It turns out I’m stealing the childhood of my two-year-old, desperately hoping he’ll hand me a pension by signing a contract with a top Premiership club 16 years from now. Today, I’m forcing him to train “professionally” and shutting him away from children not blessed with his talent and – God help him – rich genetic inheritance.
That, at least, is the message from Viv Groskop in the Observer, writing about The End of Jumpers for Goalposts. While my two-year old heads off to Socatots, a football-themed playgroup, Viv’s seven year-old can’t get a game because it appears all his friends are off playing organised games.
He can’t get a game, but his mum managed to get 2,000 words on why not – and it’s all to do with the “over professionalisation of childhood football”, probably by over-ambitious dads like me. She writes:
“Many of the other boys he wants to play with have been in coaching since they were three or four. They’re not keen to play with amateurs. There are plenty of soccer fanatics around, but if you’re remotely serious you train several times a week. You want to play seriously and be refereed properly. There’s no more jumpers for goal posts. It’s enough of a rarity to see boys playing football in jeans. Playground football for boys like my son – who love football but have no ambitions to be the next Rooney – has virtually disappeared.
This situation upsets me. I’m not a football person and neither is Will’s father. But we want to encourage him. Football is a common language for boys of any age. And surely it’s especially important to know your way around the game if you’re not naturally sporty? Will is not keen to go into training. He just wants a kickabout now and again. In the playground he cunningly cast himself as the goalie for a while, until he got bored of that. Now it sounds like he just doesn’t really bother. It’s all too intimidating. So what can we do?”
Viv’s right about the importance of football among boys (and, indeed, their dads). Unfortunately, what she describes is only marginally about the sometimes-appalling youth structure of British football (for a more authoritative report on that, the excellent David Conn’s report on youth development from last year remains the best I can think of).
What she’s really writing about is the rite of male passage that is: learning you’re not very good at football. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about here.
The only things I lacked as a player were pace and skill. Even in the 80s, long before Sky and all-seater stadiums and Baby Bentleys, the boys who were any use at the sport quickly weren’t playing with the likes of me. They headed off to organised games and training sessions where, it was said, ghastly parents would shout and swear from the sidelines. Meanwhile, the boys who were a bit rubbish, or whose parents don’t want them involved (or know the ways into that world), were left to scrabble around for a game elsewhere.
In communities without open spaces, it was – and is – doubtless hard to find a game. In others – like where I was brought up – you eventually found a band of equally talentless mates, and a patch of grass. The jumpers went down, and you got a game.
As then, now. The boys who don’t really care for football don’t play very much. Those who are madly, but rubbish, keen find a way to get their fill. It’s a great way to learn social skills and overcome shyness, as you assail any random group and ask (at least in Scotland): “Gizza game? Room for one more?”. Later in life, when you’ve swapped school uniform for office uniform, there’s a code; you ask if the game is “serious”. If not, you’re in. If there’s mention of leagues and strips and a second XI, the hopeless player bewares.
What do I hope for my son? In a world populated by role models such as John Terry, Wayne Rooney and Joey Barton, certainly not a professional contract. I’d much rather he became a banker. But I do hope he picks up enough skill for him to enjoy the sport, and be good enough play in organised games with his banker friends, if he wants. I’ll be delighted he’s not stuck in front of a computer screen, playing games or writing a blog or something else dreadful.
And, for the moment, he appears to love his football.
Take last weekend. I’m reasonably certain that two-year-olds are supposed to like the snow. There’s the opportunity for snowball fights, snowman building and general slippery-slidy fun. Not for ours. On Saturday morning, a fresh inch or two lying on the ground, young Al wanted only one thing. “Ball,” he said. “More ball,” he added by way of confirmation. For further emphasis, he swung his right leg towards my shin a few times.
Football’s tricky in the snow, alas. Worse, the devilish Socatots was off this week. The church wanted its hall back for some kind of seasonal activity. The whole day was somewhat spoiled as Al, denied his run out, bounced around the house like a coiled spring. “Ball!” he cried, frustrated we couldn’t get his message.
That’s m’boy. I suspect that, as he gets older, he’ll always find a way to find a game.