Mascots, bike rides and a bright pink camera – treasuring football days out with my daughter

Illustration by Steve Beerling

The winning entry in our 2023 writers’ competition celebrated father-daughter days out at the football. Entries are now open for the 2024 competition

By Paul McGreal

20 March 2024

There was a moment, a simple enquiry, when I realised that my daughter had successfully been indoctrinated. A journey round the M25 to a match in north London had been halted prematurely, as the car’s engine lost all power, and we spluttered to a halt on the hard shoulder. As my uncle got out to investigate the cause, and with the rest of the Saturday afternoon traffic thundering past at terrifying speed, I hurriedly scooped her out of the car and over the relative safety of the crash barrier. Stood among the overgrown grass and clutching her favourite teddy, she beckoned me down to her level so she could make herself heard over the passing vehicles and asked a question that made my heart skip with parental affection. “Daddy, are we still going to the football?”

I had first taken her to a game at five months old, a slightly chilly midweek county cup tie. Her memories of a ten-goal thriller (it ended 9-1) are non-existent. As are mine, as we had spent most of the game in the clubhouse so she didn’t get cold – something I hadn’t considered as, still fumbling my way through the early stages of parenthood, I had omitted to pack any warm clothing for her. Further matches were attended in her opening season on the planet, all of them traumatic in different ways.

At a League One ground I failed Parenting 101, forgetting to pack baby wipes in her travel bag. I was left with a solitary white muslin to deal with what was, and probably will remain, the largest deposit in her nappy as a percentage of her size (all this taking place in the players’ lounge post-match, causing several players to move to another part of the bar in horror). A play-off final at tier seven of the pyramid ended in heartbreaking fashion with a defeat on penalties, an event which she slept soundly through, oblivious to the 3,000 supporters agonising over the drama. She was also hugged, and hugely traumatised, by a six-foot cuddly lion in a football kit, though she has since got over her aversion to mascots.

What started as a slightly selfish opportunity for me to go to football matches masquerading as parental responsibilities morphed into important bonding trips. As she grew from sleeping in her buggy during matches to tottering round on the grass areas of some far-flung non-League ground to chatting away and watching all the commotion on the pitch in front of her, I quickly began eagerly looking forward to our away days. We have developed an ever-expanding list of rituals and traditions. Planning the trip on the Friday evening, she now offers valuable inputs, such as ensuring the ground we are visiting has a Greggs or Claire’s Accessories store nearby. Our bus or train journey to whichever part of the south-east we have chosen for the day offers an opportunity to catch up on what she has learned in school and what song she could now improvise a dance to. She must also check us both in at a game using the Futbology app, which I downloaded on my work phone so that she can keep her own statistical record of where she has visited. A bright pink children’s camera accompanies us to most matches, and I will openly admit to being impressed, and slightly sulky, that some of her pictures turn out better than mine do.

Even how we get to a game has evolved, doubling as a major checkpoint in her life. Teaching her to ride a bike opened a whole new world of options for travelling to the more local grounds. Watching her take her helmet off and wander over to the ladies at the tea bar, wearily informing them that she had cycled all the way from home and rolling her eyes in my direction, does give me a little fuzzy glow of paternal pride at her confidence.

It’s the moments now when she’s not in attendance that I notice more. Watching Reading shuffle quietly out of the Women’s Super League on my own was the moment I realised that I needed her presence probably more than she did. Following the increasingly frequent defeats at the Select Car Leasing Stadium, she would be unfazed by the outcome, either needing feeding immediately after the final whistle, or more recently, moving to the front of the stand to obtain an autograph or selfie with whichever player had come over to thank the fans for their attendance. So not having her sat next to me as the last rites were performed on Reading’s top-flight spell – she was at a school friend’s football-themed birthday party, the only girl in attendance – made me that little bit sadder, not having anyone to talk to on the way home. I needed a hug as much as the players did.

Now being of school age, the growing list of social activities has also made her less dependent on our away days. The lure of a trip to the cinema or a theme park now appeals more than an end-of-season match in the Wessex League. The idea of spending Saturday afternoons watching two teams she’d never heard of slug it out on a pudding of a pitch in a faraway county was always going to wear thin when she could be Having Fun elsewhere. Other social and sporting activities – ballet, rugby, music club, doing nothing – will eventually whittle down those chances to spend time with her, which I don’t think is something I will be entirely ready for. For the moment, I will treasure these days out as I know they are unlikely to last forever – not just with football, but with her life in general.

She does still enjoy football with Daddy, and football in general. Her wardrobe now has its own section for football tops, and she proudly boasted to her teacher in class before half term that she had been to 80 football matches. At one game, she waited patiently to get a selfie with Lionesses heroine Chloe Kelly and told practically everyone at school the next day, to complete indifference from her classmates. Her class teddy bear – offered into her care for Christmas, so that she could chronicle their adventures and practise her writing – was fortunate enough to attend three matches in one day with her over the holiday period, thanks to a militarily planned travel itinerary. It is still the only time that Willow Bear has attended any football, a record that will likely stand for quite some time.

Just when I think her interest is starting to wane, and that I might need to start escorting her to shopping centres instead of glorified park pitches on Saturday afternoons, she’ll say something that gives me hope. Finding one of our local teams had been relegated to local league football at the end of the season, and with half an eye on having a Daddy-daughter joke at Mummy’s expense, I informed her that they’d been given a place in the Hampshire Premier League next season. With this information, she sat up like an attentive meerkat, and with much comedy eye-rolling from her mother, asked with great sincerity: “Does that mean we get to visit some more new grounds next season?”

I think we’ll be spending Saturdays at the football for a while yet.

Entries are now open for the 2024 WSC writers’ competition

This article first appeared in WSC 434, September 2023. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive

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