Lots of sporting parents get excited about their child becoming the “next big thing”. Mystery Dad tells us a very different story. What if you had one of those uber-talented kids and you decided to drag him away from the endless possibilities to a place of limited opportunities… a place where he would be unknown and girlfriendless.
“You don’t move to Australia to advance your kid’s soccer career.” That, I already knew, but the way that line was delivered to me as I watched my 14 year old son take part in his first training session with his new Sydney football club made me think. The fact that is was delivered by the father of a promising footballer playing in the supposed second tier of the sport in Australia made me think hard. The accusatory nature of the delivery also gave me reason to take notice. The (imaginary at that point) subtext of “What the hell are you doing taking a kid who’s been offered extended trials at two Premier League teams and moving him to this footballing backwater?” made me wince internally a little. But mostly it just made me think about my son and his future. Had we ruined his big chance just for our chance at the ‘better lifestyle’ holy grail? Or were we just smart enough to replace another 5 years of all consuming commitment, endless hours driving to games, trials and tournaments with the beach, barbeques and a better family life.
Clearly we moved country for a variety of reasons – a renewed challenge, more outdoors time in a genuinely jaw-dropping environment, better opportunities (whatever that means) and oh yes ‘lifestyle’. Safe to say my son understood none of them. To him we had a perfectly acceptable, secure life in London with good friends (including his first girlfriend), a smattering of family and a solid business. Sure those closest to us were shocked – ‘settled’ people in their early 40s don’t generally up sticks and relocate to the other side of the world. Although we found the amount of people who said they’d given it ‘serious consideration’ and not followed through surprisingly high. We saw that as a sign of our own bravery and ballsiness. A year before we left home for good, my son and I came to Sydney to find him a school. In a frantic two weeks he was offered two places and went back to London enthusiastic and excited by the prospect of our relocation. 12 months later, when reality was ushering us into Passport Control, the outlook had changed. “What the fuck are we doing this for?!” he cried at his mother and I as we stood terrified outside Heathrow’s Terminal 3 negotiating our departure. His tears were real and they hurt. With every puffy-eyed sob I kept thinking “We’re doing this to him. We’re making him unhappy. We’re pulling him away from everything he’s ever known.” “No really, I mean it, I don’t get it, why the fuck are we moving to Australia?!” To this day I’ve never confessed to him that right at that moment, I didn’t know either.
Nearly 5 years down the line I think I’ve discovered the truth that no matter how far you move away, you never leave your previous life behind. Like a cheated lover you can feel its eyes staring menacingly at the back of your head asking what it did so wrong that you felt the need to walk away. It’s always there in the background, silently judging each new experience you encounter and measuring your levels of happiness. On sad days it says “See I told you we should have stayed together. You’re not any happier now are you?” On good days it just tries to fuck things up by reminding you that your new life is only working because you are putting in much more effort. “Much more effort than when ‘we’ were together”. Maybe it’s a condition peculiar to a child of Irish parents born English but to me the price of trying to improve your life is guilt. Guilt born out of selfishness. Guilt born out of abandoning your family and friends. Guilt about having ideas above your station. Guilt for temporarily fucking with your kids happiness. 5 years ago I simply didn’t have time to cram all the things I felt guilty about into my consciousness. Especially when the very tangible emotional wreckage created by my choices was standing there right in front of my eyes amongst the Terminal 3 terminal smokers.
It’s easy for a father to see and palpably feel all the agony and ecstasy that his son experiences as he grows. It’s less so with a daughter – gender makes a difference even though we try really hard to ignore it. Willing though I might have been to give it a shot, our daughter was only every really going to turn to one parent for menstruation cycle advice. For a son, Dad’s been there, he’s done it, he KNOWS – at least you tell him that you KNOW. You take on the persona of life’s tour guide – offering pointers and insight as you watch this mini-me journey through everything from his first day at school to the realization that he’ll have to withstand the crushing panic that will envelope him when he realizes that one day soon he’ll be alone with his own decision-making. You feel each twist and turn and do your best to impart the advice that you yourself never headed. I didn’t get much in the way of parental advice so I’ve gathered my portable reference library along the way. Hard to judge whether it’s worked but having a wife with a higher level of emotional intelligence has definitely helped. Maybe it’s better in some ways that I didn’t have a well defined frame of reference for this stuff – forcing your child through the hole made by your own experiences is a fruitless and damaging pastime yet I have found myself tripping up on it many times. Despite my wife’s sage advice and perhaps in spite of my own father’s unique ‘hands-off’ approach, the line between letting our children make their own mistakes and giving the best advice is one that I have seldom straddled effectively. In fact at times, I’ve found myself being as rigid and unforgiving as the average North Korean dictator over an issue that frankly didn’t even warrant my involvement.
I think it was that final thought that really made me take notice that day – what if us being here in Australia was just me forcing my selfish will on my children writ large? The ultimate act in meddling parenting. The neurotic Dad who has to be at the centre of everything – controlling, dictating, manipulating. My wife and I used to laugh and point at the ‘Show Dads’ as we called them. You know the type; making a big, loud, energetic ‘show’ of being out in public with their young kids at the weekend. Awkwardly forcing young Hugo to engage with them while the people who actually spend real time with their youngsters barely have the energy or enthusiasm to support their own bodyweight. Yes, maybe that was it – at that moment this unwitting fellow member of the fatherhood federation innocently making small talk with a newly arrived Pom had detonated a hidden explosive device that casually wrecked my head. The thought that I was this grotesque uber Show Dad mushroomed spectacularly in my psyche laying waste to my beach-barbeque-bubble and leaving a nasty, nervous odor in its wake.
Parenting is imperfect. It’s also unpredictable and uncontrollable. Today’s logical decision made on solid strategic grounds is tomorrow’s unmitigated disaster. The corrosive thought that you are an ill-equipped buffoon with a flawed approach is never far away. Other parents are always willing to add ingredients to your self-doubt cocktail too – there’s a certain smile another parent will give you when your kid is throwing a tantrum that should subliminally say “Don’t stress mate, we’ve all been there, we’re not judging you.” Instead, wracked with their own neurosis and just so fucking relieved that it’s not their turn, the look is much more “Wow, look at how little control you have over your child. Are Social Services involved?” Once you develop skin thick enough to handle that you then have to deal with your own all-encompassing, self-imposed pressure to make things ‘great’ for your children – to create dreams for them and ensure that the life they end up with is ‘better’ than yours. Parenting is definitely imperfect. I’ve also found the whole process sad and joyful in equal measure. Oh and terrifying one moment, exhilarating the next. You get the pattern right? And you question yourself constantly. CONSTANTLY. Did we move to Australia for the good of our family? Errr, yeah pretty sure we did. Is life better here? Yes I think it is. Am I a good Dad? I reckon I probably am but….. But what about your son’s football career? Errrr, well, ummmm……
The moment he kicked a ball in a competitive match for the first time we knew that our kid was a bit different. It was a chilly London morning in a well known east London park. He was about 6 years old and came on as a substitute in a 7-a-side game for a local all-comers football school. What to that point had been a scrappy affair consisting mainly of a train of shuffling kids in an aimless procession to get to a ball they didn’t know what to do with was transformed by a slight, long-haired little defender entering stage left. Another hopeful poke forward from the opposition saw him approach the ball to clear it. Ever the optimist, I imagined he would either miss it completely or fall over it, face-plant in dog shit and we’d be on our way. What happened was none of that. He shaped himself perfectly and using his arms to aid balance like a pro, addressed the ball with both accuracy and style. He put his foot through it using the sweet-spot between lace and in-step and it made a sound like nothing else heard on the pitch that day. This will be a good clearance I thought. It wasn’t – it was a really good pass. Lofted over the pack assembled around the half-way line it landed plum at the feet of his bewildered striking colleague who panicked and ultimately kicked it out for a throw in. “Where did that come from?” asked the guy next to me. “Not sure.” I replied slightly confused and just a little bit proud. He then proceeded to take the ball from the opponents with ease, dribble through the pack and dispatching passes and shots with aplomb. “How long’s he been playing?” asked the coach. “About 20 minutes.” I replied.
Things started to change a little from there. We became ‘the family with a promising footballer in it’. My son suddenly wanted to watch football with me on TV. We needed to visit sports shops to analyze the different weights of boots and relative comfort of shin pads. We had to make sure our diary now factored in football training. People started asking me my opinion on the touchline – as if spawning a child with a talent had suddenly made me an expert. I love the game and still play it today but as I’m reminded every time I hear an Australian football pundit speak on TV – loving the game and knowing it are two very different things. And let’s get the whole ‘living out my own failed athletic career vicariously through my child’ thing out of the way shall we? I wish. He’s much, much better than I ever was. His sister is also much better than I was.
Eventually the coach of Spike’s first team resigned and I was the logical person to take over – what with my Shankly-like encyclopedic knowledge of the game, my Mourinho-like ability to read it and Venables-like man management skills. In truth, I enjoyed it – picking the team was fun and seeing the players do something I’d asked them to try and seeing it come off was supremely satisfying – I could see how people became addicted to it. My son was less pleased – my quest to be fair to all the kids saw him take his time on the bench along with the others. He was starting to listen to what people were saying about him and as it started to dawn on him that he was the best player, fairness to his team-mates was not a concept this young footballer wanted to acknowledge.
But that wasn’t really a big issue for me. I could easily brush off his moaning in the car after a game and I consoled myself in a self-satisfied way that this was some kind of high level super-parenting where I was helping him learn a sport whilst imparting valuable life lessons at the same time. 2 birds, one stone. Yeah I was schooling him in doing things the right way and not getting moaned at by the other parents. Oh yeah, I almost forgot the other parents….
I think the behavior of footballing parents crept up on me. I hadn’t really acknowledged some of the things I’d seen – I think because maybe I could easily have seen myself doing some of them. Football, like any sport that really works for spectators, raises the pulse and provokes emotional reactions. I wasn’t averse to the odd outburst, a little criticism here and there whilst always taking care to berate myself severely afterwards on the journey home.
Initially I think the way other parents around kid’s football treated their kids, other people’s kids, each other, referees and coaches perplexed me. At times after that it alarmed me. Now looking back, the after-taste is one of disgust. The way that being in close proximity to your child kicking a ball around could transform a seemingly rational, intelligent human being into a frothing-at-the-mouth, homicidal maniac is a psychological phenomena that a motorcade of Stephen Hawking’s would struggle to fathom. And don’t assume I’m just referring to Dad’s either. On one particularly special weekend my duties as under 9s coach included; being threatened by an opposition parent who took umbrage that I objected to his son repeatedly trying to break the legs of my players, trying to stop a brawl between opposing groups of parents and then, the icing on the cake, wrestling a player’s mother to try to break the stranglehold she had around the neck of a slightly inept young referee. That was one of those wonderful moments when you really have to question what’s going on in your life. In the following game Spike was waiting patiently in the box for a corner when the player standing next to him clearly took offence to the look on his face and punched him full on the nose. Spike hit the deck and I entered the field to go pick him up and carry him back to the safety of the sideline. By the time I reached him he had made it to his feet and was somewhat groggily asking what just happened. In that age group at that time players didn’t get sent off – refs simply asked that serial trouble-makers were strategically substituted by team management. As I respectfully reminded the ref of that gentleman’s agreement I felt someone brush past me in a hurry. Was it Spike? Had he come to his senses and was now launching himself at his attacker in a frenzy of revenge? I swivelled quickly to drag him away and restore order but I was too late. Spike was still standing there rubbing his reddening face. His assailant was standing next to him staring wide-eyed at Spike and looking like he might burst into tears. Disorientated I scoured the horizon to try to get a fix on what had bumped me. As I turned I just caught a glimpse of one of our parents as he made it to the other sideline and launched himself at the opposing parents in a flurry of fists and boots. Another golden episode in the history of kid’s football in east London.
Spike’s team had a mixed parenting bunch – actually probably more good than bad. But as ever the bad ones made more noise and sadly stick in my memory more than the sane, supportive ones. Eventually I managed to co–opt one of the good ones to be my assistant. The extra pair of hands came in useful – he did the half time team talk to the kids, I did it to the parents. I’m not joking. Requests not to coach from the sidelines and groan really loudly every time someone made a mistake were met with shrugs of shoulders and mild amusement. Problem was, I really wasn’t joking. Typing it in the here and now, some 10 years later, it feels really odd but at the time it felt like I had absolutely no choice. As I pleaded for them to just “let the boys enjoy this, it’s their hobby after all” one parent just shook her head. I think I’ll always remember the look on her face and how much I wanted to rub it in the dog shit we spent our Sundays trying to avoid. The kids were great – even the ones with inadequate psychos for parents. Innocent little souls who hadn’t yet picked up their mothers’ bad habits, fathers’ foul mouth or their joint custody of objectionable behaviour. God, I really hope that has continued.
There was always a general grumble from the sidelines about when the team would get trials with professional clubs. Scouts often attend junior games in east London – it has a rich history of providing some of England’s best talent. However, with this particular squad I always found this concept rather strange. The brutal truth was that this team wasn’t great. Spike and a couple of others stood out but in reality the team had too many weak players to put any kind of significant winning run together and one thing is true of kids football regardless of where you are on the planet – you need to be playing in a winning team to get spotted. Scouts won’t get out of bed to watch losing teams. I found the parents’ notion that this team might be the kick-start to a glorious career at the highest levels of the game really rather idiotic frankly. Sadly that was nothing compared to how the parents approached this issue in the teams Spike played in later in his career.
But issues arose for this team even from unlikely sources. One of Spike’s mates was losing interest. He stopped going to training on the Saturday and because I felt we had to give priority for the Sunday games to the kids who did show, he was beginning to spend more time on the bench. When he did get on the pitch he was apathetic and unresponsive to suggestion or direction. His father, who I was also friendly with, distanced himself from me. I gave the boy the player of the week award at one stage just to try to ignite his enthusiasm again. The following week his Dad turned up at our house to return the trophy and announce to my wife that his son would no longer be coming to football as he’d lost interest. Fair enough I thought – best to pull the plug before the boy gets really fed up – it’s a hobby, if he’s lost interest don’t force him to go. When both boy and father then continued to come along I didn’t really question it – in the mad, mad world of kids football it barely registered in truth. A few weeks passed before the father asked me for a chat after training. As I stood there on the receiving end of his verbal mauling and wild accusations of lies and favoritism I felt the kind of surprise usually reserved for mugging victims. As he got to the part where he denied going to our house and handing in his son’s resignation I could suddenly see myself from above. Standing in this now empty park with this clown – all the while trying desperately to excuse his behaviour and find some sense or reason to excuse him. But mostly I just felt sad. Really sad. But as usual I masked it with boiling anger and told him where to go. We never really spoke again – even at parties when we awkwardly bumped into each other. Another casualty of kids football.
I did get some reward for my endeavours though. Miraculously our little team got to the runners-up final of some kind of league cup. Normally a game played out in front of only devoted parents on a freezing March morning. But in this particular year it was going to be played at the home ground of the Premier League team I’d supported my whole life. Result! I’d be ‘coaching’ at the ground I’d being going to since I was a kid – the manor of my heroes. Suddenly the whining, psychotic parents seemed a whole lot easier to deal with! I was excited and immediately put a plan in place to ensure that all the players in the squad had equal time on the pitch. I emailed the parents to let them know exactly when their little prince would be gracing the hallowed turf. The day before the match I bought the least ugly trophy I could find and printed off slips so that the parents could vote for their man of the match. No accusations of favouritism from the coach there, I thought. And just to cement the sentiment, Spike started the game on the bench. On the day, myself and my assistant where both security checked and presented with an access all areas pass. Something I could only have dreamed of as a kid. The game was disappointing – we lost 5-2 to a much stronger team. I could take the beating but having one of our most moronic parents run onto the pitch midway through the second half to demand that his son play in his “preferred position” made me want to end it all there and bury myself under the centre spot. It’s one thing being embarrassed by your own actions or those of your children but being laughed at by the other coaches because of the behaviour of a guy I barely knew makes me angry to this day. And anyway “preferred position”? At 10 years old? During the following season this particular parenting high achiever went to prison on a drugs charge. I can only hope the kid moved out at that point and left no forwarding address for the idiot to find him.
It was time for change and time for Spike to challenge himself a little higher up the food chain. The opportunity came in the form of an invite to his primary school requesting that they put forward 3 boys to attend District Trials – a chance to play for the borough. The school did what most inner city schools with little interest in sport would do – they binned the letter. Literally. Luckily, and by sheer fluke, the only teacher with half an eye on physical activity spotted the letter in the bin, retrieved it and immediately informed Spike and 2 mates about the trial. The trials were being held that weekend and co-ordinated by one of the local clubs.
On the day we went to the wrong field and so arrived late at the right field. The place was packed with boys and parents and coaches and as we signed in I could feel my blood pressure rise as the panic of opportunity reared its ugly head. In the end he played for 10 minutes before being taken off, spoken to briefly and sent home. Oh well I thought, as we sat in the Saturday shopping traffic on our way home, he’ll get other chances. Note to self: must remember to get there on time next time. It was only later, as we pulled up outside our house and in an exchange that typifies Spike’s somewhat relaxed attitude to details and important information that I was informed he’d been asked back the following week. “What did they say?” I asked. “That I was good” he replied. “Oh, OK, that’s good then” I continued. A monotone “I suppose so” ended the dialogue.
When we arrived the next week the atmosphere was different – let’s call it more professional and ordered. There were less kids obviously and Spike’s mates had been cut so I stood alone not knowing anyone at all. They split the boys into rough teams and started playing – Spike’s team were on first. This is where it counts I thought. This field is packed with the best under 11s in the district. If he can make it in this company then perhaps he might have a real chance. I was so nervous for him I didn’t even acknowledge that last thought. It barely registered with me that based on one call-back I’d suddenly started thinking like all the parents from his team that I habitually referred to as delusional and obsessive. Wow! That was a short journey!
Playing in central midfield, Spike glided through the game looking perfectly at home in the elevated company. Positioning, touch, poise, speed, skill – he displayed it all with a casual, almost nonchalant look on his face. I can remember him stopping at one point and resting his foot atop the ball while he looked around for the best passing option. The defender in front of him just froze as if he knew he’d have to let Spike have his way. It was captivating. “He’s ‘avin a stormer.” Said the guy next to me unaware of my connection to the long-haired junior Zidane dictating the play in front of us. I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. I was hypnotized. Shocked is actually probably more accurate. But bubbling underneath that was a heart-pumping, mountain-climbing, screaming at the top of your voice joyful surge that made my hands shake.
To be continued…