Sport’s grip on us is its uncertainty. You may hope, beg and (many) pray that your team will do well, but you don’t know. The essence of following sport is that heightened moment when the match is in the balance and you can barely breathe for fear of setting off some butterfly effect that will blow away your side’s chances. As a match progresses, you admire the skill and tenacity, but also calculate and recalculate your team’s prospects and what they must do to forge ahead, maintain a lead or claw themselves back into contention.
At least, that’s what I think. Watching sport is supposed to be thrilling and the real thrills come from what you don’t expect. From his early years, I’ve suspected that is not no.1 son’s source of enjoyment.
At around six years old, we began to watch the Sunday morning repeat of Match of the Day. As each match’s highlights began, he would ask, “What was the score?”
“Watch and you’ll find out,” I would reply, calmly at first, but with irritation mounting as the question was repeated, multiple times for each set of highlights. It was easier just to supply the result, which led to:
“Watch and you’ll find out.” And around we would go.
The questioning during live matches took a different tack – but with the same objective: to drive out the uncertainty inherent in the object of our gaze – sport.
“Who’s going to win? Who’ll score first? Who’s playing well? They’ll never win now, will they?”
No.1 son was two and a half when we moved to the north-west. Our first friends were Manchester City fans. The club then had a new stadium and a hapless, under-achieving team. I was happy for no.1 son to be influenced by our new friends and become a blue. Soon, though, wealthy owner sold up to ridiculously wealth owner and a squad of the world’s elite players was assembled. City had become contenders and in 2011/12 were at the top of the Premiership for much of the season and the chance of a first title in ages was real. A dramatic last few weeks left them needing to defeat QPR at home in their final game, with United ready to capitalise on any slip-up. The stakes could not have been higher for a young City fan.
Spending that Sunday afternoon with no.1 son and the 1&onlyD, I struck a compromise that would (I hoped) entertain them both. We would play monopoly, while watching the match on my iPad. Things began well. City were ahead at half-time.
20 minutes into the second half and the game was turned upside down – City fell behind. “Turn it off,” no.1 son insisted. “Are you sure?” I queried, mindful that the chance to watch his team win the league might not happen again soon – although that meant having to risk watching them not win. With some spirits low, we continued our game of monopoly, the iPad off. I was surreptitiously monitoring the match on my phone, while checking whether he would like the match switched back on. “No,” was the reply each time.
When City equalised in the 90th minute, I broke the news. Still he wouldn’t let me turn the match back on. But I couldn’t resist when a confusing newsflash appeared on my phone. I switched the iPad back on to see City players celebrating and their fans crying. No.1 son had missed his team triumph in the most dramatic end to a football season.
I remembered this on Friday after an evening of junior indoor cricket involving a team I run. The matches were for under 12s and half-term holidays meant most of the squad members were unavailable. I was faced with playing one short. No.1 son was too old to play. So, the day before the matches I asked no.2 son (8) if he would like to play. He would have the comfort of knowing half the team from school and sports club. He agreed, but was anxious about playing with boys three or four years his senior.
Come the day, I took the two boys with me to the matches; no.1 son to spectate. The younger boy acquitted himself very well, but that isn’t the point of the story. Afterwards, no.1 son told me that he had been so nervous that when his younger brother was about to bat he had left the hall, pretending he needed the toilet. When he came back, his sibling was still at the crease and so he sat with a bat held in front of his face so he couldn’t see what was happening.
The sheer uncertainty, the risk of his brother playing poorly and all that might entail for no.1 son’s feelings, forced him to leave and then to look away. It’s touching that his brother’s performance matters so much to him. That’s a feeling tinged with sadness for me, though: that a game of kids’ indoor cricket could ever matter that much; and that he cannot risk experiencing disappointment for the possibility of gaining joy.