Category Archives: social animals

Taking the field together

cricket gameAs I stand in the garden, goalkeeper and guardian to two football mad boys, I often think forward to a time when the brothers can play alongside each other. I imagine a one-two that cuts through a defence, or some other combination of their different strengths.

They have, of course, played together in ad hoc, occasional matches. There was the Euro-holiday game that could have ended grimly for no.2 son. And, three years ago, at home for once for New Year, we were invited to play a dads v lads game in our local park. We left home with no.2 son sobbing – his brother had told him he was too young and couldn’t play. Good sense – or not – prevailed and both boys lined up. The ground was frosty and the cold felt by all. No.2 son had cheered up. One of the dads, forced into defence, unsteady on the slippery ground, took a swing and sliced a ball hard straight into no.2 son’s face. He was knocked off his feet, but the tears that flowed when told earlier that he couldn’t play didn’t reappear. With jutting chin and stinging face, he played on.

Junior football operates strict age group delineation. So my two boys, five school years apart, won’t get to play together in competitive fixtures for maybe ten years. I can wait and will continue to imagine how they may play together – exchanging passes, creating chances, celebrating each other’s success.

Then, all of a sudden, this summer, it has happened. Two of my children have taken the field together, in partnership. It wasn’t the game I had so often watched two of my children compete and combine at. The pairing wasn’t even the one I had often conjured with.

It was no.2 son and his sister (the 1&onlyD), representing our cricket club’s under 9 team – the Squirrels.

Several weeks before the cricket season started, the club ran indoor practice sessions for its girls squad. Knowing that numbers would be low, I mentioned to the 1&onlyD that she might want to try out cricket. She surprised me and agreed. She surprised me again and enjoyed herself and continued to go to practices when they moved outside.

Junior cricket has hit on an excellent way of encouraging girl cricketers, which doesn’t rely on clubs finding a whole team of players in the same age group (which continues to be tricky). Girls are allowed to play for boys teams two age groups younger than their own. It was through that dispensation that the 1&onlyD made her competitive cricket debut alongside her younger brother.

The Squirrels Coach was alert to the importance of the situation. He invited the 1&onlyD to captain the side – taking part in the ceremonial coin toss – and when the Squirrels were invited to bat first, he selected the siblings as the opening pair. And that’s them in the middle distance in the photo at the top of the page (my daughter’s leggings and pink Converse are easier to admire below).

E bowlerThey returned to the boundary, smiling, having run some singles hard and shown solid batting technique. Later, in the field, they took their turn at bowling. No.2 son, more self-confident, bustled about and completed four run outs. The 1&onlyD stuck to her fielding position, stopping and returning the ball, and when the action dulled, turned a few cartwheels.

That this minor milestone in my children’s sporting lives (and my spectating existence) should have been shared by the younger two of the three, now feels fitting. They have been playmates and conspirators since infancy, inventing games and immersed in each other’s company. Neither has put age and gender difference up as a barrier, at home or, more notably, at school. It’s a very special relationship, albeit one that I’m reconciled to seeing change and maybe become less intense, as their interests diverge. On this evening, brother-sister, teammates, opening partners, continued their happy kinship, taking the field together.



Filed under social animals, sport gives us..

Going Dutch

departureNo.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.



Filed under social animals, sport gives us.., young shoulders

Touchline companions

Saturday morning and the 1&onlyD was in a mood. She was indignant and she was frustrating in a way she has honed and polished: refusing to make a decision between two options. And time was pressing, she wasn’t dressed and as each minute passed, she became less communicative.. until with seconds to spare she made her move and was out of the door.

In my daughter’s defence, she was being asked to decide between going with Mrs TL to watch her younger brother play football at the local Powerleague centre, or come with me to a supermarket where her older brother would be bag-packing to raise funds for his club. Neither are prospects to thrill a ten year old girl at the start of her weekend. And in my world, where all shopping activity is loathsome, she made the right decision and went with her mother.

For as long as I have been a touchline Dad, I have had my children as companions on the side line. When no.1 son first strode out for his club, his younger brother was a new-born, who would stay with his mother, while I would bring the 1&onlyD with me.

For a few months, hanging out with Dad seemed to satisfy her. When spring came, and football moved outdoors, Saturday morning Dad-and-daughter time became at once both more exciting and more irksome. The excitement was the playground by the football field, where we swung, span, climbed and played monster games for half the morning until I bribed her with snacks to let me watch the boys’ match.

The annoyance for her, piled on top of the boredom of boys’ football, was the weather. Our home ground has a micro-climate – one that belongs 300 miles further north, not south of our NW England home. The 1&onlyD protected herself from the cold and wet by, variously, draping herself around my shoulders, sitting on my feet or clinging to me beneath my coat. If the sun did come out, she would occupy herself with daisy chain making. daisy chain long

The following season, I would often have both the little-ones as touchline companions, while Mrs TL had a hard-earned child-free hour in the gym. Even more fun in the playground, more snacks and more chilly grumpiness at the game. On at least one occasion, I watched a match with a pre-schooler clinging to each shoulder. A good thing those junior matches are short.

Something similar was happening on weekday afternoons with Mrs TL at swimming and gymnastics lessons. One occupied child and two malcontents, willing to offer a few minutes of good-humoured quiet in exchange for a treat.

We are now in a different phase (or more accurately, have been through several phases). The boys choose to come with me or Mrs TL to watch the other play. In no.1 son’s case, at a recent indoor cricket match, he showed himself to be a very tense spectator. I had seen this before, particularly at his younger brother’s weekly sessions with the pro-club development centre. He could not contain his longing for his brother to do well in that rarefied environment. And if no.2 son wasn’t playing at full throttle, or seemed to be missing the point of a training drill, no.1 son would be stage-whispering corrections, sighing and predicting the imminent end of his brother’s time on the slippery slope of junior academy football. Behaving just like lots of the adults around us, in fact.

It is fun standing alongside one son watch his brother and his teammates. Even more important for us is the opportunity it gives a boy and me to have a kick-around, using a spare goal or space beside the match. I marvel at the tricks and skills they have learnt and my hands sting from the increasing power their shots acquire. Their company distracts me from becoming too wrapped up in the match. I can enjoy it with a little distance.

No.2 son is less keen to stand and watch, so if I’m puffed and need a break watching the match, he will often tour around half of the pitch to join his brother or whoever is a substitute at that point in the game, eager for a kickabout with some bigger boys.

But if there’s nobody willing to play, he will stand and watch the game for a while. This is always something I cherish. He stands amongst the touchline dads and mimics their shouts, their grunts and groans as they kick every ball and make every challenge for their sons. I’m not sure they are listening, but he’s telling them how ridiculous they sound. It keeps me very quiet.




Filed under parenting, social animals, touchline zoo, young shoulders

BMX party

The kids have had an assortment of active or games-themed birthday parties: park football, 5-a-side football, gymnastics, trampolining, multi-sport, laser-raven 006quest, laser-tag, disco and my favourite, Raven.

For no.2 son’s eighth birthday last weekend, we went to the National Cycling Centre, where there is a hangar-sized indoor BMX course. We arrived early to guard against hitches completing liability forms for 14 youngsters. But the check-in went smoothly, giving us time to view the course from the stands. The kids went quiet. It was big and dangerous.

When our time came, the lucky 14 (no.2 son, brother, sister and eleven friends) were taken to get kitted up in protective arm and leg guards, helmets and gloves. Most were so small they had to wear elbow pads on BMX ridertheir legs. A brief orientation led by a coach on the flat didn’t bode well as many of the kids seemed to have difficulty braking. But onward they went, onto the course. One-by-one they set off up and down the humps, so large and steep that they disappeared from view whenever in a trough. “Level pedals” and “Stand up straight” bellowed the coaches – and we were soon to find out why.

After a couple of mini-circuits the group moved to the more challenging part of the course, which ended with a steep climb that they had to pedal up (standing up straight) before coasting over the lip (level pedals) and stop or bear sharp left – or keep on straight into the pack of gasping parents. On their first laps, most didn’t quite have the momentum to make it up the final slope and had to be dragged up before they slid back down. A few crested the slope, then wiped out. There was one ugly collision – but both boys were back in the saddle in minutes.

BMX crashDespite bumps, crashes, near misses and tired muscles they overcame their fears and all completed laps by the end. Only once was the first aid official called for – the accident happening somewhere in the distance, out of our sight.

For a breather, one coach took the birthday party to the top of the eightBMX hill metre start hill used for elite competitions. The coach lined up the kids at the starting apparatus – without bikes. He pushed the button for the countdown and with a crack that had them all jumping, the starting barrier fell away leaving them teetering at the top of the hill.

Sweaty, tired and sore, but exhilarated, they went off to the cafe, where the party tea featured hot-dogs as long as football cakesome of the kids’ arms and a football pitch cake, decorated by Mrs TL while in the midst of a migraine.

No.2 son had a great, scarey time. No.1 son wants his next party to be there. More worryingly, the dads are looking to book a session and, caught up in the convivial atmosphere, I may have agreed to leave the touchline.


Filed under play time, social animals

Christmas holiday games

A wet Christmas holiday, spent at home. The biggest challenge to our status as out-sourcing parents: no school, sports clubs or music lessons. There were large quantities of screen-time, but in between we managed some fresh air and games.

Most difficult was finding activities that all three children were happy to Xmas bootsparticipate in. On Christmas Day, sons no.1 and 2 headed with me to the local park for football in their brand new boots. The 1&onlyD came along to play on the exercise equipment. Earlier that day, no.2 son had taken his new World Cup football to the back door and drop kicked it over the fence into our neighbour’s garden. This turned out to be fortunate as our game in the park was brought to an end by a dog running off with our ball between its teeth. We are not a family of dog lovers.

Other outdoor action was engaged in by the kids singly or in pairs. The Xmas goalback-garden, boasting a pristine, new “colossal” goal, sustained a few skirmishes with the boys before the grumpy groundsman (me) took umbrage at the damage to the sodden lawn and cancelled play.

Xmas skatesThe 1&onlyD and no.2 son came out roller-blading. My daughter practised nimble turns; the boy went for speed.

No.1 son and I, on days when parting from his PS3 had been just too difficult in daylight hours, went running through the dark, wet streets of our town. It’s interesting how he can manage 70 minutes of football (which I cannot), but the steady exercise of jogging brings on stitches.

Xmas hulaBack indoors, no.2 son developed abdominal muscles of rock. Practicing with his mother’s weighted exercise hula-hoop, first he completed one minute of continuous gyration. The next target achieved was five minutes. Taking a short break, he then set out to scale ten minutes. This he did and did not stop, until after 25 minutes of continuous hip-sway, he was persuaded to let the hoop drop for his own safety.

Less physically draining, the 1&onlyD learnt card tricks to fox us with. She Xmas pianopracticed the piano conscientiously, particularly Chim-chim chiree. Even no.1 son played some piano when an audience assembled.

On a visit to friends, the boys and I crossed the road to a park and took on England’s 10th ranked girl sprinter (aged 12). We must have been hampered by the cold and the wind, which strangely didn’t seem to hold back our opponent.

Xmas gym 1In the house, the sprinter’s younger sister worked with the 1&onlyD on a gymnastics routine. Their display of agility, strength and co-ordination had a Christmassy back-drop.

The arrival on New Year’s Eve of cousin F (age 5) did unite the kids. While the adults ate and chatted, they occupied themselves with games of hide and seek teddy. And a trip to the pool, accompanied by a couple of friends, also occupied the three – in ferocious battles to control a foam float.

Tomorrow brings school, football practice and a return to the routines of finding uniform and kit, giving lifts and entrusting our children to the hands of others.


Filed under play time, social animals


twelveA guest blog from my wife:

My first born will be twelve in a few short days.

Twelve is between worlds, part fluffy chick, part weary adult. Twelve comes in from school each day and wants to sit down and watch a cartoon for children half his age, totally absorbed in the animated world of aardvarks. Twelve will cling on to me, still small enough to tuck under my chin and whisper that he wishes he was still at primary school. Twelve demands his own key to the door, but refuses to use it, choosing instead to pace up and down the road in the driving rain, all clenched fists and anxious eyes, if I am not home in time to let him in to the house after school.

Twelve wants to watch the news, eager to have the knowledge to passport him to the adult world. He asks question after question to make sense of it, unremitting in his quest to pin down the truth, the facts about the world he is going to. Twelve wants answers to be black and white; the realisation that the adult world he craves is more shades of grey panics him and sends him back to the aardvarks.

Twelve still kicks a ball at every opportunity, even absent mindedly idling bottle tops, dirty washing, cushions or anything on the floor with his foot as a ball substitute. He will then sit for hours watching sport on a screen, a little man-in-waiting. Twelve is too anxious to watch his team if he thinks they are going to lose, striding out of the room and ordering someone to turn it off, hummimg to himself – anything to take the embarrassment away.

Twelve often finds his brother and sister intolerable, embarrassing in their childishness, cruel in their closeness to each other. In his mind, they are children and he is the grown up and he does not or cannot access their world. Twelve reacts angrily to cleverly aimed, seemingly innocuous taunts from his siblings. He finds it increasingly hard not to hit back physically. He thinks I don’t see that he has been provoked, but I do. I must find a way to mother a man-child, who will be bigger than me one day soon, who is already stronger than me. I try to tell him I don’t always get it right, but I remember being twelve and I will keep trying.

Twelve chats easily to adults, particularly men. He often appears to find it easier than talking to boys, certainly than talking to girls. He chats readily and knowledgeably about sport and is animated and happy in their company. Adults love him too; he is not (yet) a typical (pre) teen, does not grunt and hunch but is articulate, clever and funny.

Twelve is crippled with embarrassment by me in public. He cannot make eye contact when being picked up in the car if his school friends are present. He does not say goodbye if being dropped off, but walks away from the car quickly, with determination and anxiety to get where he is meant to be on time. His shoulders are always hunched, his fists clenched; he cannot bear the prospect of being late. He is careless in his criticism of his parents, not yet realising or caring that prefixing an observation with ‘No offence, but…’ does not mean that that it will not cut to the quick. At the same time he is learning to apply this to himself – acknowledging with generous acceptance and without rancour that his younger brother is a better footballer than he is.

In private, Twelve wants cuddles and chats. He will kiss me on the face and press his still-smooth cheek against mine, asking me how my day was. He cannot go upstairs alone and wants to be tucked into bed. He says he will not sleep unless one of his parents is in the room next door, consciously keeping himself awake as long as possible in tense anticipation of something he cannot articulate.

He wants to play ‘capital cities alphabet game’ and I have nearly run out of obscure ones to test him on. I find myself revising in secret to try to prolong the games with him.

Twelve’s glass is half empty, but it has always been so. He wages a constant battle against real or anticipated disappointments. Aged five, eagerly awaiting his first World Cup experience, already seeing his place in the world of televised sport, he comments sadly and with heart-clenching insight after a few minutes’ silent viewing ‘but it’s just an ordinary football match on an ordinary pitch’. He copes with his regular disappointments by mythologizing his past, by giving compartmentalised, absolute assessments of times past. Current events or experiences rarely match his view of his past: the campsite we visited on holiday in 2010 is the best one we could ever go to; the book he is reading will never be as good as one he has already read and ‘to be honest, it’s not as good as….’is a regular refrain.

At the same time, he is increasingly aware of his part in the current generation, the almost-teenager has a healthy sense of entitlement and ownership of the world. Driving with him on a sunny day, he observes the bright greens of the trees we pass in our affluent suburb: ‘I’m not being funny, Mum, but in the Seventies and Eighties, were the colours as bright?’ He laughs, embarrassed – aware that what he is asking must be true, but unable to quite believe that other people, me, could have seen the world as though through his fresh eyes. He backtracks as I laugh, not wanting to be thought silly or having asked a stupid question. We compromise on agreeing that no, cars were not as colourful and shiny when I was his age but the trees and sky looked pretty much the same as I remember.

Twelve is lovely, complex, loving, bright eyed and bushy tailed, disdainful, world weary and sarcastic. He is a complete person, he is my son. He is two, five, ten, twelve, thirty, fifty and who knows what. I miss my baby, but I can still see him in there. I am looking forward to knowing the man he is going to be.


Filed under Guest blogs, individual development, social animals

Finding his own feet in football

footie boots

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.


Filed under individual development, skills, social animals