Category Archives: touchline zoo

What a performance

tline concertThe car park is busy. The young players spilling from their parents’ vehicles and away to warm-up. It’s a big day – the grand show – a cup final, of sorts.

The parents follow their off-spring to the arena and just like the players they split into two groups: strings and pianists. Above the noise of the warm-up, snatches of the parents’ conversation are heard:

“Lovely day for it. Wouldn’t mind playing myself.”

“I’d be up there in a flash, if it wasn’t for this elbow.”


“Have you seen what that Nigel Kennedy is up to? It’s a disgrace.”

“It’s all about the money. And these foreign conductors coming over and running our orchestras. Can’t they find a local to wave the baton?”


“If I don’t hear a bit more melody from my lad this afternoon, I’ve told him it’s over. I’m not coming here just to listen to him plonking away again.”


The audience is asked to take their seats. The host reminds everyone that the aim is for the young musicians and their families to have some fun. A few grown-ups in the front row nod earnestly while the majority of parents take a sudden interest in the ceiling or their copy of the programme.

The show begins with a pianist, propped up on cushions to reach the instrument. There’s plenty of sighs and chuckles as the youngster completes her piece, vaults from her seat, grins at the crowd and scuttles off-stage.

Next up is the opening violinist. His first notes are shrill and dissonant. The noise of the instrument is abruptly drowned by a shout from the strings teacher, “Straighten your wrist! Keep it straight!” The boy struggles to the end of his piece. He stands, averting his eyes from those of his family and friends in the audience. His shuffle to the wings is speeded by his teacher, clasping his shoulder, pushing him out of sight.

The two sides continue alternating. Each string performance met with strong applause from one part of the audience; the piano pieces delighting the other. At the changeover, if a boy enters while another exits, they swap threatening looks and shoulder barges.

A pair of cellists take a while to set up their instruments and to get their chairs and music stands aligned. Impatience in one section of the audience escalates from mutters and tapping to a bellow of, “Gerron with it!” A man in another wing of the audience stands up, bristling and pointing, before he’s pulled back into his seat as the cellists begin their piece.

Each pianist to the stage is a new player, some are complete beginners using just a couple of fingers, others showing mastery of tempo and expression. Their teacher stands quietly, one hand on the piano lid, the other holding a stopwatch, monitoring the seconds, ensuring equal playing time, whatever the experience of the youngster or the quality of their play. One of the most talented of the group is forced to abbreviate a Beethoven concerto to keep within her allotted time.

There are fewer string musicians. The handful of newer and less adept players are given a quick run-out each. The teacher whispers each note they’re expected to play, making the sheets on the music-stand redundant. The pupils pay as much attention to the teacher as they do to their instruments. The more skilled violinists are indulged, playing longer pieces and returning to the stage to play duets. Meanwhile their teacher stands close to them, always in the audience’s eyeline, barely managing not to bow when a particularly tuneful rendition comes to an end.

The final performance of the afternoon features a cellist. A burst of loud, arresting notes subsides into a pianissimo passage. As the audience strains to pick up the nuances of the bowing, a shouted encouragement is heard, “C’mon lad, belt it out!”

The cellist stops and shouts back, “Shut it, Dad!” Then returns, brow furrowed, to his cello. Before the reverberations of the last note have reached the back of the hall, the cellist is up and stomps off the stage.


I have seen all of the behaviours described at numerous junior football matches. I’ve seen none at the junior concerts that I have attended.




Filed under coach says.., touchline zoo

Not being there


The text from the under 12s cricket coach arrived as I was going to bed. ‘Sorry for short notice.. would [no.2 son] like a game tomorrow in the indoor league?’ I was going away early the next morning, so I handed the aptly named Mother in the Middle the task of liaison between son and coach. This was duly done and no.2 son lined up (for a second time) as a last minute selection for an indoor cricket match with boys up to three years his senior.

I spent the following day in London and was arriving by train in Oxford at about the time the match started 150 miles north. I wondered if no.2 son would be batting or bowling first. I knew he would be displaying his jaw-jutting determined face and keeping his thoughts to himself. Throughout the evening my mind wandered to that sports hall near home.

It was nearly nine o’clock when the call came in:


“Yes, it’s me. How are you? How was it?”


“Did you have a good time?”

“Yes. We won. I took four wickets in an over.”

“What was that?”

“We won.”

“You took how many wickets?”

Sport is important to my kids. Their sport is important to me – I write a blog about it – and I watch a great deal of it. But I cannot be there for every performance.

The 1&onlyD’s exploits are the least spectated. Fifty weeks each year she is practising for a single competition. Some weeks, during her four hours of training she will achieve a new manoeuvre. Backwards walkover on the beam, upstart on the bars, aerial on the floor – the likelihood is that the breakthrough moment won’t be witnessed by Mother in the Middle or me.

I am on the touchline for the majority of no.1 son’s Sunday morning club football matches, enjoying his poise and ability as an attacking midfielder. The higher quality football that he plays, that has helped develop his nimble footwork, comes at school, where he plays alongside lads from the local professional clubs’ academies. I have only ever seen one of those matches in its entirety and just the latter stages of his school team’s four cup finals in two years.

At no.1 son’s age, when I played sports for my school (mostly cricket, but a little football) there was usually only one parent watching. My Dad managed to manipulate his work diary so he had meetings in the locality that finished in time for a trip to the match. Or he was prepared to give up a weekend morning to watch my hesitant performances.

I’m not sure exactly what I thought about my Dad’s attendance. He was well-liked by my friends, so I wasn’t embarrassed. It was completely in keeping with his interest in my school career – I remember reading him my history essays. It was, I could tell from the absence of any other parents, unusual. A recent comment made by my Mum put it in context. My Grandfather had never been to see my Dad play any sport when he was at school. My Dad learned the value of being there from his own father’s absence.

The matches I miss and the stories about them that my children tell me, strengthen my commitment to be there when circumstances allow. I hope my children understand that and my Dad knows what a fine habit he has passed on to me.

On the night no.2 son took four wickets in an over, I had the satisfaction of being with three friends with whom I have played cricket for over 25 years. There could be no better audience to level a complaint about what their company had kept me from.


Filed under parenting, touchline zoo

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

Respect – walk the walk

respectThis blog is about the pleasure I get watching my children play sport. It also addresses some of the odd and obsessive behaviours of the parents and coaches I come across. In recent weeks, nasty and unpleasant behaviour has emerged. So, reluctantly, I come to write about my first experience of the sort of obnoxious behaviour that stigmatises junior football, features in local newspapers and was the target of the FA’s Respect campaign.

I dubbed the father of one of no.1 son’s teammates, Moaning Dad. Last month he had sounded off about the decision a boy made not to go in goal. Moaning is his default mode, but that was mean. This morning things got a lot worse.

The under 13 league fixture was very competitive, but edgy. The opponents were egged on by a large group of parents baying at their boys, with a coach calling every move from the opposite touchline. Early on the referee heard one of the opposition swearing at our player. The referee did something I’ve not seen before but longed to see done: he told the boy he had to go off. The boy swore at him and the referee calmly walked him across the field to his coach, whom he told to make a substitution. It was done undemonstratively – so much so I wondered if the boy was injured.

This, I believe, is exactly the sort of officiating junior football needs. The complicating factor was that the designated referee had failed to turn up and one of our coaches had taken the whistle. Added to this unusually assertive action was a penalty decision that set the other side’s parents against the referee.

In the second half, with the match balanced at 1-1 the swearing boy was allowed back on the pitch. He tangled with one of our players and kicks, punches were exchanged. As the referee rushed to separate the boys, Moaning Dad (for it was his son involved) strode onto the field, bellowing at his son to get stuck in, etc. Amidst the shouting, he was followed onto the pitch by I woman I guessed was the other boy’s mother. She screamed at Moaning Dad that he was a disgrace (fair point) and they spent five minutes hollering in each others’ faces.

As things calmed down, the coaches and referee quickly discussed abandoning the match, but decided to carry on. The referee got the boys together in the centre circle and laid down the law. The rest of the game was played, if not in good spirit, then without incident.

The club my sons play for has been a pioneer with the Respect agenda. In 2006, it attracted a lot of attention for adopting a ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach to inappropriate language and referee abuse. Other local clubs were encouraged (shamed?) to sign up. Trevor Brooking made a couple of visits to find out more and to recognise the initiative. The majority of coaches are attentive to the spirit of the commitment, but I have seen exceptions and sensed that the club is too big to keep a grip on the conduct of all of its teams, their players and parents.

Now, with Moaning Dad reported to the club, I wait to see whether it is prepared to back up its pristine policies and PR-friendly talk by walking the walk. If Moaning Dad is allowed to return to matches, it will have failed and I will be spending a lot less of my time on the touchline.


Filed under touchline zoo

In net

goal & goalieIt’s one of the curious facts of junior sport that approximately one in twelve children who wants to play football likes to be, in the vernacular of my region, in net. The replication of this statistic throughout the country keeps the game in balance: ten outfielders (give or take the odd substitute) and one goalkeeper. And on those occasions when the ratio is disturbed, the simmering emotions of the touchy touchline parents tend to boil over.

A couple of summers ago, no.2 son was playing a friendly end of season competition. With boys aged five or six, the club discourages specialisation and each player is rotated through the various positions – actually the two positions: not in net and in net.

No.2 son was part of a strong team, playing with several boys now part of the academy structure of local premier league clubs. The team won all their games. The coach was giving equal playing time to all and, notionally, asking the boys to play in different positions. All got to play in goal.

(There was actually one exception: no.2 son. In one of my greatest touchline faux pas, I had taken him to get a hot-dog, misreading the start time of the next match, missing his match in goal.)

Throughout the day there was a low but irritating buzz from a couple of parents – ObsessedDad and High-flyerDad – muttering about the coach and his tactics. But harmony beckoned in the form of a trophy for the winning team of a short knock-out between the best teams. How could we lose?

So, into the semi-finals our lads progressed, to meet a team featuring some boys familiar to those of our players attending pro-club academies. Then, as the boys lined up, there were gasps of disbelief. High-flyerDad’s lad, an uber-talent at six, had thrust his oversize hands into some infant goal-keeping gloves and stood between the sticks. The match resolved itself as a battle between him – every bit as outstanding in goal as anywhere else on the field – and the opposition. The rest of our team was swept away and out of the final.

The dads that had buzzed irritatingly all day, burst into condemnation of the coach and the club that had ‘wasted their whole day’ with this bizarre selection decision that had neutered our team. The coach tried to explain that High-FlyerDad’s son had volunteered to go in goal, but this was met with ridicule – what was he doing allowing the boy to decide?

And now roll forward to this morning. Another boy made a decision about being the goalkeeper. No.1 son’s team arrived at their under-13 league fixture without their regular keeper. The squad has another experienced goalkeeper and this was the lad who made the decision – not to play in goal.

The background seems to be that he played a game in net earlier this season and became very upset. He was on the verge of tears today when asked to play there again. Quite reasonably, the coaches did not force the issue and another volunteer stepped forward for the role at the back.

On the touchline, matters were not left to lie. The refusenik’s mother put up a defence of her son, which wasn’t based on him getting upset, but not getting enough game time as an outfielder. She was challenged on this and soon, then repeatedly, MoaningDad had shifted the focus from the mum to the boy: “If that was my son, I’d be across that pitch to sort him out. There’s no ‘I’ in team. Letting everyone down”, etc.

The boy making his very first appearance in goal was applauded loudly. Understandably he made a few errors – three in fact, but who’s counting? Each led directly to a goal, the third the decider in the last minute of a game heading for a 2-2 draw.

No.1 son reported that as the players and some of the parents gathered together immediately after the match, MoaningDad repeated bitterly his favourite adage, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”

A strongly worded email has arrived tonight from the coaches about an incident and parents’ behaviour.

From all this, we can conclude: parents have a very easy job at matches, but some do it very badly; coaches have a very difficult job at matches and won’t necessarily be appreciated if they do it well; and a lad (or lass) that likes to play in net is essential to the harmony, if not the success, of any team.


Filed under touchline zoo, winning and losing

Tough dads and soft lads

tackle 2The junior football season is into its second month. New players have been accommodated, fresh playing positions tried out, coaching innovations introduced and the lethargy of some boys’ summer holidays run out of them.

We parents are back in the swing, too. We’ve organised the car pool to share the burden of the trip to the training night held in another town. One Dad has taken on the mantel of coffee and bacon sarnie purchaser for Sunday morning fixtures. (Some parents will do anything to avoid putting up the goal-nets.) And we’re in good voice, too.

Our contingent won’t be shaming our sons with curses or referee criticism, but neither do our sons play in silence. There’s one phrase that you’ll hear uttered, bellowed or screeched more than any other. Our players may make a defence splitting pass, dive to save a certain goal or dribble around three opponents. But the words you’ll hear most frequently, encourage and celebrate another activity

Well in!

We most readily and energetically give our vocal support for a strong tackle. There are some sound football reasons for this. Tackling is evidence of commitment. It shows a young player’s determination to perform well and to play his (or her) part in the team. The youngster who rushes to confront and dispossess an opponent often appears to be immersed in the flow of the game. Their senses are focused on this game and nothing else, they are giving everything and inhabiting ‘the zone’. Nor should we forget that tackling is a skilful manoeuvre,

But there’s another perspective – we want our boys to act like little men.

I have a theory that accounts for some, although certainly not all, of this particular touchline behaviour. Many dads, I believe, find it difficult to associate with their young sons, who seem effeminate. Their infant boys play with teddies and toy animals, slides and swings. I have sometimes seen these dads with their nursery age children at the local swimming pool. Their sons cling to the pool’s edge or hesitate on the side, fearful of the water that would cover their head, although it laps at their father’s midriff. A few minutes of quiet persuasion test the Dad’s patience and soon he’s rebuking the boy for wasting his time, for cowardice.

But once they are in a football team, with Dad following from the touchline, the father-son connection can be made. And those dads don’t want a soft lad, but one who gets stuck in and shows the kind of physical bravery that the Dad can be proud of, can ruffle their boy’s hair in appreciation of afterwards.

It is axiomatic that a boy that goes down injured on the field shouldn’t be pitied or sympathised with by his Dad. I still marvel at the experience of standing beside PartyDad at an indoor practice seven years ago. His young son sprinted in front of us, was tripped when moving at full pelt, slapped into the leisure centre floor, sprawled and skidded. PartyDad didn’t react: not a comment about the fall, the boy who tripped his son, he didn’t even flinch at the moment of impact.

I remember no.1 son getting a boot in the face at a game once and trying to joke that he’d been complaining none of his teeth were falling out, so this should sort it out for him. It’s not just a lack of pity that’s shown. The boy who cries because of the pain, the cold or the shock of a collision is “soft” – not hurt, upset or frightened.

There is probably a solution to this nonsense, though. It’s Touchline Mums, who (without running onto the pitch to comfort their injured progeny) not only see when a child is in pain or scared, but aren’t reluctant to remind their menfolk how they bleat like sheep when they suffer a cold, an in-growing toenail or even a hangover.


Filed under parenting, touchline zoo

Respect – Play Your Part

FA Respect - Still 1

I reckon most people, irritated by the behaviour of others – on a train, in a restaurant, cinema or on the touchline – imagine the satisfaction of being able to zap those causing the annoyance. With one point of the fingers, a powerful ray silences or disappears those causing offence.

The FA’s new Respect campaign video indulges that fantasy with loudmouth parents and players getting closed in on by a heavily armed robot. Watch it here: Respect the Technology.

I really like the video. It’s surprising, funny and not preachy. Two aspects of the video struck me as important.

1) The video ends with the statement ‘Play Your Part’. It’s aimed at us – we are the targets: parents, coaches and players. We offend each other; we undermine the authority of the referee. Bad touchline behaviour isn’t the work of criminals and sociopaths. It’s mums and dads who do the school run and raise funds for the PTA. It’s kids studying for GCSEs and who babysit or help their younger sisters when they don’t know what to wear to a party.

2) The miscreants don’t get zapped. They get distracted – by music; understood – with a teddy bear; or just bottled up for a bit. We don’t want them zapped. We need the kids to play and we need the parents to bring them to games and be there when they score, whether its a goal of great individual flair or a shocker past their own keeper.

There are some grassroots football ideologues who have had enough of parents bawling from the side and want us all to be silenced, if not banished. I know the promoters of child-centred junior football are dead right that the kid comes first. But l want the pleasure I get from watching my kids recognised too. It’s not always euphoric, it can be tragic if they get upset or hurt, but I need to be there to share the experience with them.

This Respect campaign gets my respect because it’s not expecting po-faced parents. You can.. you should.. you must have fun. It’s just not the same fun you have in the stands at a league game or watching your team on tv. It’s a different game. In my view, a much, much better one.

I was asked to write about the FA’s new Respect campaign. I have received no payment for this piece and all the opinions are my own.


Filed under parenting, sport gives us.., touchline zoo