For most of the few people watching it was most likely a minor incident in a soccer match involving O, my then seven-year-old son
For me, his father, it was as if the sun had finally burst from behind the obscuring cloud of my ego in a golden moment of cosmic revelation. Okay, maybe I did overdo the Harry Potter over Christmas, but it felt pretty dramatic.
The ball had been booted long and high from midfield and as it soared in an arc towards the goal, I saw O was the only defender in the penalty area, along with two attackers. Their number seven, and most dangerous player, was standing behind O, five or six yards to his left. The other boy, 10 yards to his right, I judged to be less of a threat. I forgot myself – and O’s coach – as I shouted at my boy to get back goal-side of the number seven.
All I could see was the danger and everything that could go wrong, the rapidly approaching orb sizzling now with the menace of a comet about to strike.
But even as the ball was just beginning its downward trajectory, O, oblivious to my shouts – or ignoring them – was already advancing, eyes aloft, adjusting his footing before taking to the skies, like one of those dashing second World War Spitfire pilots guarding the bomb-smogged London skies.
With a whip of the neck and biff of the forehead, Thuumphhh!: the ball was driven 30 yards back up the field.
The danger averted, old Blighty was safe once more: or had O even recognised it as danger in the first place?
So many things, positive and negative, crossed my mind, then and later. There was the fatherly pride and delight in my boy doing something good in his match, pleasing his coach and drawing shouts of approval from the watching parents and passing observers. My heart seemed to swell with joy.
There was also the chastening realisation that I had become the dreaded PlayStation dad I had often scoffed at; trying to direct their on-field reincarnation; claiming their offspring’s successes as their own; calling their infuriating mistakes a failure to follow instruction.
Poor little puffed-cheeked player in the outsize jersey and latest CR7 boots lifted with the praise and crushed by the criticism. Or is it the other way round? If it doesn’t break him, will it make him?
I am often aghast at how even the most seemingly mild-mannered parents can shout so harshly at their offspring’s lapses, as if they had let them down in some way. The pressure the kid must feel.
Playing his own game
Looking at O then, I felt I had finally realised, and truly appreciated, our differences. Where I could see nothing but the danger in the incident described, my boy seemed to only see opportunity.
But here I was now, dispensing yet another nugget of the footballing wisdom magically infused since hanging up my own moderate boots. There would be no more of that; he was his own man, playing his own game.
I also felt a sense of retrospective failure, thinking O, even at that age, was better than I ever was. There was excitement in that too. But maybe we were just different: as a defender, I was okay at putting out fires; maybe as a more attack-minded player, he is better at lighting them? Who knows? We’re different, anyway.
Here, in any event, was the confirmation, since borne out time and time again, that the boy can play and he can handle himself when the going gets tough – as it does even playing with his team.
It has been interesting, seeing what players and opposition sidelines can get up to, even at this level. I have seen some wonderful contests, and displays of pint-sized virtuosity, endeavour and derring-do that have lifted my heart.
And I have seen players marked out for “treatment”, verbal and physical, and witnessed sledging that would make an Aussie cricketer blush, and refereeing decisions that would puzzle Einstein.
All the negative stuff you’d see highlighted on Match of the Day or on Champions League night is there too: cynical fouling, diving, conning referees by jumping over tackles and going to ground writhing in agony, and even clapping when an opposition player is yellow-carded.
“In your face!!” one opponent bellowed into O’s, well, face, when he scored the equaliser against O’s team recently.
But kids’ football is still the best free theatre one could ever hope to attend. And since my pitchside epiphany I have never shouted an instruction, to O or to any of his team-mates, confining myself to the usual, no doubt bland, encouragement and positive exhortation.
When we’re watching live football together, though, I still can’t resist pointing out to O how vital N’Golo Kante’s’s covering and simple forward passing is to Chelsea’s success, or how David Silva usually passes the ball to the net rather than blasting it. I can assess his silence as agreement or disdain.
All I know at this stage is if this boy gets half the fun out of playing or watching the game that I did, he won’t be doing too badly. And, sure, he might even pass it on.