No.1 son has had a taste of European football. And it wasn’t the usual first round elimination on away goals suffered by so many English teams on their initial venture onto the Continent. He has spent six nights with his club side in Utrecht, playing four matches against local junior sides.
The club has run this trip for its under 13 cohort for a decade. It was with that experience behind it that us parents were told in December to get fund raising. Thirteen boys signed up and (sort of) got busy packing bags in local supermarkets, helping the car parking at the club on Saturday mornings, while the parents ran some other money-making ventures – always conscious that our kids having a trip to Holland was not a cause for charity.
No.1 son had initially said he wasn’t interested. A fear of flying was the deterrent. On being asked a second time, with most of his close friends on board, he expressed a desire to go. The dislike of travel by plane jabbed away at him – and therefore, at us – all the way until the departure. The only thing to deflect him from this obsession – by irritating him – came the week before leaving when the team gathered to be fitted for the tour tracksuit. His had been ordered two sizes too big, which he took as some form of conspiracy to make him look daft.
Sunday morning, a minibus came to take the team and its four adult coaches/support staff to the airport. Some mums cried. Dads were shaking their heads at failing to use this as an excuse for their own trip to Holland. And then there was, apart from a couple of Facebook updates each day, silence.
The story of the tour, told to us by no.1 son, is still quite fragmentary. The first game was won. No.1 son was awarded man of the match. He conceded he could barely keep his eyes open by the end of that game, due to some high jinks that kept most of the team awake through the first night in their hostel.
As news reached us on the evening of day 2 that the second match had also been won, I quickly made the equation that if no.1 son’s team could beat two Dutch teams on their own soil, Roy Hodgson’s task in Brazil would be far from impossible. More down to earth, I also realised how much I missed not seeing my older boy play in this new environment.
Games three and four went more like an England appearance at an international tournament, as they were lost to two “good footballing” sides. But, Won 2 – Lost 2, was a decent return from the trip.
What we find worthy of remark about another country says as much about ourselves as it does about where we have visited. I treasured most no.1 son’s surprise in finding that Dutch children all have showers after their games. What this really pointed to wasn’t so much our poor hygiene but that Dutch junior clubs have facilities that include changing rooms, club houses with kitchens (they all ate together after the games) and 3G pitches. Think about the changing rooms, if any, at your local junior football club and you get a sense of the investment the Dutch make in their youngsters’ sport. A hot shower at the ground is quite a good image to hold and compare with the muddy knees and sweaty heads that return home from games in England.
Four games in five days left the team just enough time for trips to FC Utrecht’s stadium, a theme park and an indoor water park. These events were the source of as many stories as the football matches and were important to the success of the trip.
Mother in the Middle and I asked no.1 son cautiously about how he had got on with the team-mates. We were intrigued (and pleased) to hear that one lad whom he has played alongside for three years, but never really considered a close friend, was his favourite company away. That sort of recognition is one of the fringe benefits of spending so much time away from family. Another spin-off, he tells me, is that he can now identify the smell of marijuana being smoked – “it was everywhere”.
I kept my Dad up to date with the trip. Not for the first time, his grandson’s sporting activities sparked a memory of his own youth. Shortly after the second world war, my Dad was part of a school group who went on a cycling holiday in Holland. While the country’s flat landscape made it the perfect location for cycle-touring, my Dad remembers most strongly cycling up a hill that due to an optical illusion appeared to be downhill. Known as ‘magnetic’ or ‘gravity hills’ there are records of hundreds of them across the world. Unfortunately, none of the lists on the web mentions one in Holland.
The Dutch welcome was as warm in 1947 as it was for my son’s team this year. My Dad remembers, wherever they stayed, being filled up on real dairy milk and eggs – products that England’s post-war austerity meant remained scarce and never something to gorge on.
No.1 son also crowned his account of the trip with a story of eating. It shows how much has changed in 67 years. This story didn’t concern the unexpected abundance of basic agricultural products, but of vegimite, KP sauce, cinnamon, and the other oddments which made up the team’s ‘Bush-tucker trial’.
I cannot finish without an (anonymous) acknowledgement and thank you to the two Dads/Coaches who chose to end their eight month season by taking the rest of our kids with them, as well as to the two club officials who also subjected themselves to our boys for a week. You are very kind, patient and brave.