Father and SonIt's about time I had a go at this, isn't it?
This is an idea that has been floating around my head for a few months now. It's inspired by a guy who I play football with on a Thursday night. For the last few years now, when we are short of numbers, this guy brings his son along to join our game. Initially he was only making up the numbers, but as time has gone on, this lad has got better and better, to the point where he is now just on the edge of overtaking his dad (of course, this is as much to do with his dad getting older as it is about the lad improving). They have an interesting father and son relationship, and I think that Rich usually finds his dad something of an embarrassment (what 15 year old doesn't?). I began to wonder how Rich would look back on these games when he gets older...
I used to be quite sporty when I was a lad. Looking at me now, you probably find that a little hard to believe, but it’s true. Perhaps I wasn’t the most gifted athlete in the world, and I was never quite good enough to get into the school team, but I was a trier. God, I used to run my little socks off. It didn’t matter what game it was, I always wanted to play. Cricket, hockey, basketball, table tennis, British Bulldog… anything. But football was my absolute favourite. I loved to play football. At school I was often one of the last players picked and I spent a lot of time in goal – not because I was any good, but because I was happy to be playing at all. And I was. I really was.
My dad loved football too. Like a lot of teenage boys, I didn’t spend a great deal of time talking to my dad. Well. I suppose didn’t really spend any time talking to my dad. Dad was just my dad. I could talk to dad anytime, and as a result I barely spoke to him at all. But he liked football.
From time to time dad would take me to a game. I think it was probably his way of trying to bring us closer together, to spend some ‘quality time’ together. It didn’t really work. I loved playing football, and I quite liked watching the big games on the telly, but somehow watching a struggling lower division side with my dad wasn’t much fun. It was almost always cold, it was frequently raining, and there were big long silences between us as our side shipped goals and I lost all sensation in my feet.
I think my dad first asked me to play for his 5-a-side team one week when they were short of numbers. He’d been playing for almost as long as I could remember. Every Thursday without fail he would get home from work early, grab a quick bite to eat and then head out to meet up with the lads for a five-thirty kick-off. He was always back by half-seven. Sometimes he would try to talk to me about his game, usually the goals he had scored, but I would generally just scowl at him, make some remark about my homework and stomp up to my room.
And then he asked me to play.
I was tempted to say no, for no real reason other than the fact that I was fourteen years old and he was my dad. In the end though, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity of a game. I was quite excited at the breakfast table that morning, but naturally I kept up a look of what I hoped was supreme indifference; at least until dad went to work. Judging by the twinkle in his eye as he told me to make sure I got home quickly after school, I’m not sure that he was entirely taken in.
“You wouldn’t want to miss the big game tonight, would you son?”
I scowled, but only got a big smile and a wink for my efforts as dad practically danced his way out of the kitchen and out the door to the office.
He was right though, I was excited. The rest of the day crawled malevolently by until finally – finally – I was walking out onto the pitch with ten or eleven of my dad’s mates, ready for the game to begin. They were a motley bunch, but the first thing that I noticed was that dad was by far the oldest player on the pitch. I don’t think dad was particularly old at that point, but what son really knows the age of their own father? He’s just your dad, isn’t he? He was probably in his late forties at that point, but most of the other players were lads in their thirties. They weren’t all fine physical specimens, and several of them were beginning to look a little comfortable around the middle, but they were all, without fail, taller and slimmer than my dad. For the first time in my life I became aware that my dad wasn’t going to be around forever.
For the next hour, dad ran and jumped and shouted as vigorously as anyone else on the pitch. I don’t really remember the details of the game; what the scores were, if my dad got any goals or if my side won or lost the game. What has stayed with me though is the sheer vitality of my dad. He was constantly talking. Almost every time there was a shot on goal, we would hear these little exclamations: “Oooof!”, “It’s in!”, “Pick that out!”. It didn’t seem to matter if the ball had ended up in the net or not. We were actually playing on opposite sides that night, but that didn’t stop dad from offering me his own unique combination of coaching and taunting. Although the other lads cut me a lot of slack, I just physically wasn’t able to compete with them. They were all faster and stronger than me, and far more confident on the ball. The others may have made allowances for me, but dad made none, or at least none that I could see. He was uncompromising in his tackles, at one point bundling me over onto the hard Astroturf.
Did I get any sympathy? Did I hell. “You should have passed the ball sooner son. Play the simple ball”. I only had about two shots on goal in the whole game, both pathetic, but dad was quick to laugh “HAHA!” and then run up to me, ruffle my hair and offer me some quick advice about keeping my head over the ball. It was a really remarkable performance. I’m not sure that any of dad’s mates really knew what to make of it, and I think that they were mildly concerned that my dad would knock the confidence out of me.
As we were driving home after the game, dad asked me if I had enjoyed myself. Without looking over at him I simply grunted that it had been “Alright”, and that had been the end of the conversation. When we got home, I jumped straight out of the car and disappeared up to my room. I had loved it though, I had loved every minute of it, and I couldn’t wait to be asked again.
I played several times over the course of the next few years. At the time I thought that I was getting better and better, which was true, but I was gauging my performances against my dad, and he was getting older. The pinnacle of my footballing career had to be the night that I nutmegged my dad on the way to scoring a fantastic goal. He might have looked mortified to the casual observer, and all his mates ran up to him to tell him it that it was surely time for grandad to be hanging up his boots, but I saw the look he gave me. It didn't last for long, and I almost missed it, but it was a look of pure, unmistakeable pride.
I think that was the last night that I played with them. I’m not really sure why I stopped, although probably it was something to do with girls. Somehow football started to take a backseat to hanging around bus shelters chewing gum. Looking back though, those are the moments that I cherish, the moments when I felt that I was closest to my dad. Those are the moments that you miss, and when I think of them now, I miss him terribly.