My six-year-old son has taken up football – I’ve become his team’s biggest fan
It was just about the moment when I loudly cheered the crunching tackle that took out a child and left him on the floor that I realised that I may have crossed a line in my spectating of my son’s football team. For the last few weeks I have been spending Sunday mornings watching them and, as with many extracurricular activities, discovered that there are a whole series of social etiquette issues and parental judgments involved that I hadn’t anticipated.
First, just to be clear, the kid who was floored got up and walked away unhurt. It was an example, hilariously, of a very young child mimicking professional footballers, which means there are lots of children collapsing and rolling around on the grass in a way that you never would if you were actually injured. There have also been some insanely over-the-top goal celebrations. We are yet to see the kids surround the referee, but they’re only six, so let’s give it a year.
When my son first announced that he wanted to play football, my initial overriding emotions were hope and guilt. Hope that he had inherited competitiveness and sporting prowess from his mother; and guilt about anything that I had passed on to him.
I was, and am, horrendous at all sports. It’s pathetic. I have long searched for evidence of an undiagnosed condition which symptoms are “a complete lack of ability in anything physical, combined with a complete lack of motivation to get any better at them”. It has led to a lifetime of trying to avoid kickabouts and even pool tables. I now hope beyond hope that the curse hasn’t been passed down to my boys.
I started by watching the matches in silence. I still have vivid memories of playing football for my school (we lost 13-0 and I retired from the game for ever) and hearing parents shouting advice at their kids. My father never did that, I suspect because it would be like trying to encourage a bear to speak Spanish by yelling at it. I decided that I would just watch, and encourage silently. That sat in somewhat stark contrast to some of the other parents, who spend their mornings shouting things like “linear!” and “stay up and close him down” and “pressure him!”.
I would feel a bit of a fraud saying things like that, given that I am completely incapable of doing them myself. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if I stepped on to the pitch to play, even among the six-year-olds I would find myself out of my depth. It’s also very different from the way I watch Arsenal play. Whether on TV or at a match, I feel completely comfortable shouting at the team that ignores the fact that I know infinitely less about the game than anybody I’m watching. But what is being a football supporter if it’s not speaking with unchallenged authority towards a group of much more qualified people? (Decades of this have also proved excellent training for many armchair scientists during the pandemic.)
Gradually, I have found myself getting more and more into the games. The team my son plays for are new, so it took them a while to catch up with the other clubs who had been playing together for a while. They have gone from getting hammered every week, to competing, and now to winning. I have to admit I’m getting into it. I stop short of giving advice, but I shout encouragement to my son, and even to the team if he is subbed off (a joke by the way, he is essential).
And then last week I celebrated that kid being taken out in a way that may have surprised some of the other parents. On the way home, my wife talked about the game in a tone that I felt was her subtly telling me to be a little bit quieter going forward. But I’m not going to let her hold me back.