Tag Archives: Football

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

Foul, foul

IMG_0798The picture shows no.2 son’s right leg. He has showered after a game of under 9 football. Five bruises and scrapes are splattered across the top of his shin and knee.

His team lost 3-0 in a tight match to a slightly better side. The opposition played some fluent football and switched decisively from defence to attack when they won the ball in their own half. Another feature of their play was fouling.

When one of no.2 son’s teammates dribbled around or accelerated away from an opponent, they received a kick to their shins or a tap on the ankle. No.2 son’s game features strong and tricky running with the ball. He regularly gets tripped by defenders deceived by his speed of foot. We bought him new shinpads with ankle attachments for added protection as a Christmas present.

At this weekend’s match, the trips weren’t from defenders trying to take the ball from him. They came from players he had already taken the ball past, whose aim was to stop him. The bruises shown on the photo came from something else: knee-high challenges as no.2 son ran at their defence.

Driving home after a match, it’s fairly common for the boys to complain that the other side were ‘foulers’. I might nod, or point out that his side plays physically, too. And the point of this piece is not to brand this other team as thugs (they come from a club with a good reputation and I find it very unlikely that this approach was inculcated by the coaches).

But today I agreed when no.2 son said the other team were ‘foulers’. And I think the referee would have done so too. He whistled for almost every foul, giving a string of free kicks, as players were helped up and limped away from the challenges.

Despite the referee’s diligence, the fouls kept coming. The question I pose is what could be done to stem the flow, not just punctuate it.

Understandably, referees are not expected to punish a junior footballer for a foul, in the way an adult would be: first offence – name taken and shown the yellow card; second time – dismissal. The bureaucracy of name taking and cards isn’t appropriate for a game children play for exercise, development and fun. But the fun needs to be there for both teams.

Readers who spend time around junior sport, here are some questions about how persistent foul play by children should be handled.

How would you expect this situation to be handled? A quiet word to the boys doing the kicking of opponents’ ankles? A conversation in one of the breaks of play with the coach? A request that a particular player is given a ‘time out’? An after-match report to club or league officials?

What do you do if you see one of your players repeatedly fouling the opposition? Do you bring the youngster off and have a quiet word? Do you address the issue with the whole team after the game or at the next training session? Do you raise it with the parents as a conduct issue?

If your players are on the receiving end, would you communicate your concern to the other coach during the match? Would you leave it until after the game and approach the other coach, or refer it to club or league officials?

It’s not our place to intervene during a match, but what would you expect of the referee and of your coach?

Junior footballers
Would you want something done during the game or afterwards? Do you accept it as part of the game or does it make you less likely to want to play?

Please share your answers and opinions.


Filed under injury, sport gives us..

Out of the house by ten

ten oclockFrom around the 12th month of parenthood, I realised that domestic harmony depended upon getting out of the house by ten in the morning. The build-up of unexpended child energy after that hour could damage fixtures, fittings and other household occupants.

Twelve years on and I have found that it’s a realisation that recurs most weekends and holidays.. at about 11.30 in the morning. The kids are turning feral. The slow, relaxing start to the day has paradoxically made me twitchy and ill-tempered. And yet, that simple dictum – ‘out of the house by ten’ – still slips my mind until it’s too late.

Weekend sports activities are a blessing that take away from me the need for initiative. Matches or practices have to be attended and so we are up and out before that mid-morning hour that can have an effect as transformative on my kids as midnight did on Cinderella.

Christmas holidays mean a stretch of three weeks without structured sporting activity to make us be virtuous before midday. How did we fare? How did we channel the energy of our sporty kids?

My memory of last month is already a little hazy, but I couldn’t swear that we made it out once before ten. December’s dark, cold and damp mornings are a strong discouragement. So, for the kids, are the bright, shiny digital devices that they acquire at that time of year.

The urgency for morning activity no longer applies to no.1 son, who has embraced fully the teenager’s role of laying-a-bed ’til noon. The major threat is his younger brother. We spent Christmas week staying with relatives in South West London. On Boxing Day morning, I woke before seven to the sound of no.2 son dribbling his new Premier League football barefoot around the Christmas tree and across our relatives’ parquet floor hallway.

The new football had been taken outside on Christmas Day before noon. Two sons, a nephew, brother-in-law and I played six or seven variants of football in the park, culminating in foot-volleyball on the deserted tennis courts. Good appetite-enhancing activity.

The 1&onlyD was more difficult to draw outside. We had a few walks in Richmond Park, but could never generate our off-springs’ enthusiasm to walk all the way across the park to the lodge where Mother in the Middle and I were wed. When the 1&onlyD’s younger cousin arrived a few days after Christmas, she had a companion with whom to devise gymnastics routines. Up until then her only opening had been the Boxing Day night talent show. There was piano and guitar playing, poetry reading and the 1&onlyD springing across the living room floor.

Back home for New Year and the late mornings and lazy days persisted. The boys and I invented an indoor cricket game in no.2 son’s bedroom. His new carpet has a dense texture that makes it a spin bowler’s paradise. The game was played in high spirits and skilfully, but provided no aerobic benefit.

Then like the lip of a cliff, always visible in the distance, then suddenly at our feet, we tipped over the edge, careering back into seven o’clock starts for school and work. No.1 son was welcomed back to football with a series of punishing ‘suicide’ runs. The 1&onlyD has succumbed to gastric ‘flu and hasn’t been back to gymnastics. No. 2 son had a surprise early fixture on Saturday. His team competed for about ten minutes before a combination of the cold and sheer effort got the better of them and their game went about 18 months backwards.

After the lots-nil defeat, the coach walked over to the parents on the opposite touchline. In a gesture of exasperation, he spread his arms and implored “What have you been doing to them?”


Filed under inactivity, play time

Little big boy, big little boy

202As the youngest sibling of a precocious brother and sister, the age gap separating no.2 son from our other children can seem greater than that of their birth dates. Yet, his closeness to his sister and ability to compete physically with his brother can also concertina those years and months. Eight years old and capable of being the little boy and the big lad.

Shopping with Mother in the Middle at the start of the week, no.2 son saw a teddy bear as tall as he is. He played with the oversized ted in the shop and declared he wanted it for Christmas. For the next few days, no.2 son would observe that big ted could be having breakfast with him, keeping him warm at night or sharing the joke in “You’ve been framed” reruns. A little boy craving a tactile toy.

Monday night at football training, no.2 son put in his usual shift. Running, tackling, passing – with an appetite for the ball and presence on the pitch that was rewarded with ‘Man of Training’ award for the third time already this season. With that accolade came the appointment as captain, signified with an arm band, for Saturday’s cup match. Not merely a big boy, but ‘Man of training’.

Twice in the week, I was on duty with the kids in the morning and walked the younger pair to school. No.2 son required, as he always has, reminders to and beyond the point of nagging to get himself dressed and equipped for school. Once out of the door, his hand finds mine. And so we walk, clasping paws, for the three-quarters of a mile to school, inside the gate and across the playground. A little boy whose need for the security of hand-holding remains stronger than any self-conscious anxiety about how that might look to his peers.

On Wednesday evening, I drove into Manchester with the two boys. As we approached our parking spot, we saw unofficial bonfires and ad hoc fireworks lit the sky. Stepping out of the car, there was a volley of bangs. No.2 son grabbed my hand, and dragged me in a direction away from the noise. I pointed the way we had to walk to the Etihad Stadium and he gave me a fearful look. We set off, his hand clinging to mine and pulling whenever he started at the sound of an explosion.

At the stadium concourse, Manchester City, the club with money to burn, held a dramatic firework display, which was too much for no.2 son. We retreated to the club shop and then to our seats inside, where the little boy recovered with a bag of sweets and watched his team lose its Champions League fixture.

Friday night brought indoor cricket. We arrived promptly and the hall needed reorganising before we could play. I set about moving benches and handed a ball to no.2 son, asking him to play with his teammates. Having cleared the hall, my attention returned to the team. No.2 son had organised a warm-up where each player took a turn fielding and catching the ball fed to them by my big boy.

Bowling first, no.2 son was disappointed with his effort. This, he explained to me later, motivated him to bat ‘properly’. For the first time, I see him guide and coax the ball, feet moving fluently, weight transferring to give enough momentum to the bat swing. Gone are the wild swishes and unbalanced swipes. He accumulated a run or more a ball and completed his overs without being dismissed.

I am umpiring at square leg, squatting on a gym bench, chatting with the county cricket coach. No.2 son, his innings over, pushes past the county coach and levers himself onto my lap. The mature, sensible cricketer reverts to the little boy in need of parental physical contact.

The following morning, Saturday, no.2 son and I walk – holding hands, of course – to the playing field for the cup match. At the ground, I tie the laces of his football boots, give him a tap and away he dashes to join his team. He starts the match in the position he has decided is his favourite – centre midfield. Under early pressure, prompted by the coach, he instructs his teammates where to defend at a corner. The match settles into a rhythm – one that no.2 son is doing more than anyone else to syncopate. He intercepts, tackles, dribbles, covers teammates, slips balls into their path and when the ball breaks to him on the edge of the area, he side foots it into the far top corner of the net. That it stays the only goal of a tight first half, owes much to his sprawling goal line block to a shot that has beaten his keeper.

The second half continues with no.2 son and his team driving forward and being caught by the opposition breaking fast. He intercepts one of their attacks, weaves past a couple of players before passing the ball wide. Seconds later the ball is returned to him in the penalty area. A clean strike sends the ball past the keeper. With a two goal lead, no.2 son is rotated off the pitch. The opponents rally, pull a goal back and the coach sends no.2 son back on the field with instructions heard on our side of the pitch: “Protect the lead”. Tackling and running hard, he plays his part.

Captain, goalscorer, midfield rock, recipient of the touchline dads’ plaudits and Man of the Match. I ruffle his hair and we walk across the field and back home – holding hands, of course.

We end our week of teddy bear envy, firework fear, cricket maturity, football achievement in the park. We have a kickabout, (pausing as no.2 son stands frozen by the presence of dogs) enjoying taking turns lashing shots at each other in goal. As the sun gives up on the day, the big boy’s biggest fun is had in the playground, being rotated on the hamster wheel and bounced on the see-saw.

Our youngest child is growing up at his own pace, which is both thrillingly quickly and reassuringly slowly.


Filed under individual development, old head, young shoulders

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

Menorca Holiday Games

307The games started almost as soon as we hit Menorcan soil. Carousel surfing, demonstrated here by the 1&onlyD and no.2 son, is dangerous and should not be practised. It tends only to be sanctioned at the end of a long day’s travelling when the adults in the party haven’t the energy to create distractions or impose authority.

The resort pool was a hoot. The inflatables were the vehicle for getting all three playing together.


Next to the resort was a water park. No.2 son led the charge down the slides and flumes, but his sister and brother followed. By the final day, no.1 son had risen to the challenge and was the sole family member to do the ‘plug-hole’ – a slide into a giant basin around which one spun until dropping out of the hole at the bottom.


We played some tennis. The limp state of the net is a good metaphor for the quality of our play in the heat of the early afternoon. 312

To the boys’ delight, the court became a football pitch, where they took part in several resort tournaments. One involved mixed age teams – what could go wrong with that?


On day 1 at the water park, watching no.2 son tear away and up steps to a slide, Mrs TL said “I just know we’re going to end up in hospital this holiday.” What prescience. But it turned out to be the 1&onlyD. Sitting on a bar beside the table tennis (see left of image below), she was failed by her gymnastically trained balance and slipped off and around the bar, bumping the back of her head. 323

She seemed fine through the evening, but shortly after going to bed felt ill. I called a doctor, who examined her and very calmly explained she was calling an ambulance to take her across the island to hospital for an emergency brain scan. Mrs TL accompanied her on a blue-light midnight flit. The scan was all clear and they were discharged the next morning.

They arrived just too late to see no.1 son win the resort table-tennis tournament. Here he is in action in the final, out-foxing some poor old fellow in a hat, good for nothing more active than finger exercise at a keyboard.



Filed under play time

Euro-holiday football – ‘the humiliation’

Two years ago, staying on a Eurocamp in the South of France, the boys were drawn to the purpose built football pitch, 20 minutes’ walk through the forested campsite from our caravan.

One of our early visits to the pitch had ended prematurely with ‘the Tackle’, a near miss for no.2 son and an eye-opener for me about the dangers of radical mixes of generations (i.e. adults and five year olds) in the same game. We continued to cross the park to the football pitch, but only in the day-time, before the serious evening matches took place.

One afternoon, when we arrived there, a multi-generational, multi-national game was under way. Over half of the participants were kids, with Dads and a few older boys. No.1 son (10 at the time) and I integrated ourselves into one of the teams and began to play. The sun was still high in the sky, the air hot and the players sweaty. There was a lot of rotation of players on and off the pitch as everyone sought to rehydrate. I waved on a couple of boys in England kits, who were wavering by the side benches with an anxious mum.

The game was flowing but being dominated by a handful of older boys, parading tricks – fine – and taking the ball off the toes of their younger teammates – not fine. The younger boys were running around in the heat, finding space, but being ignored by a few, more senior ball-hoggers.

After one particularly selfish bit of play, I called out to my teammate who was responsible, in awful French, something along the lines of, “Hey, you! Give the ball to the little ones.” He was surprised, but I thought I had made my point.

A minute or so later, I had the ball and looked out for no.1 son, but couldn’t see him. He wasn’t on the pitch. He must have had the good sense to get to the water-fountain, I half-reasoned. Nagging at me was another possibility. I played on for maybe five minutes, trying to spot him in the trees around the pitch. Without a positive sighting, I left the game, and began to search for him.

I checked the table-tennis, the pool, the tennis courts, the water fountain and the snack bar. The many trees could have hidden a slender boy upset at his father. But he wasn’t there and I set off back to our caravan, heady with that unsteady parental mix of anger and anxiety.

A full 30 minutes walk away, Mrs TL was playing at the other pool complex with the 1&onlyD and no.2 son. No.1 son appeared, raging that “Daddy’s an idiot. So embarrassing.. He’s humiliated me.” He didn’t explain what or why and Mrs TL asked if Daddy knew he was here.

We met back at the caravan. As I concocted possible consequences for no.1 son’s action of fleeing without telling me and attempted explanations of why it was unacceptable, something became clear: no.1 son was uncompromising. I had made his participation and even presence at the football game impossible. I had crossed a line, whose existence I was so aware of, but hadn’t appreciated how tightly it bounded my behaviour. In the normal run of things, this was a boy who wouldn’t walk around the next corner unaccompanied. So grievously had I threatened his self-esteem, he had run a mile to get away from me.


Filed under parenting, young shoulders