I’d like to think I’m a reasonable father; I do most of the things that dads are supposed to do and by and large I enjoy the company of both my sons, who are 10 and 11 years old. Part of this is my twice-weekly stints as dad/spectator at their club football matches. They play for different teams so I have now lost all sense of Saturday and Sunday morning lie-ins and as for my must-see favourite programme on TV – Saturday Kitchen – I kissed that goodbye back in September.
It’s a strange world, that of the football dad; you meet other dads (it’s usually dads – we seem to need the comradeship, the lingo and sharing of past on-and-off pitch glories); nearly all of whom you would never socialise with in a hundred years. But after a few wintry league matches, on sub-zero wind-chill factor playing fields somewhere outside of Watford, screaming your heads off encouraging your muddy progeny into performing feats of athleticism, perseverance and skill that you personally have never gone anywhere near achieving, you find yourself in a brotherhood – a daddyhood I guess.
For some reason my eldest son has joined a Greek team; they’re named after a famous Greek club – not exactly spoilt for choice – and they play in a junior league against other teams named after other famous Greek, Turkish and even Israeli teams – it’s the historical battles of Ancient Europe being re-enacted on the playing fields of North London.
So I now have all these Sunday morning Greek friends and I really enjoy their company; their sheepskin coats, cigars and penchant for rather smart cars. Okay, they’re not all Greek; the coach is from Hong Kong and one of the dads is Congolese, but the passion is “Greek”. And it’s a passion I recognise; not from the polite and, frankly, reserved seats at my beloved Fulham; but more from the bleachers that used to resound with chat, backchat and loud and profound principles of dispute at any West Indies cricket match until The Great Demise of the 1990s.
And maybe, sometimes on these ice-cold municipal playing fields, those passions get the better of some of us. There have been a few times when a game has stopped, or worse, ground to a faltering halt, as two teams of under 12s stand and watch their fathers scream, shout and do everything bar relive the Trojan Wars on the touchline, over some perceived refereeing mistake. At times like these I too stand and stare, realising I am not part of this.
This weekend our team, playing away, arrived at the ground to discover no one was there. The home team eventually arrived – late – and we were taken to the pitch, which was like a cross-country course on a gradient of 1-in-10; a Sherman tank would have had problems negotiating the slope. Eventually a different pitch was found and then we realised there were no nets for the goalposts. Now apparently this is against league rules and we were entitled to refuse to play, plus we would get the points. My memory of playing football at under-12 level was that we were lucky to get goalposts or a ball that was vaguely pumped up. But that was when post-war rationing was still around and leather was probably being torn from footballs to make soup.
Anyway, the Greek dads started arguing with the Israeli dads and everything went bonkers. The two-dozen or so semi-frozen boys in their kits stood around bemused as the adults tried periods of détente, cold war, parliamentary-style abuse, outright hostility and finally strike action: we refused to play and our dads stormed off….well, squelched away.
I stood and watched them, in turn watched by their sons, who tried valiantly to emulate their fathers and shout and jeer at the opposing team, only to be told to shut up and be respectful. Finally, seeing their dads walk back down the slippery slope to the car park, the boys realised that they weren’t going to be playing a game of football. They didn’t know how to react; they were desperately disappointed sure, but they knew their dads had battled hard on their behalf to get the game called off so sadness seemed like a betrayal. I thought, for one fabulous moment, that the two teams of boys would simply start kicking a ball between them and a friendly game would emerge, in spite of us; but that’s Hollywood, this was Hendon.