There are moments in life when you just know you have over-stepped the boundaries of appropriate adult behavior. In my case it was shouting ‘For fuck’s sake, don’t make that fat twat look like Messi!’ during a tense under-10s league match in which my son was playing. For one second shame overcame me at the hurt expression on said overweight lad’s face; that is until a few moments later my son scored his first of two goals to set his team onto a convincing win. Then I cheered gustily and high-fived my fellow dads, proud of my son’s pivotal role in the success of his team.
Later, after being publicly admonished by the coach for my inappropriate behavior, I reflected on what I had done. I realised I was becoming too emotionally affected by the results of the team. Indeed, while a win would find me bouncing with joy and work the following day would benefit from this elation through an increased level of productivity, a defeat would find me descending into a morose gloom, provoking insomnia at night reliving those moments where it had all gone wrong: the failed clearances from corners, the too slow reaction to the surely such obvious danger posed by the opposition’s right winger. It also led to the development of a massive resentment at the inadequacies of the coach whose substitutions were so evidently responsible for the defeat. Needless to say, although it was not possible for me to avoid work the next day, I was later told that my tolerance levels were noticeably lower, and that just one look at my face as I walked in to work was enough to gauge the outcome of the previous day’s match. How could something which should just be about fun create such an emotional rollercoaster? If you think my reaction is extreme, however, you have never been a football dad. The one thing you must remember is that your son joining a team is not about him.
It’s far more important than that. He, and in a growing number of cases she, is your avatar. If he succeeds, you succeed. If he fails, you fail. He can be the source of deep pride and the source of mortifying shame. You measure your son’s success against that of your fellow dads. Being the dad of the best player, especially one who is gifted enough to pass through trials for academies and perhaps onto a higher level yet, forgives so many personal flaws you may possess.
I know of one dad whose son is an excellent future prospect but is the quietest man you will ever meet. His silence is almost deafening, yet how many Saturday and Sunday dads would not wish to be able to boast about a son who is catching the eye of (name your team). The fact that this dad does not boast speaks volumes (pun not intended) about how his son does the talking for him. Dads come in all sorts: the ex-Sunday-League-footballer, the neverplayed- football, the football fantasist among others.
However, if you could dilute the essence of what a football dad is, you are left with three main types. First of all, there is the Half-Arsed dad, one whose attendance at training sessions and matches is patchy at best. He prefers to delegate this responsibility to his wife or another parent, citing work-related issues preventing his attendance.
The truth is probably a lack of interest in his son’s pursuit, or a preference for activities that he likes, hopefully away from the family. It can also often be the result of being the parent of the worst player, not wishing to suffer the weekly humiliation of witnessing the silent (frequently not so silent) judgement and crucifixion of his inadequate offspring by the adult jury of watching fathers. When they do attend, though, they are greeted with either a cursory nod from the regular dads or even worse with an inflated bonhomie bordering on manic pleasure to see this dad again after ever such a long time. The H-A dad is reminded why he prefers not to attend when his son’s failure to execute a simple manouevre is greeted by ‘Unlucky there, son, good try, mind’, knowing full well that this failure is yet another evidence for the unspoken verdict on the inadequacies of your son’s prowess as a player.
The second type of dad is possibly more common, the OCD dad. Never missing a training session or a match, where he will engage in banter with his parent peers which work colleagues would consider lame, his son will be among the better players, thus allowing him the right to comment on the deficiencies of the weaker players. He will also have knowledge of the rival teams in his son’s league, which will be dissected to a level bordering on obsession. There will be spreadsheets detailing goals scored, goals conceded, goals by player, and assists.
As the OCD kicks in, further spreadsheets will allow him to analyse efficiently the performances of rival teams, sourcing statistics from their club websites where possible. The more literate (although not always) dad will write reports on the matches, frequently comparing shots to laser guided missiles, liberally combining ‘crunching’ and ‘tackle’, not forgetting ‘cat-like reflexes’. These reports, unsurprisingly, can be very popular among fellow dads, serving as memories housed in web-based shrines to your child’s footballing youth.
This OCD behavior can be a double-edged sword, though. Yes, it can provide hours of fun but it can also lead to frustration when results for the team go awry. Having mentioned a few personal issues caused by defeats earlier in this article, it is essential for the OCD dad to be careful not to get over-involved. Sometimes it is better to simply step away for a time. After all, you really don’t want to progress to the levels of the Zealot. The Zealot lives for his son’s footballing skills, uninterested in anything else or anybody else. Spreadsheets? Who needs spreadsheets to prove his son is the best player in the team? Any flukey goal by sonny-boy is on a par with the best of Maradona. He ‘reads’ the game. His tackles ‘saved the game’.
Of course, everybody should be proud of their child, but this single-minded blinkered delusional devotion to their son can be tiring. This devotion can also often become bipolar. When not so convinced of their son’s future pivotal role in England reclaiming the World Cup, the Zealot can often be seen screaming abuse at their son for a miss, an unsuccessful tackle, or urging him to ‘man up and grow a pair!’
This bipolar response to what should be a fun activity is one of the reasons, as much as I may not wish it to be true, why I feel that youth football should be played away from under the ever judging eyes of parents. The English FA’s youth football policy is that children should be encouraged to engage with football as a socializing tool, away from pressure.
There are clear guidelines about how parents should behave at matches. Results for matches between the youngest teams are now no longer published. Both initiatives are useful, but I would go a step further and ban all parents from matches. Let’s allow children to be children and play away from their parents.
Statistics show that children today venture nowhere near as far away from their home as we used to. Modern fears about predatory adults have put a stop to that. Despite this, many children have a very active life, participating in some sort of sporting or social activity almost every day. However, this is at a cost. Not every child has parents who can afford to cover the expense of karate on Monday, swimming on Tuesday, tennis on Wednesday and so on. Even then, what these activities have in common is that a parent will be there.
As a parent, I would prefer my child to have the same freedom that I enjoyed at the same age, the freedom to go out and play where and when I wanted, not confined to my garden. I would like him to be able to live properly, to take responsibility for his actions, use his own judgement and his own creativity, not be so dependent on me to keep him amused. Similarly, I would like him and all those kids who enjoy kicking a ball about to play without being judged by adults who are probably transferring their own neuroses onto their child.
If our kids could go out and play where and when they want, it would ultimately be cheaper for us and would give us more time to ourselves. Don’t kids deserve the same?
Words by Brendan Elsted
Illustration by Jacky Sheridan