Two years ago this week, no.1 son sat on his bed and refused to go to football practice. He wasn’t as skilful, he said, as the other players and he wasn’t enjoying it. He wanted to change teams and play with his friends.
No.1 son started at his club aged four and two-thirds. He was sharp and smart and quickly became, not exactly a favourite, but appreciated and recognised by the coach. The following year, when the players were streamed and began playing in teams, no.1 son was in the top team. Through the ages six, seven, eight he kept his status as a first teamer and put quite some stall by it.
Other boys were more skilful, faster, stronger and braver, but no.1 son was the first to make passing key to his game. Surprisingly for a club that preaches a ‘total football’ mantra, he was stereotyped early as a defender. I think it was because he was attentive and responsible, he wouldn’t rush up field, abandoning his post. It gave him a role and kept him in the first team.
From age 9, he began competitive football. As the gap in size between him and his teammates grew, so it seemed did a gap open up in terms of ability. He was playing with some seriously talented footballers. He was displaced as first choice defender and would play about a third of a match, usually when the victory was secured. His game stopped developing. He deferred to his teammates, unloaded the ball as soon as he could, rarely left his own half and didn’t score a goal in two seasons.
Before some games he would say he felt ill. He didn’t look at ease with his teammates some of the time and he was on the outside of their socialising. On the field, he didn’t receive many passes from them. It was frustrating to watch and difficult to talk to him about. Being a first teamer had become part of his identity even though he wasn’t fitting in.
And then at the end of his second season of competitive football, one week after a famous cup final victory, in which he had played a solid part, he sat on his bed, refusing to go to training, crying and laid out his need. He wanted to play in the fourth team, with his school friends. I called his coach and to the club’s credit – chaos would ensue if every child wanting to change teams was indulged – they arranged the transfer.
He joined the fourth team in time for two end of season friendlies. Ten minutes into his debut, he picked up the ball outside the opposition penalty area, moved through a gap and shot past the keeper. His first goal in a match for two years. And he smiled and kept smiling, playing with his friends.
His first coach at the club sought me out to find out what had happened. He was concerned that no.1 son would be playing a lower standard of football and wouldn’t develop. It was true that in his first season, when he was player of the year, some of the opposition was poor. But it gave a player, introverted and anxious the year before, the time and space to flourish, to demonstrate skills I had no idea he commanded and repeatedly to show the vision he has for the game and the passing to make it tell. And he was happy.
Starting secondary school last September he had the confidence to try out for the school team. He won a place in the squad, playing alongside lads established in the local professional club set-ups. He was awarded the special socks that mark him as a ‘first teamer’.
And today, things have come full circle. No.1 son’s school team played in the League Final against the area’s strongest school. He came on as a substitute in the second half and stayed on the pitch until the final whistle and two periods of extra time. Still smaller and slighter than the other boys, he played tidily on the left, winning and distributing the ball. He lined up on the same field with two and against another four from the club first team he had left two years ago.
No.1 son’s school won today on penalties. He earned the right to be on the field with so many fine young footballers, which makes me proud. And I’m prouder still, that he did it his way – choosing when and where he wanted to move team and becoming a better and happier footballer because of it.