Parental guidance

Damon Green warns that sparing your kids when choosing their team will only spoil their heritage

A colleague at work, drawn and tired, complained to me recently that he doesn’t want his son to grow up supporting his team. Their performances have been so shameful and the management of the club has been so dire that he would be ashamed to pass on such a legacy. I looked at him for a second, then laughed in his face. He supports Arsenal.

But it’s a dilemma we all face. When our children reach the age where bullies, those active agents of Darwinism, start to single out from the herd those with sticking-out ears, or not-quite-brand-new trainers, or parents who thought Astro-Hercules was an excellent name for a small boy, it is only natural to want to give the spiteful bastards as little ammunition as possible. And so, as fathers, we decide if we really wish to inflict our own woes on our poor, innocent children.

My friend Alan – but let’s call him “Alan” – lives in south London and is a lifelong supporter of Plymouth Argyle. We were sitting in his kitchen, drinking tea, listening to Sports Report and complaining bitterly about one thing and another when I raised the question of when he’d be taking his little lad to a Plymouth game. I was shocked to hear that, far from allowing the boy to follow in his footsteps, he would be actively encouraging him to follow Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool or some other team easy to watch on the television.

I wondered whether he might instead take him to see Palace, to which his scornful reply was: “But then I’d have to watch Palace, wouldn’t I?” This was unanswerably true. And at that moment, with perfect timing, the Plymouth score was read. They’d been gubbed again and were bottom of the league. “Alan” fixed me with a look of silent eloquence.

Fair enough. My dad started taking me to Villa Park when football was deeply unfashionable. The ticket prices reflected both that and the state of the ground. It wasn’t an expensive day out but to a six-year-old boy it was as intoxicating as a deep draw on a filterless fag. In the same way, it could easily have put me off for life. Certainly the moment I first saw the cavernous black toilets under the Holte End, where generations of my family had pissed, and largely on the floor by the look of it, will be a memory I carry to my dying day.

I don’t remember much about the football. I have no memory for the games themselves. But there was something else about going to Villa Park. It was a voyage into my family’s past. Every trip would be the cue for some improbable anecdote. My uncle had stood on this spot after defeat by Port Vale in the Cup and vowed solemnly never to come back. The crowd for a Cup game was once so huge that my dad was picked up here by the crush and set down right over there. My great-uncle had gone blind-drunk into this pub looking for Albion supporters to fight and unfortunately managed to find quite a lot of them.

But the anecdotes weren’t just stories about the Villa. In the late 1970s the Birmingham of old was vanishing at an accelerated rate, the back-to-backs and Victorian pubs dropping ever faster before the bulldozers. Often the meandering journey in our unreliable French car would take in my dad’s first school, or the gasworks where Uncle Ben served as fire warden in the war, or the factory where my grandfather worked for 30 years and left with a gold watch and a double hernia. There was the day when he showed me the house where he was born, empty and due for demolition. I remember thinking, even as an eight-year-old, that it seemed a very small place for a family of six to live. And I remember wondering what exactly he was searching for with his eyes as he stood quietly in the street for ages, looking up at that blue-slated roof.  

I know now that my dad’s life has seen about the usual number of tragedies, humiliations, failures and disasters. At the time I knew nothing about them, or about him. The only time I saw him with his head in his hands, boiling with fury or speechless with boundless injustice was at the football. The only time I saw him cheer, celebrate or unbutton himself in pointless celebration was at the football.

You can do more for your children than buy them new trainers or give them a sensible name. You can give them a window on your life. At the time, they won’t know what they’re looking at. But in years to come, they will remember the view.

From WSC 298 December 2011