How I Learnt To Become A Football Dad, Stop Worrying And Let Someone Else Tell My Son What To Do.
I think I’m alright at this parenting lark. My kids are turning out okay, they’re polite, kind, have friends, do well at school, and make me laugh every day. And a lot of this has hopefully come about because of the way they have been brought up. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’ve cracked parenting (believe me, I’m only telling you the good bits) but you can’t underestimate the impact just turning up and giving a shit about your children has.
Which is why watching my lad play football is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.
‘He’s no Carlton Palmer’.
I love football, and fortunately, my son does too. So much so that he’s been playing for a local team for the last year.
Unlike me, he’s actually pretty good. I know what you’re thinking, “Everyone thinks their kid is the mutt’s nuts” but he’s a good footballer. I’m not deluded; he’s not Pele. He may not even be Carlton Palmer. But he can kick a ball, tackle and he has a grin on his face the minute he steps on the pitch. And I am all too aware that despite my high, high hopes for an early retirement my boy is unlikely to become a Premier League footballer.
So I am delighted that he plays a game that he loves, and that I can watch him every Sunday without fail. Now when I say without fail, I’m not trying to paint some picture of myself as an altruistic father who always puts his kids first.
I’ve stood in too many fields where the cold spread of winter gnaws at my bones from the feet up, each toe slowly losing its feeling as I pretend I have some understanding of the trials faced by Scott of the Antarctic. Equally, I have watched from the sidelines nursing a hangover with nothing but a lukewarm cup of coffee from my trusty, dented flask to keep me company.
There’s a perverse joy in seeing just how many other parents (let’s be honest, normally the football dads) who turn up against their will, dragging their other children to a game they don’t want to be at, when they’d rather be sleeping off a heavy one from the night before. But I digress, I was talking about my son. Having played such an integral role in his development so far it’s unbelievably hard to stand on the sidelines and let someone else shape him. I find it hard to describe what it’s like watching someone else take centre-stage in your child’s life as you become a mute observer. A football dad. The coaches at his club are brilliant, all they talk about is making sure the game is fun and that the kids enjoy themselves. I couldn’t ask for more.
‘I decided not to try and head the football for fear of losing my NHS specs’.
And there I am on the sidelines, watching his games with the other parents. We all want our kids to do well, we all want the team to win even though we know winning isn’t the priority. And we gasp and groan when things don’t go our team’s way. We clap politely when the goalie lets one through his legs with shouts of “unlucky”, “hard lines”, and “heads up lads”. But we can’t do anything. We are entirely powerless to actually help our children, which is an entirely alien concept.
Thinking back to my youth it’s hard to see a comparison here. My mum was (is) very religious and would usually attend church on a Sunday morning while I was ferried to various football games by my mate and his dad. It’s hard to imagine her jumping up and down on the sidelines as I failed to complete a pass, or when I decided not to try and head the football for fear of losing my NHS specs. I’d usually get home, covered in mud and full of stories about how unlucky we were to have lost (again), and tuck into a full-on Sunday dinner.
And this is a good thing. It’s tough and unnatural but it’s fantastic for the kids. Every parent I’ve stood next to has shouted instructions at their child at some point and all it does is confuse them. Imagine it from their perspective: do they listen to their coach or their football dad? Do they hoof the ball upfront or play it out from the back. It can be paralysing for the child, and I’ve seen it happen, I’ve even done it myself.
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt from watching football is that you have to trust your children. They have to learn some things for themselves, to make their own mistakes, to have council other than just their parents. All I want for my children is for them to become fantastic people with great values and a rich life and this can’t happen if I’m constantly telling them to do things my way.
‘I’ve seen enough pigeon-chested football dads on the sidelines who think they were somehow overlooked as a footballer assuming they can treat children’s football as some sort of war zone’
Which is one of the reasons I have such a reaction to the parents who stand on the sidelines screaming at their children, or berating the referee, or arguing with the coaches. We as parents are not here to try and correct our own failures through our children. I’ve seen enough pigeon-chested dads on the sidelines who think they were somehow overlooked as a footballer assuming they can treat children’s football as some sort of war zone (for the record my boy plays in an under 8’s league, not the Serie A). They embarrass themselves, and I imagine they embarrass their children too.
‘So far this doesn’t sound that unusual until you realise that the referee was twelve years old’,
I’ll give you an example of this, admittedly not one that I witnessed first hand, but one that happened at our club a few weeks ago. One of our teams played a league rival, and in a closely fought game, a parent from the opposite team disagreed with a fair few refereeing decisions. He barracked the ref for most of the game and at the end, as the ref was walking off the pitch, continued to have a go. So far this doesn’t sound that unusual until you realise that the referee was twelve years old, and had volunteered to take charge of a game for under-8’s.
This “responsible adult” reduced the child in question to tears. The big man made a child cry over a game of football – well-done sir, you truly are a twat. The great news is that everyone rallied round and the club and parent were reported to the local FA. And if anything can come out of this it’s that there is an awful lot of good happening in grassroots football. It outweighs the bad, and that’s not something we should forget. For every idiot parent, there are at least ten who will raise the kids up, bring them confidence and joy.
“Football’s not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that”.
Bill Shankly once said,“Football’s not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that”. Well, Shanks, you were wrong on that score. It’s just a game. And it’s scary, and at the same time exhilarating, to let go of a couple of the tethers you have to your child’s development and let other people take on the mantle of turning these children into fully formed people.
So here’s to all the dads who have to stand on the sidelines and bite their tongue. You’ll never walk alone.