Park Life: Oi, Dad! Are you blind?

Click to follow
"TACKLE NOW," I shout. "Stay on your feet ... get back in midfield ... don't just boot it anywhere, pass to someone on your own side ... shoot. Go on, shoot!" I can hear my own father urging the seven-year-old me on from the touchline as I noisily watch Darcy, so I'm with him all the way when he glares at me and mouths, "Shuddup, Dad".

Of course he wants me to watch him play football with Broomwood Boys FC - if I'm not there, I won't see it when he scores a goal. "But you mustn't say anything," he insists. "It only puts me off."

I know just what he means: that awful public broadcasting of your mistakes, when you are trying your best.

Already Darcy and his mates play with an intensity of purpose that threatens to undermine the fun of the game, their little faces screwed into permanent scowls of determination which dissolve into tears of despair every time the other team scores.

So I vow not to say anything, although I find it all but impossible to hold back when watching team sports. And surely, I reason before lapsing back into my running commentary, it is my role to offer him constructive advice whether he wants it or not.

I'm nothing like as bad as the Australian dads - and mums - my wife once witnessed watching their small sons playing junior rugby league, screaming "Kill' im, Kevin, kill' im, kill' im!" at full blast - a vision so awful that Ginny, childless at the time, vowed never to have children herself in case they were boys and played sports. This was during the era of the Boat People, and the star of the game was a Vietnamese boy, smaller than the rest but tough and quick. I still wonder whether his family questioned the wisdom of fleeing to Australia when they saw their son playing league.

However, even my genteel level of audience participation is a little strong for Wandsworth Common, where the parents all dutifully turn out for their sons but take very little notice of the game, being far too busy dissecting local schools, trying to flog tickets for the next Tory Party fundraiser (hasn't football changed?), or comparing notes on how to explain Bill Clinton's sexual practices if you forget to send the children out of the room when the news is on the telly.

Last weekend's game drew a record attendance of more than 50 six-to-eight- year-olds, testimony to the continuing post-World Cup effect, and clearly too many to be divided into the usual two games, so there was an urgent appeal for volunteer referees. I stepped forward, to Darcy's delight - now I would have to watch, without being able to tell him what to do all the time. As someone profoundly lacking in the skills and attitudes required of the authoritative figure (my chosen method of imposing any semblance of discipline at home being to shout at the top of my voice), I had hitherto managed to get through life without once refereeing a football match. But I thought that even I could manage with this age group.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried, although I did have my problems. First, I had somehow to juggle the teams (and refereeing decisions) so the scores stayed as even as possible - even adults hate losing ten-nil.

I also had to cope with regular floods of tears from players collapsed on the grass clutching at an ankle.

My initial reaction was to stop the game and rush to the stricken boy, while the others all gathered round to watch. But this only increased the duration of the tears. A more effective course of action was to wave play on, pick the boy up by his armpits and dump him on his feet with the advice, "It's best to run around on a sore ankle".

"There was a time," my mother-in-law noted wisely after the game, "when boys were taught not to cry. I think things are better now."

As for discipline, the real problems must start a little later - when they are 11 or 12, perhaps. I only had to threaten one player and it came as no surprise to me that it was Darcy. In the absence of my stream of advice from the touchline, he took it upon himself to harangue his team- mates, telling them to get up, get back, pass, shoot or whatever and generally putting them off their game.

In the end I told him that only the referee was allowed to talk, and that if he carried on I'd have to send him off. "You can't send people off at Broomwood Boys," he replied defiantly. But at least he was quiet after that.

And I was completely stumped when a seven-year-old French boy shouted at his friend: "Tu fais le sexe avec les Spice Girls!"

Maybe it is best, I thought, to pretend not to understand. But I don't suppose this little boy has any trouble with the TV news.

Comments