They don’t warn you, of course. From the very moment that a wave of “I think I’m late” washes over your significant other for the first time to the point at which you’re looking at a grainy black and white image of something that looks like a human being while a feeling of “somehow or other, I helped to make that” starts to occur to you, the very prospect of being a father is almost completely overwhelming. There are a lot of people offering advice on the internet that ranges from the invaluable to the ethically questionable and the more than useless. There are a lot of horror stories out there and there is a lot of all-consuming love to be read about. But there’s no definitive manual.
Even the question of whether my first born child will actually have any interest whatsoever in association football or not hangs in the air like Denis Law. If he or she has much psychological genetic code from their mother, the answer will most likely be a resounding “No.” This, after all, is a woman to whom I had to explain how the World Cup works as if to an alien (and doing this is something that I’d heartily recommend to anybody who should, for any reason, feel the need to remind themselves of the ultimate futility of professional sport) and who inhabits a universe that has never been blemished by the existence of Ken Bates. But if my genetic code has anything to do with my child, at some point it’s likely that questions of where daddy goes every Saturday lunchtime that requires him to wear a bar scarf and which sees him return home four hours later, smelling of rum and more often than not cat-kickingly furious will start to be asked.
Of course, one of the questions that probably invokes the most head scratching from new fathers is that of how to engineer your offspring to support the right team. It seems most likely that the best policy to stick to in this respect is to strike early, while the child’s brain is still malleable. A few heroic tales from the past dressed up as if they’re fairy tales should do the trick, but, to cover myself on this front, it’s probably going to be necessary to demonise others, too. It shouldn’t be too difficult to write Arsene Wenger into Little Red Riding Hood, for example (“and then the wolf, who was wearing a ridiculous puffa jacket, said in possibly racist French accent…”), whilst casting Jose Mourinho as The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doesn’t feel like it will be too much of an stretch either.
The danger with all of this is, of course, the influence of outsiders. It’s easy enough to ply a young child’s mind with propaganda to the point at which, by the time they start school, they may well believe that Glenn Hoddle might actually be a saint rather than merely somebody who believes that he’ll be beatified upon his death. There comes a point at which, however, my child will have to interact with other children, and this will most likely come in a school playground, where, as everybody knows, children are at their cruellest. After a week of being surrounded by other, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea supporting children – and, as we all know, living in Brighton doesn’t preclude this to any extent whatsoever – will my child return home one day having performed a sudden and decisive volte face over who they wish to support?
This scenario has become something of a comedy trope over the years, but the possibility of it happening is very real, particularly in the case of my offspring. After all, if the genetics of his or her parents are anything to go by he or she will be small, bespectacled, geeky and most likely unable to defend themselves in a playground fight without considerable martial arts training. How will he or she cope if bullied over supporting the wrong team? The myth of parental infallibility may well be one of the first casualties of beginning to attend school but, whilst the instinctive reaction is to allow one’s child to make their own decisions over this sort of thing, free will is overrated and the paternal instinct to protect my child from the notion that John Terry is a tolerable human being is likely to be pretty overpowering.
Of course, the unconditional love of a husband and father overwrites any temptation to have a conversation that begins with the words, “Now then son/daughter, I know that I’ve always told you that my love for you is unbreakable, but your recent admission that you now support Manchester City because, and I quote, “they always win and Uncle Edward told me to” has given me pause to reconsider this somewhat.” It isn’t really on my table of options, no matter what three and a half decades of watching football has taught me. But could I really impose my will upon my child? What if my child ended up supporting Enfield Town? Miles and miles away? With only the supporters forum and shaky YouTube match highlights for company? That sounds a bit like turning my child’s first true love into a long distance relationship, to me. The answer to this would most obviously be a local team. Brighton & Hove Albion, perhaps or Lewes or Worthing. It would give us the opportunity to bond, to have a secret code that their mother would never understand. A jokey conspiracy.
All of this would be their own choice, ultimately, of course. If they aren’t interested in the slightest, that will be their decision and I will love them just as much regardless, of course. But if they’re interested, of course I’ll be there. If they wish to play the game, I’ll encourage them to do it, but I’ll try to teach them to get involved because they love doing it, rather than because they should try to win at all costs. I’ll try to teach them to be sporting, to accept defeat gracefully, and to win with honour. It might not want to be, however, that they want to play much. They may just want to be supporters, and if they do I’ll try to teach them to be proud of their club, whoever it may be, to remember that they are the club themselves, and to bear in mind that, when all is said and done, it really is only a game. Perhaps, if nothing else, there’s a chance that I could offer them the gift of their sanity. It’s the least I can do if I straddle them with the burden of a football club for life.
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