When my son was born I didn’t buy him an MUFC baby-grow, nor did I name him ‘Cantona’. Similarly, I felt no urge to rush down to the ground to get him a membership the day he arrived, or record him as a toddler gurgling ‘Build A Bonfire’ and upload the footage onto youtube. He was always going to be introduced to football at an early age, there was no need to force the issue. The intention was to let him ask the questions and develop his own interest. I stuck to this up to a point…he was 18 months old before he had his first kit and attended his first match.
As for playing, it all started innocently enough with a trip to the park one warm summers evening, almost two years ago now. My son (then aged 5) came face-to-face with a mate of his from school. He looked at him in awe when he clocked what this kid was wearing. As well as sporting a full United kit, what caught my lad’s attention was the fact his mate was wearing brand new boots and shin-pads too.
Turned out that the local junior team trained on the park during summer and were apparently keen to get new kids involved for the season starting that September. I was buzzing at this news and so was my lad. All I had to do was get him some boots, fill in a couple of forms, pay £2 a week subs and bring him along.
So there began my son’s football career. I instantly felt certain as to what was going to be my place in all this. Other parents were stood on the sidelines barking instructions and offering encouragement to their mostly confused offspring. Ha! I was determined to leave any such nonsense to them, I was intent on being silent and aloof – I would take him, watch him play, then gently offer him the benefits of my considerable football knowledge and experience during the car journey home. I smugly told myself, ‘I’m not gonna shout, I’m not gonna get involved, I’m not gonna get wound up. People screaming at kids playing football look and sound RIDICULOUS, I mean look at the state of the coach there with his stupid tracksuit and his stupid initials embroidered on it. What a DICK.’
As time went by it became clear my initial impressions of the lad in charge were spot on. He was very shouty, clearly in love with himself and unforgivably dismissive of the less-able kids. Resisting the urge to share these observations with other whinging parents, I settled in on the sidelines, keeping both my distance and my thoughts to myself…well, for a while.
Over time you inevitably start talking to people and developing a common appreciation and appetite for the weekly madness being served up. With 5-6 year old kids involved, examples of sporting excellence are rarely encountered, although moments of high-comedy come thick and fast.
That first season contained some classic moments. The midfielder who stopped mid-game to make a sandcastle; the errant substitute who was found playing on the swings; the defensive partners spinning round mid-game, attempting to see who could get dizzy and fall-over first; the day when the goalkeeper was beaten twice because every time a tram went past he’d instinctively turn and wave at it. My favourite of all though was the game when the entire team decided to communicate with each other only by barking.
News arrived that changes were afoot. A civil war had broken out within the club (petty bureaucracy exists at all levels of football, then) and the upshot was that the present coach was leaving and our team had no one to take charge for the new season. Then came a seemingly innocuous approach via the smiley woman with the clipboard who collected the subs each week “Would you be interested in helping out?” “Errrr…”
Looking back, that was the moment I should have replied with a firm, “No”. Instead, my hesitation was somehow mistaken for interest and the gig was mine. It was like she’d tagged me, shouted “YOU’RE IT!” and run off. I’ve subsequently learnt that this is how most people get recruited, mainly because you’d have to be a mental to volunteer.
Luckily, my co-manager is one such mental. This is a man who has taken it upon himself to selflessly tackle all the demands entailed in running a successful junior football team. Communication with parents, updating the website, finances, committee meetings, scheduling fixtures, fund-raising – he loves all that stuff, thankfully. All I have to do is concentrate on training the kids. Thus far we’ve proved an incredibly successful managerial partnership. We complement each other well – he brings the motivation and boundless enthusiasm, I provide the cynicism and a deep sense of despair.
Our partnership has not been totally problem free. My attempts at projecting a Mourinho-esque, studied cool on the sidelines were almost obliterated when he went out and bought us matching Kappa tracksuits. I flatly refused to wear mine and a stand-off took place until we reached a compromise solution of Nike waterproof jackets.
The key word is patience, which is what I don’t really possess. I love my son dearly but I’ve struggled to bond with few of his fellow squad members. Spoilt, middle-class shits some of them – the sort of kids who got off lightly being named Joshua or George; you can just tell their parents were dying to christen something more fitting like Charles or Orlando. Some of these little snots are incapable of standing still and listening for 10 seconds, let alone appreciating the intricacies of the catenaccio system I’ve been attempting to implement.
Most of the kids are brilliant though. Happy, funny, football-daft, credit to their parents etc, etc. We get scouts down from United and City regularly, though for what purpose I’m not sure. They’re always keen to introduce themselves and show ID the first time they appear, probably so they’re not mistaken for paedos. The one lad we’ve got who (to my eyes at least) possesses genuine talent, spends most of his time doing ridiculous step-overs and showing off – you’d struggle to tell he was a half-decent prospect from a single viewing.
So now, several months into ‘the project’, I find myself in deep. As well as spending an inordinate amount of time pondering United’s fortunes, I now find myself looking up training drills on the internet and considering ways I can vary our warm-up each week. My car boot looks like I’ve recently robbed a branch of JD Sports and I’ve slowly developed the temperament required to nurture and encourage mud-splattered, rain-soaked, often-weeping children.
Overall I’d suggest we’ve probably reached the embryonic stage the present-day United were at back in September 1989, mainly due to the fact we’re regularly demonstrating the ability to win 5-1 one week then lose 5-1 the next…and our goalie is shit.
Copyright Red News – April 2011