While this story stands alone it may be fun to read Part 1 as well to get an even broader picture of our talented footballer and his kin. https://sportsocratic.wpengine.com/2016/03/13/a-dads-story/
It was one of those startling autumn days that makes everything seem much more colourful than it really is. The kind of day that encourages you to be outside. It was just cold enough to remind you that it was late October, but the clear blue sky and dazzling sun still held the promise of a summer now slipping into the memory. The young West Ham football team that Spike and I were watching from the sideline were comfortably in control of the game and the opposition, despite having a rich history as a talent production line, were struggling to make a mark. In particular, the blonde Irons striker was having a good game and a good time. Poise, pace, power and control – he seemed to have it all. Good looking, athletically built and supremely confident – he looked every
inch the cocky east London Jack-the-Lad. He was loving it – the attention of the crowd in the packed training ground, nods of approval from some ex-players watching on, the admiration of his team mates and the fear in the eyes of his opponents. It was only when we remarked about him to the coach (who we knew because Spike was by then on the club’s radar) that we uncovered the truth. ‘That’s my Aussie. Fuckin’ good ain’t he?’ Not long after that game, while playing in a tournament for a young Socceroos team, that young man discovered that he had testicular cancer. A few short years after that, despite trying to play through his treatment, Dylan Tombides lost his life. I’m so glad we got to see him play, even if it was just for one game. He clearly loved this sport – his sport. It had seduced him, in the way it has millions of others and took him on a journey. He died still trying to do what he loved, the thing he’d been put on earth to do. There comes no higher compliment on the football fields of east London than ‘the geezer’s a natural baller’. And that he certainly was. Not every aspiring footballer makes it. Some are lured away by life’s other temptations and, without singular focus, their game deteriorates. Some are at the mercy of injuries – missing so much game time that they don’t develop sufficiently to progress through the ranks. And some have it all snatched away from them before they can really start to flower.
Rewinding back to Spike’s first trial and casual chats with West Ham coaches on the touchline were a long way from my thoughts. The game ended and Ryan the coach pulled everyone in – parents as well. There would have been 60 or 70 people. He explained that everyone had done well and the chosen squad would receive a call during the week. I was watching Spike clumsily trying to remove the clogged mud from his studs when the guy then said, “Can I just have a quick word with Spike’s parents please?”
“Look, he’s in OK?” “In?” I asked. “Yeah mate, in the squad, he’s the only one I’m telling now OK. He was brilliant today.” “Oh, right, really?” I replied. “Yeah, weren’t you watching?” “Er, yeah, I was, but…” “He’s definitely in. I just wanted to let you know and also ask you who he plays for ‘cos I’ve never seen him around before?”
And so with that final comment, the second chapter of Spike’s football story began. In two short weeks he was playing representative football for the district on Saturday afternoons. He also signed for Ryan’s Sunday team, which played in a league that had produced many of east London’s better-known footballers. It was a whole new level. In so many ways. Training, attention to detail, seriousness, technical development – even the kit – things were suddenly moving really fast for Spike and the adjustment took time. Ryan (who also owned the club) was well-connected to many professional clubs and it seemed like there was a new scout from a well-known team hanging around every week – just that on its own is enough to make a naïve young kid’s head spin a little. The other players were essentially good lads, but much more like the real-life Jack-the-lads that we would later mistake young Dylan Tombides for. It’s fair to say Spike was intimidated by some of them to start with – as much as I was by some of the parents. You see, there is one thing that you can’t prepare for as the parent of a promising footballer and when you join a more serious club there’s something that quickly hits you. And it’s not that nice. It’s the moment other parents let you know how threatened they are by your
son’s presence. Or rather they let you see how much they view your son as a threat to their kid’s place in the team. This wasn’t all fun, fun, fun anymore – you have to quickly acclimatize to the notion that you’re on the map now, this is the start of a process that for some will lead to a career in football.
And possibly, life-changing amounts of money. In places like east London – this counts for a lot. And because of this, you are competing with everyone – opponents, team-mates and especially the other parents. If you are on the pitch, then you are stopping someone else being there. And that makes friendly chit-chat a little awkward sometimes. I began to notice a pattern over the years, with parents grouping in mixed bunches, socializing mostly with the parents of kids in differing (and therefore non-threatening) positions. Your average huddle on the sideline would consist of the parent of a centre back, one fullback, central midfielder, winger and a striker – like a parental five-a-side team. They could then talk at ease because none of the other parents had a kid who was going to steal their son’s position in the team. They could pick holes in the games of those that might – without fear of rebuke or reprisal. Having said that, I actually think we were lucky with this team – there was a lot less of that going on than in many of the other clubs we encountered. Ryan made great efforts to maintain perspective and keep things balanced and by and large it worked. Some colourful characters came and went (including one very memorable 13-year-old, who always fancied a cheeky smoke at half-time – I kid you not!), but it was all engineered to build a squad that could be coached. And you can only do that with kids who listen. Some of Ryan’s football decisions, coupled with the club’s successes, made both him and it a touch unpopular in parts of the local area. None of those people knew how he provided boots or goalkeeping gloves for the kids from the more deprived backgrounds.
They never saw him driving miles out of his way to make sure those boys had a chance to get to the game. Here was a guy who knew his onions about football – I’d learnt that there was no doubt about that. But he also had an innate sense of what his club meant to the boys and his responsibility to them. The gratitude didn’t exactly pour in either. I remember helping him put the nets up before a Sunday morning game once as the mum of the goalkeeper approached holding something in her hand. She was an interesting character – she’d lost the boy’s father to cancer two years earlier and was clearly battling alcoholism. It’s fair to say that she was struggling, but in the same interests of fairness – one could see that she was doing some things that weren’t helping her situation. “Ere! These gloves you bought for Frankie!” she bellowed, waving the new Nike bag in Ryan’s general direction, “they’re two sizes too fucking small you plumb!” I think I gasped slightly at her palpable ingratitude and turned to Ryan. “Oh, sorry Lisa,” he replied lightly, “I’ll get them changed. They’re all growing so fast it’s hard to keep up with these boys.” She threw the gloves on the ground, spun around and walked off. “Nice to be appreciated,” I said. He just winked at me.
I’ve never encountered anyone like him in youth football since. Although in the pressure cooker environment of competitive kids’ football, his passion was often misunderstood. This was amplified at District level games, where the concept of competitive parenting was so finely honed I think some of the fathers could have lectured in it. Mistakes on the pitch were no longer met with light-hearted ridicule or mild murmurings of disapproval – they were highlighted loudly and accompanied by a generous stream of criticism. It was a hostile and challenging environment and the alpha male struggle for supremacy, on and off the pitch, was truly intense.
Even though Spike was still struggling a little to fully get a foothold in the team, Ryan’s connections meant that the trial games started to come thick and fast. Although perhaps coming somewhat early in his footballing development these games were good experience for Spike and helpful for both of us in understanding what professional clubs were looking for and how the environment differs wildly from local club football to academies. There was more focus on a player’s ability – sounds like an obvious thing to point out but at club level, big strong athletes were still getting favoured over their more talented, smaller comrades. What was really refreshing to see though was how these clubs disconnected the parents from the process – almost completely. I remember vividly sitting in a cafeteria at Spurs’ training ground one evening as Spike and his club team mates played a trial against a Spurs Elite Academy squad in their all-weather dome. All around me parents were getting agitated and restless at not being able to watch their offspring perform for the big boys. Comments like “it’s fuckin’ ridiculous that we ain’t allowed to watch ‘em!” echoed around the room. I thought just the opposite. Why should we be watching them? What difference do we the parents make to our kids’ performances anyway? Actually in many ways we had a detrimental effect. I had started to notice that some kids were playing in fear of their father’s approval, constantly listening out for daddy’s instructions and then trying to execute them. Generally, they were the wrong instructions and counterintuitive to what the player wanted to do, but dad knows best. Most of the time the amateur Fergie routine just made it 10-times harder for the boy to shine. And impossible for him to develop his in-game decision-making. Parental coaching from the sidelines just does not work. Ever. And I speak as someone who’s done it! And professional clubs don’t need the parents – and they let you know it. So on that night, as I sat stirring my coffee, the concept of shunting the parents out of the way seemed to me like a masterstroke. And when Spike and the rest of the team hungrily poured into the café after the game and he told me that a Spurs coach liked him I was even happier with their tactics. Momentarily anyway.
“Well, he did like him,” Ryan began, “but he thought he was too old.” “Eh?” I snapped, “Too old for what? To watch The Wiggles? To wear a nappy? To play for their under six team? That doesn’t make sense – it was a trial for 12-year-olds wasn’t it?” I felt my temperature rise as I struggled to grasp what had just happened. “‘Look mate, don’t worry about it,” said Ryan calmly “this kind of thing will happen to Spike as he moves up. You get some coaches who say strange things sometimes just to justify their actions. He did really well, he’ll get in somewhere else. Just ‘cos these guys have made it as coaches doesn’t mean they’re any good you know?” I really couldn’t get my head around the lack of logic and, as I write it now, I realize I still don’t. A club representative singles him out, asks about him and then dismisses him for being err, the same age as the other kids there. Ryan was right though. As we found out later on – football coaches can be just as inept, irrational and illogical as us parents.
Back with his club Spike had really settled into the team and his surroundings. His ability had really smoothed the way for him with his team mates and although still not a fully-fledged Jack-the-lad, his affable, laidback demeanor and sense of fun was making him very popular amongst both players and parents alike. A change in position to cover a missing right back one week became a permanent move and Spike turned into the kind of overlapping, attacking defender that is now de rigueur in every top flight team across the world. He seemed to instinctively know how to play the position – defensively and offensively. I remember one wet Sunday morning in Dagenham, where his team were labouring to a torturous draw with a team they should have been beating comfortably. With two minutes to go, Spike received the ball from his keeper. He then ran the length of the pitch, exchanging a couple of 1-2s on the way before drilling the ball low past the diving goalkeeper to win the game. “I ain’t seen many kids take a game by the scruff of the neck like that, you know?” Ryan said to me in the car park. God I hope he makes it, I thought. And there it was. I’d finally confessed to myself. I wanted him to make it. I wanted him to be a footballer. To make that his career choice. Outwardly, I could still talk the talk of the logical, easy-going, unaffected by his kid’s talents dad – it’s all about fun etc., but something had shifted in my thinking and attitude and I’d made my mind up for Spike. Strange thing is I don’t ever remember asking him if that was what he wanted. We never talked about where he was heading really – just that he needed to keep progressing. But now I wanted it badly. And guessed that he did too. In the end, I was wrong on both counts.
But the team was definitely on the up and a succession of summer tournament triumphs, where Spike shone, was followed by them winning the league cup for the first time the following season. Plans were underway to secure the league title next, with new players coming in to bolster the squad. More trials came along – Barnet and Leyton Orient to name just two – where Spike generally stood out and received interest from the pros. The coach at the latter though did support what we found out earlier – some of them didn’t really get it – saying, “We like him but he keeps going beyond the ball. Fullbacks shouldn’t do that.” I think Dani Alves, Héctor Bellerín and Kyle Walker might beg to differ on that one old son.
The end of that summer saw a large tournament in Suffolk that Ryan was keen to win. The boys were excited as we were staying away for the weekend in a somewhat dilapidated holiday camp – the kind that 60s Britain used to be famous for. Back then, people wanted basic accommodation, canteen-style food, lots of robust group exercise and windy walks. But, as the team arrived across the afternoon it was clear that the only group exercise these modern-day parents were interested would take place in the bar. That left the kids to effectively run amok around the prefabricated chalets, kicking balls as hard as they could against anything flat – and preferably breakable. As the alcohol flowed, along with the tales of former footballing glory and ‘what might have beens’, I was jolted back to reality by two of the boys running into the bar to tell me that Spike had hurt himself. When they led me to him he was on his feet, but hobbling badly. Never shy to put his hand up for a ludicrous task with an audience – Spike had retrieved a stray ball from a chalet roof, jumped off and twisted his ankle. I was furious with him. Really furious. Early next morning I was waiting outside the pharmacy to buy all kinds of bandages and freezing sprays to make sure he could play. “Will you be OK?” I kept asking. “Yeah I think so.” “What do you mean ‘you think so’ – can you play or not?!” I yelled, not fully understanding who I was asking the question for or acknowledging just how warped my perspective on his ‘hobby’ had become. Looking back, I just really wanted him to have a great tournament. He was playing so well and winning this tournament would cap a great summer for him. And me. I think I’d lost sight of him as a child at that point. As my son. I was treating him like a commodity. I’d almost turned into his agent! They won the tournament and although Spike played a part it was not as much as it should have been, because he was clearly carrying an injury. As we drove away with him clutching his winner’s medal as it dangled around his neck I again berated him for injuring himself in such a stupid way. He cried. I made him cry when he should have been happy. He didn’t care that he hadn’t played as much as he should have. He’d had fun. He had perspective on it. I didn’t. To this day I regret that car journey and what I did. It was piss-poor parenting. I’d reached my lowest point as a footballing father.
When the new season started Spike did not know that it would be his last at the club and indeed his last in the UK. We’d been to Australia to check it out with a view to moving here – but neither Spike nor his sister were privy to our agenda. As we worked through the season he became aware of the reality of the situation and that, when the season ended, we’d be emigrating. The season was a cracker for him. The team were neck and neck with their closest rivals at the top of the table and, having beaten them earlier in the year, we were scheduled to face them on the last day of the season. Spike’s last game for his boyhood club was going to be a real winner takes all affair.
And then a short time before that final game Ryan excitedly told the squad that he had arranged trial games for the whole team at both West Ham and Chelsea! My heart sank. “What if he gets spotted?” I said to Ryan later that day. “Well you’ll have a big decision to make, won’t you?” he replied, somewhat caustically. I gave him a second look and he winked back at me. “Don’t be silly, you’ve made your decision and I think it’s the right one.
There’s no guarantee, even if he gets into either club, that he’d be able to stay there. Loads of kids are in and out of premier league academies all the time. Australia or east London? I know which one I’d choose.” “Yeah you’re right,” I replied, still trying to work out if he was just trying to make me feel better about depriving Spike of the chance of a lifetime. It’s only two trial games, the chances of being spotted are pretty slim anyway. I comforted myself with this negative ‘long-shot’ strategy and prepared to take Spike to the trials.
Three weeks later, as I stared at a group text from Ryan, I wasn’t so bullish. It was a lovely message in truth. He was formally telling the team that Spike would be leaving at the (fast-approaching) end of the season as he (and we) were off to Australia to live. He glowed about Spike – what a great footballer he was, lovely kid, loveable clown and pleasure to coach for four years. He said how he (and we) would be missed and how ironic that all of this was happening after he’d been offered extended trials at both Chelsea and West Ham.
Yep. It happened. The thing that kids across the world dream about – especially kids from east London. He was singled out at both games and asked to come back for six weeks, so they could take an extended look at him. Spike took it all in his stride. He was pleased of course, but more preoccupied with the realization that he would soon need to be making new friends and leave his first real girlfriend behind. His focus was on the rest of his life – not a six-week trial. My emotions ranged from happiness that his talent had been spotted at the highest level to bouts of uncertainty and self-doubt about our plans and what they meant for Spike. Luckily, there was little time to dwell as the final title-decider was quickly upon us. I was a nervous wreck for two weeks in the lead up to it.
Spike went about life as normal. I spoke to him about what to watch out for when coming up against the opposition’s dangerous left-winger. He was more concerned about leaving the house he’d grown up in.
And so, on a sunny spring day in one of east London’s most famous parks, in a terrifyingly tense encounter, Spike’s boys finally beat their bigger, stronger arch rivals to clinch the championship. The morning was an emotional rollercoaster ride I wouldn’t want to go on again. Ryan made Spike captain for the day and retired his shirt number at the end of the game. They’d done it for the first time in the club’s history. There were presentations, celebrations and tears.
And a few short days after that we were gone.
To be continued…
Note: The names and images in this story to do not reflect the true identities of the characters described in this true story. The real identities are withheld… to protect the guilty!