Paternity leave

Gavin Barber enjoyed seeing his son fulfil a childhood dream (for both of them)

Travelling on the Space Shuttle, appearing on Top of the Pops with my own synth band, playing for Ipswich: these were all ambitions that I had at various points during my childhood. Jimmy Savile heartlessly ignored requests to arrange the first two, and my lack of anything resembling football talent soon ruled out the latter. Which left me with one tantalisingly achievable alternative – to be the Ipswich mascot.

When I was a kid you got to be mascot by joining the Junior Blues and fervently hoping that your name came out of the hat. It really was that simple. I like to imagine that there actually was a sturdy bowler hat from which chairman Patrick Cobbold would solemnly pluck a single name each fortnight. Mine never did, of course.

So when ITFC rang me up during the summer and asked if my son – now himself a Junior Blue – would like to be the mascot, it was with a Proustian rush of excitement that I said yes. Which is how he and I come to be at Bristol City on the first day of the new season, him in his shiny new Town kit and me failing to carry off the nonchalant “it’s-him-not-me-who’s-the-excited-one” look.

My son devours Match of the Day magazine with the same zeal that I used to devote to each issue of Shoot! Where the seven-year-old me would quote interesting details about the minutiae of John Wark’s career, so will he with reference to Josh Carson (on the right in the picture above, with Tommy Smith on the left). This, therefore, is a pretty big deal for him too.

The experience, thanks to Bristol City’s warm and personal approach, is an entirely pleasant one. A friendly man called Pete greets us and the two home mascots. They go off to chew the fat with David James and co, while we’re welcomed into the visitors’ dressing room by Paul Jewell, who invites us to talk to whoever we want. The players happily sign my son’s autograph book – Lee Bowyer is among the most charming – and pose for pictures.

The three boys then go out onto the pitch to join the teams for a pre-match kickabout. Soon they’re trying to outdo each other with what the cool kids (and Rio Ferdinand) call “tekkers” – flicks and tricks and backheels. If you put me on a pitch in front of 13,000 people, I’d be terrified to try anything more ambitious than a simple side-footed pass. The kids don’t care though. There’s a reason why they don’t have adults as mascots, even though I suspect they’d have plenty of takers if they did.

The big moment comes just prior to kick-off as the mascots lead the teams out amid Ashton Gate’s brassy, flag-waving fanfare. The dads are allowed onto the pitch to capture it all on camera. While waiting, I turn to face the away fans. Some of my mates are among them so I give an ostentatious wave. Stop: check yourself. It’s your son’s day, not yours. (Keep telling yourself that and you might start believing it.) Handshakes are completed and it is all over. Pete escorts us to the away end and we watch a comfortable 3-0 win for Ipswich.

I was 13 when WSC launched. Like, I suspect, many of this magazine’s readers, the subsequent 25 years have seen my relationship with life and the world change. I have kids, greying hair and a stack of vinyl records in my loft. But my relationship with football hasn’t changed, at least not that much. For all that the sport itself is a vastly different beast from what it was in 1986, it is still basically the case that my team’s games are usually the centrepiece of my week and that their results have a greater effect on my mood than might be considered healthy. Is it responsible to be passing all this on to our kids?

TOTP is gone and the Shuttle recently made its final voyage, but I have no complaints about having seen the fulfilment of a boyhood dream played out by my son. Perhaps one day he’ll introduce his own kids to the game and reflect, as I am now, that while it can give such simple, shared, cross-generational pleasure, there’s still something right with the world of football.

From WSC 296 October 2011