My parents hated football. Somehow I grew up to love it. I think it was because we only got 3 channels on TV in those days so the only time you saw football it was a big occasion. Either the FA Cup final (which quite literally lasted all day) or a big England game. Both came with a sense of a very big deal which appealed to me enormously. Also we lived very close to Brighton’s old ground, The Goldstone. On Saturdays in winter the street would fill with cars and men in blue and white scarves would get out of them and walk to the ground. You could hear the crowd from my road. Particularly you could hear the orgasmic roar when Brighton scored. All this and the fact my parents specifically loathed it is what got me interested in football.
Eventually one of my dad’s pupils (he’s a music teacher) called Joan and her boyfriend Fraser agreed to take me to games. This was when Brighton had a very good team indeed and had pushed their way for the first time in to the top division. I remember games against Liverpool, Man United, Everton. Spicy derbies against Palace. Joan and Fraser always kept me safe but actually being there just magnified my interest in what was a completely different world. Cigar smoke, chanting, obvious swearing and the odd fight in the crowd. On the field incredibly skilful players like Peter Ward, Mark Lawrenson and later Michael Robinson and Steve Foster. Most players were British, quite a few were internationals, many didn’t bother with shinpads and tackling from behind was routine.
When Joan and Fraser couldn’t take me Samir did. Samir was a family friend, an avuncular Lebanese professor who, away from sport was constantly engaging. At football he barely said a word. It was like his studious nature made him observe every nuance of the game and, having escaped civil war in Beirut, he was hardly likely to be put off by the odd skinhead scrapping in the North Stand.
Soon though I felt old enough to go unaccompanied. Again when I asked my parents they initially demurred but eventually I was allowed to go ‘as long as I went in the Family Stand’. My first solo game was against Wimbledon and we won 2-1 with a long range screamer from the marvellously alcoholic and be-mulleted Frank Worthington. I went in the Family Stand and it was boring as anything. Next game I went straight in the North Stand, right behind the goal in the singing section. From here I started to meet people who to this day I count as some of my very best friends. A community. As soon as I was able I went to away games and as soon as I was old enough I went to the pub before matches. We froze our knackers off in Oldham and colonized the pool tables of back street locals in Brighton.
All this is a very long way of saying that football for me is much more than 90 minutes of men running around. My wife still doesn’t understand when I want to leave a bit earlier than she thinks it would take me to get to the ground for kick off and that’s because I want to see my friends and have at least one pint beforehand. Ideally two or three. Don’t get me wrong, for the 90 minutes the game’s on nothing else matters and I am completely absorbed in the match but it wouldn’t be anything like the experience it is without the chance to have some Real Ale and bit of banter first.
On our next home game I am dropping this routine.
A good family friend has wanted to take her son to the new ground for ages. I got her tickets for the game against Watford on 29 December and, since Boy and her son get on very well I said we’d come too. I’m swapping my normal seat in the comfortable rowdiness of the West Stand Upper for a family seat in the quieter East Stand. There will be no pub, the focus instead on ensuring the kids have an enjoyable day out at the football. Hot dogs and programmes will be bought, I suspect, and colours worn with pride.
I worried I was forcing it down his throat but he now attends football club after school and works with Will, a coach from Albion In The Community. He’s been to a couple of their mini-kickers sessions and has a training top, replica kit, a hand clapper and flag. He is very excited about going already. Meanwhile I’ve abandoned my normal football bravado and turned in to Worried Parent. I shall have to ensure he has a wee before we leave. I will have to pick a train time that won’t be too crowded yet won’t get us there stupidly early or, instead, have us queuing for ever. I have no idea how to do this. I will need to check his hot dog is properly cooked, protect him from swearing and confrontation. Most of all, since he is scared shitless by people dressed in giant animal costumes, I shall have to protect him from the mascots, mascots who are there specifically to come up and say hello to 6 year old boys. Bugger.
But there are so many elements of it that I AM looking forward to. Getting off the train and seeing the stadium rise like a giant spaceship from the ground. Explaining the game and who the players to look out for are. Maybe taking him to the club shop and letting him add to his collection of Brighton stuff. Hoping we score. Hoping we win.
Selfishly a part of me worries he will enjoy it too much. When I do go in the comfortably rowdy West Stand Upper it is with Best Friend Of All. He has 3 boys but both of us leave the kids behind. Recently I have been unable to make a couple of games and he has taken his sons, in rotation, in my stead. They have enjoyed themselves immensely and are bugging him to go again. If Boy enjoys himself (and as a parent I will have failed if he doesn’t) he will want to go again too. If he does we are already talking about getting tickets for the kids. This could be the end of one era and the start of another. Much less pub. Much less banter. Much more parenting.
Then again it could be a specific bond, father to son. I am very close to my Dad despite his dislike of football. Our special bond was swimming. My mum cannot swim so he taught me and my brother and it was always our special time together. Both my wife and I swim and so swimming for us is family activity on family days. Football may be our Father to Son male bonding. And I know my mates understand. We’ll see how it turns out.
*I say first. I took him to Withdean, our old ground, because we were playing a Cup game no one was interested in and we could get tickets together for me and Best Friend of All and all the kids. It was one of the dullest games on record and he was too young and we left at half time. I don’t count it. Saturday will be his first proper football experience.