s team raised the bare nine players needed for the under-12 match; the opponents had the luxury of one substitute. The match officials were one light as well, which made zero.

The touchline dads speculated about how to cope without the appointed referee. Very quickly a consensus emerged: there was bound to be trouble if one of the coaches, or even a parent refereed. Inevitable that a decision that appeared partial would lead to hostility and give one team grounds for an appeal.  Today’s game would have to be a friendly.

“No. They’ve come to play a semi-final, let ’em play. It’s kids football. We need to get on with it.” And similar, maybe less polite words burst out of me, frustrated that dads were trying to elevate and complicate this simple contest, make argument and grievance inevitably part of it. Maybe I couldn’t see the match being close enough for an official’s decisions to be telling: no.1 son’s team had three wins all season, had never beaten today’s opponents and the left-back was deputising in goal.

“The league won’t accept the result without its appointed official. What then?” I was asked.

“The team that loses concedes the fixture. It gets sorted today.”

“Wish I lived in your world,” was the response I got, dismissed as naive and probably, not for the first time, a little odd.

But before the philosophical clash could go further, someone practical enough to stay out of this conversation had found a referee amongst the lads practising on the pitch next to us. The semi-final was on.

For the next hour, our team played the sharpest, most competitive football of their season. A two goal lead in the first period; 2-1 at the end of the second; another goal apiece at the start of the third. The final ten minutes mattered. Last year’s semi-final had been lost on penalties to the same opponents. Three times this season leads of two or more goals had been let slip, twice with goals in the final minute. There was the appearance in the final at stake, but there was also the imperative that they be rewarded for playing keen, fluent football.

And in the middle of it was no.1 son. Collecting balls in midfield, easing past an opponent before sliding passes through to our two speedy forwards; laying off short balls to create space for a clearance or a break. And there was something else, too. No. 1 son wasn’t just silky, but dogged. Making more tackles and disrupting more moves in this game than in his whole season. This extra assertiveness had him score the second as he attacked a cross and turned it in at the far post.

Despite their fatigue, despite their post being hit, despite their own miss of an open goal, they dragged themselves through the last ten minutes with that fragile one goal lead.

At the final whistle, with fists clenched I sunk to my knees and shouted, “We bloody won!”

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I share this, not just because it was a great weekend for no.1 son and Touchline Dad, but because it exemplifies the contradictions and fascination of being a sports parent that motivated me to create this blog.

In the span of a little over an hour, I went from being rational, rather supercilious and annoyed at meddling parents foisting their values on our kids sport to hollering my delight and releasing all the tension of a close contest in which I had so much invested emotionally.

There are coaches and administrators, expert and well-meaning, whose response to the damaging presence of some parents is to silence them all or banish them all from games. I would like them to think again. It would have been a minor tragedy to have missed no.1 son’s match on Sunday – clearly for me, but I think for him, as well.

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Filed under parenting, touchline zoo, winning and losing