My boys play football in league and cup matches, friendlies and tournaments, school games, development centres, holiday clubs and pick-up matches. But their football began in and always returns to our back garden. It’s there I’ve seen them develop from toddlers and toe-pokes against whom I would contrive defeats, to opponents with step-overs and stinging shots, that imperil my aging frame.
Garden football has a distinctive sound. There’s uttered congratulations – directed most usually at oneself (“Did you see what I did, there..?”) and there’s a contagious bubbling of chuckles. The exertion as one boy pits himself against the other in our small space of ground, brings out breaths of laughter that bounce from one to the other as they battle for space to fire the ball past me.
There can be moans and yells. The play quickly gets tasty as the countermeasure to a neatly executed skill is a tap on the ankles or a push in the back. But the accusation and denial are soon swept away as the game restarts.
There’s a balance to the competition between the boys. The tightness of the space handicaps no.1 son’s height and stride advantage. The older boy’s superior passing is nullified in the one-on-one game. His younger brother’s power and pace provide for a close match-up.
Last week we had a typically breathy, sweaty, happy game. The springing forward of the clocks freed up time for outdoor play after work. The boys sprang around like lambs and I revelled as much in the atmosphere as I did in their athleticism. The light was a diffuse gold and the air was rich with the scent of blossom. All three of us in plain white shirts – theirs school, mine work – gave the scene a historic look, distant from the shiny, gaudy patterned replica tops they would choose to wear. The boys traded skills, appreciated the best the other could offer and I was unusually lithe in net. We tumbled into the house when the golden light faded, garrulous with our efforts.
Idyllic, no? A perfect picture of parent and children?
While nothing I have written is untrue, the whole is far more complicated. The emotions of joy and fulfilment described so far are only part of the story. Garden football is also a source of guilt, frustration and irritation.
Having lauded the pleasures of back garden football, you might think I take every opportunity to play. But that, as no.2 son, in particular, would attest, isn’t the case. Here are the reasons I give for not playing: I haven’t finished my meal; I haven’t digested my meal; the grass is too wet; I’m about to eat; it’s too early; I’m having a cup of tea; you’ve just played all morning; it’s too late; I’m going out. I pass up more games than I play. Frustration on one side; guilt on the other.
But, as long as the grass isn’t too wet, or the hour too late, I do usually propose an alternative: “why don’t you two play?” No.1 son is back to the TV before I can finish my proposal. Creaky, maladroit me is the magic ingredient. Two football crazy boys need their Dad with them to have a fun game. Irritation and more frustration.
Garden football exemplifies the different approaches parents (if I am justified in generalising my experience) and children (if mine are typical) take to their relationship. Mine is one of credit and debit; theirs is one of infinite and unfulfillable need. If I’ve spent a long (and happy) time playing, I feel that I have earned some credit in our relationship. The credit means I can cruise for a little while, capitalise on my investment. The other parties keep no accounts that are tallied. They merely have an immediate and on-going need for garden football. We play for an hour before lunch: I feel I deserve a rest in the afternoon; they want to start up again and are as frustrated with a refusal as if I had forced them to do homework or clean their rooms all morning. I inhabit a middle-ground that doesn’t satisfy them. Logic would say I should either play all the time in search of their approval or never play and be no less resented.
At the back of my mind is a recognition that at some point the scales of interest and dependency will flip. Their time will become precious to me and they will ration the amount they dedicate to me. It’s nice to think there could be an equilibrium, but I doubt it. While I’m still wanted, and retain the physical capability, I must drag myself away from the computer screen, the cup of tea and lead my boys out onto our own pitch for yet another game of back garden football.