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!”
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.