Last month, 10th September to be exact, I filled the time that child number two was at a trampolining party by shopping for ingredients for one of child number one’s GCSE Food Tech practicals. As I stood motionless in the aisle, scanning the supermarket shelves for pecan nuts, a tiny elderly woman shuffled right up to me. I gave her what I hoped was a friendly smile, as I stepped slightly away from her to regain my personal space. She took another step towards me, gripped my arm and in an excitable stage whisper blurted out ‘are you a Red or a Blue?’
As the mother of Manchester City fans, I knew immediately of course that it was Manchester Derby day and that her question used the local shorthand to gauge my allegiance. I laughingly told her that I was neither, but I had some ardent Blues at home waiting for me to get back with the shopping. She shuffled off again, looking slightly disappointed; I can only suppose she was a Red trawling the shop for comrades.
Child number three was eagerly awaiting kick-off at home. Earlier that morning, he had agreed to do some final practice for his 11+ exam, due the following Monday, before the match, if he could be allowed to watch it in its entirety. This is a well-rehearsed negotiation by him, generally involving trade-offs between homework, football and screen-time. He did not need to negotiate very hard on this occasion, as we know how much being a City fan means to him. It means, for example, that he refuses to wear red clothes (with the honourable exception of his own under 11s football strip); it means that he has tiny stickers of City players, old and new, lovingly stuck next to the bed in his blue-walled, blue-carpeted bedroom; it means that he employs theatrical, self-conscious hisses and boos when we drive past the United stadium; it means that, on the day he was told that he had not passed the 11+ exam after all, he took comfort in wrapping himself in a City flag and curling up in abject, profound disappointment on the couch next to me.
As much as he loves watching football on the television or in the stadium, he loves playing it even more. He is animated, skilful, fast and beautiful. His face lights up with joy, as he throws himself into it heart and soul, determined to win the ball, delighted to run with it, ecstatic if he manages to get it past the keeper into the back of the net. I often find myself watching him from the touchline with a group of dads who cannot resist shouting out to the players on the field and who appear to invest so much of their own emotional energy in the outcome of the game, feeling every kick and flinching at every miss through their sons. I love to see my boy with the wind in his hair and a grin on his face, but I often lose track of the score in my focus on my son as poetry in motion. The dads don’t lose focus for a single second: they live and breathe each ball, bemoan each perceived injustice by the young referees and discuss the strategies of the under 11 coaches with more gravity and criticism than that levelled against the Premiership managers on Match of the Day.
Much like the woman in the supermarket, they also use a shorthand for their in-match interjections which has taken me years to understand. It’s important, I have come to realise, to concentrate on the manner of delivery – just listening to the words does not always clarify to me what is being said. ‘Tackle!’, for example, can, depending on the tone and pitch, mean either ‘get in there and tackle their number seven immediately or you’re no son of mine!’ or ‘my word, what a superb tackle that was’. ‘Pass!’ can be either an anguished instruction, or an approving recognition of a skilful move. As can ‘feet!’ and ‘pace’. ‘Shot!’ can mean ‘what a try, shame it missed, but you gave me a bit of excitement there!’ or ‘hurray, we scored’ (generally the whooping and clapping helps me distinguish that one if I happen to be distracted watching my boy whilst the goal flies in).
In a week when my sensitive, hilarious, clever, capable boy has been left feeling worthless and stupid, I am very grateful to those touchline dads and to the gruff sports teacher at his school. I know he has heard their terse, economical yet enthusiastic and heartfelt commentary and I know when he hears it, he understands them and he feels he is doing something well. Long may it continue. Respect.