The Long Read: Worthing, Fatherhood, Community & I
It was on this weekend last year that I took my elder son Dylan to his first football match. He had no interest in the game, of course, but he did have an interest in eating chips and drinking orange juice, and that was enough to persuade him of the merits of a trip to Woodside Road, the home of Worthing Football Club, on a warm October afternoon. Dylan has a variety of interests – watching YouTube videos of cars being pushed down tracks into bowls of water, his train set, drinking milk – but football hasn’t really appeared on his radar just yet. There’s one in the garden that he occasionally kicks about and he loves driving aimlessly about on the Rocket League training mode on the PS4, but other than that he hadn’t really expressed much of an interest.
Recently, though, something has changed. I put him to bed at around half past seven every evening, so if there’s a live match of importance on the television, I can at least a quarter watch it while I rush around doing the other things that I need to do of an evening. Of late, Dylan has started joining me for watching these, walking into the room in which the television is situated, jumping up, and saying, “Daddeee, i wanna watch oo’all with you.” I had previously ascribed this to a desire to stay up late rather than a keen interest in Brighton & Hove Albion’s life in the Premier League, but over the last three weeks or so, he’s starting joining me on Saturday lunchtimes to watch whatever gruel is being served up, and this week he actually expressed an interest in going to the football with me.
At the time of that first match, his mother was forty weeks pregnant with our second child. Dorian was born on the twentieth of October. Strangely, he’s more interested in chasing a ball around the living room than his brother, though he remains unblessed by the ability to walk, right now. Until last week, she worked on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s the reason why I went a whole year between going to matches – Dorian had only really been take-out-able since the summer, so sitting in front of the Sky Sports or BT Sport lunchtime matches was the story of last season, for me – and it’s very easy to be too busy, or not quite engaged enough, and to just fall out of the habit. A couple of weeks ago, however, I decided that I needed to get out of the house and watch some live football, so I strapped the younger one to my front, papoose style, and off we went. It was a disappointing game, a one-all draw between Worthing and Leatherhead, but I did at least note that Dylan was at least kind of trying to half watch and understand the game. It was only in small bursts, but I could see the cogs turning inside his brain beginning to turn.
So, when I mentioned going to the football on Saturday one day last week, I wasn’t that surprised when he said yes. He still loves chips and orange juice, after all. But this weekend would be different. After a few months of doing it unhappily, his mother is no longer working weekends. I already feel like a man stepping out into the daylight after a year trapped underground over this, but it also meant that I could take Dylan out for the afternoon. Just the two of us. He’s been very good about the arrival of his brother. Occasionally he can be selfish, of course he can (three year olds are, for the uninitiated, basically empathy vacuums), but he does care for him, and his little acts of selflessness have been increasingly recently, which has not gone unnoticed. It’s Dorian’s birthday next weekend, so it felt right for Dylan and I to have our first Saturday afternoon out alone together for the first time in exactly a year.
To get to Worthing’s ground, we have to cross a high pedestrian bridge over the railway line that truns along this part of the south coast. In one direction, we can see Worthing railway station, in the other West Worthing. We don’t have to wait very long before a train passes underneath us in one direction, and a couple of minutes after that a second train passes underneath us, and this time the driver gives us a wave and toots his horn. Dylan and I went to look at the trains on the platform at Worthing railway station a year ago. That day, he picked a flower for his mother to take home for her, only to see it get eaten by an overexcitable dog on the short walk home. This was a considerably happier way to end our brief trainspotting diversion than The Flower Incident had been.
From the other side of the bridge, it was only a five minute walk to Woodside Road. Worthing FC are on the up at the moment. Promoted from Division One South of the Bostik/Isthmian/Still-bloody-Ryman-to-some-people League in 2016, they spent the previous two seasons in the lower to mid-table reaches of their current home, with last season blighted by problems with their 3g pitch, which led to the first few matches of the season having to be played away from home, a disastrous start from a results point of view, before an eventual recovery to a sixteen-placed finish. This time around, though, they’ve started very strongly indeed. Going into this match, they’re one of a clutch of clubs, with Tonbridge Angels, Enfield Town, Bognor Regis Town and Dorking Wanderers, still clustered at the top of the table. They’re still in the FA Cup, as well, with a trip to Ebbsfleet United in the Fourth Qualifying Round of that competition in a couple of weeks time, a trip that looks all that much less daunting when we consider that they’ve already defeated another National League South team, Chelmsford City, away from home in the Second Qualifying Round.
Perhaps the only blot on the copybook so far this season for Worthing has been their away form. Worthing have won four and drawn the other one of their five away league matches so far, but they’ve only won once in four home league matches so far. Home crowds this season are already averaging more than 900, and this afternoon a combination of Non-League Day, unseasonably warm weather and recent form have brought out a crowd of 1,320 people, comfortably the highest in the day in the entire Bostik/Isthmian/Etc League, although the crowd for this match is boosted by a sizeable (and noisy) away support. Kingstonian are, of course, one of the stalwart clubs of this division. Still homeless, they had a poor start to the season but have recently clambered their way up to fourteenth place in the table.
Dylan peers through the bars on the fence around the pitch as “Fanfare For The Common Man” starts up, plays away to itself for twenty seconds or so, then stops and starts up again as the teams take to the pitch. As he does so, I ponder that these matches may well be his first memories of the game. He’s looking across an artificial pitch, red right the way up the touchline. I’m still not completely sold on them. They make perfect sense for clubs from a maintenance and usage point of view, but there’ll always be something missing from a game at which there’s no danger of me getting a little bit of mud on myself while I’m there. It wouldn’t be entirely unthinkable that most non-league clubs will be playing on pitches like this by the time that he comes of age. Their use is growing rapidly, after all, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the Premier League and Football League both approve them.
We walk around to the tea hut to buy chips as the teams kick-off. The queue is long, and there’s an ominous “SOLD OUT” sign over the burgers section of the menu. Still, whatever issue seems to have befallen the meat supply hasn’t apparently affected the potato supply and Dylan is happy enough with his carton, although he’s less than happy with me for stealing a couple, chiding me by telling me that, “Daddy, you’re naughty” after I do so for the third time. Worthing take the lead in the middle of a period during which he’s mostly interested in sitting on the terrace and throwing leaves over himself. Our first halves have already developed their own rituals. Chips and orange juice. Walking around the ground during the first half before sitting in the stand for the second. It feels as though this is ours, a little something that we can do together. Worthing take the lead midway through the half, and Kingstonian equalise with an own goal shortly before the break.
We sit for the second half, and I’m relieved to do so. He’d had some difficulty sleeping the night before, and an hour and a half before kick-off, when we were still at home, he’d refused to possibility of having a nap, even though I’d promised him that I’d wake him in plenty of time to get to the match. When he flags, the last stop before complete exhaustion can be a temper tantrum of a scale that would make Mount Etna cower, and my fear is that he could explode in the stand, shrieking, snot-bubbling and turning puce with ill-defined and ill-determined rage. Sitting down minimises the likelihood of anything like that happening. Worthing regain the lead and open up a two-goal lead to make the game safe in the closing minutes.
It was tough on Kingstonian, who’d been the stronger team for long periods of the first half, but Worthing just about deserved the points, on balance. They took their chances and looked comfortable by the end of the match. They ended the day in second place in the league table and, if they can overcome the occasional nerves that still seemed to be present for much of this match, they might still be reckoning for promotion come the end of the season. It was a very impressive performance indeed. And something really felt as though it changed over the course of the afternoon inside the ground. By the end of the match, there was a relaxed, settled buzz over the ground, the type that only truly comes with a winning team that’s playing decent football. It’s been a difficult couple of years since promotion for Worthing, but they’re heading in the right direction.
We’re home within about twenty minutes of the end of the match (Google Maps doesn’t take into account those amongst us who have to walk with someone who stops every twenty yards to inspect some gravel, or ask my what my favourite colour of car is), and my mind turns to what good I’ve taken from afternoon out myself. They do warn you about the loneliness beforehand, but they don’t tell you loudly enough. I have practically no social life any more. There are people who swerve me because they don’t like kids – an entirely fair opinion; I didn’t like them before I had them myself, and I’m still not always terribly keen on other people’s – and others because I live so far away. There have been times over the last three years when I’ve felt truly isolated, almost trapped in a prison of my own making. But “friends” in this sense is also almost interchangeable with something else: community. I’ve felt dislocated, as though I’m an onlooker upon the world, merely spectating whilst everybody else is taking part.
And this is where non-league football – well, any type of football – had a critical role to play for me, this weekend. I didn’t meet another adult there, barely even spoke to anyone else, but I was out amongst a crowd. I’m not really a supporter, but I was a part of something. It wasn’t just me and my two children – one of whom can’t speak, though whether that’s better or worse than one who speaks like a three year old is debatable – at home on our own, it wasn’t with any of the people who I speak to online but who weren’t with me at that moment. It was more than one thousand three hundred others. It was a crowd, a shared experience. And that meant something to me, in my own personal way.
This is something that starting to be addressed in, somewhat ironically, isolated areas. Last summer, another Isthmian League club, Hendon, announced that the club would be offering free tickets to anyone admitting to “suffering from depression or loneliness or anything similar”, with anyone interested invited to contact the chairman, Simon Lawrence, at his personal email address. Hendon were inspired by the death of Dermot Drummy, formerly the manager of Crawley Town and previously a Hendon player of distinction, in November 2017. And to read a story such as that during the summer was something that I was able to consider this weekend. Its value wasn’t only in the generosity of spirit in the offer. There was more to it than that. Someone within that club understands. Anybody who has experienced any degree of depression will already be aware of the number of (often well-meaning) people who do not understand. This isn’t a criticism of those who don’t. Why should they understand? But when so many don’t, to see any one person, group, organisation or company say “we do understand” in a manner which suggests that they do means something in and of itself.
But there was something else taking place on Saturday afternoon, as well. The very beginning of a bonding process that may just last for the rest of my life. The reason that Dylan wouldn’t nap on Saturday lunchtime was because he was worried that he wouldn’t wake up again in time for the football. He sat and watched the Football League highlights with me for a while, this morning. I don’t think he understands very much of what’s going on, other than the base concept that you have to kick the ball into the goal, but I see the very seeds of an interest just starting to grow, as though a light is switching on in his head that this isn’t just some random series of things going on. I’m never going to force it upon him. It will always be his choice, and if he decides that he doesn’t want to, then I’ll be completely happy with that., but I can’t deny a small thrill in his going through the exact learning process that I did more than four decades ago.
Until I was in my twenties, I preferred to go to the football on my own. As a child, I’d go with my dad but would separate as soon as getting into the ground, stopping off only to see him at half-time and again at the end of the match. As a teenager, I did my only two seasons of every match home and away more or less on my own. As I got a bit older, I started going with other people, but once at university I was back to going on my own again, a footballing nomad in the north-west of England, unable to settle, always looking for something else. In that way that young men do, I started going in more organised groups during my twenties, and it was seldom that I actually did end up going on my own. In recent years, fellow podcast host Edward Carter has become my most regular co-conspirator, though the last three years have been difficult on that front because of the kids.
Throughout my life, though, the way in which I’ve watched live football has shift-shaped and changed, and perhaps what this match represented to me was the beginning of my new way of watching The Football. It may be temporary and transient. It may last for the next ten or fifteen years. It may just end up being the way in which I end up watching football for the rest of my life. Dylan and I may become nomads, jumping from ground to ground as and when the mood takes us. We may end up going to watch Worthing every week. We could get season tickets at Brighton & Hove Albion. Whatever he wants. As long as there are chips, orange juice, and a football being kicked around, he’s usually pretty happy. So am I, as a matter of fact.