The Hoofer: Meet my nephew, the future of football

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The Independent Online

Like failing your driving test, breaking up with the first person you properly loved or discovering that Father Christmas is in fact a relative in a dressing gown, the moment when you discover that you aren't going to earn your living as a professional footballer can be devastating.

After years of practice, dedication and enthusiasm, being told you won't make the grade is a life-changing blow. Apprentices and youth team players usually find out at 16.

For me, disappointment arrived a few years earlier when, as an eight-year-old laying the dinner table one evening in 1977, I had the "What do you want to do when you grow up?" conversation with my parents. I announced my first choice, and things went rather quiet. "You won't be a footballer," Mum laughed.

Sensing a crisis, Dad popped his head around the corner from the kitchen as I absorbed this terrible news. Quietly, he put knives and forks back the right way round.

Of course, what my parents meant was that they didn't want me to be a professional footballer. But it was too late. I believed them. Being told that I would never play for Sunderland was a blow, as much to them as me – God knows, they could have done with a decent striker in the late Seventies. Looking back, all I needed was encouragement – that, a place in the school team and a functioning left foot.

And so it was, last weekend, that I hoped to break the pattern of family history...

My sister's family were visiting over half-term and I sought to indoctrinate my niece and nephew into a love of football. There had been dark rumours that Tom – an uncompromising five-year-old whom I consider the heir apparent to Martin Keown – has expressed an interest in playing rugby next year with the Preston Grasshoppers' junior side (doubtless called something seductive like the Tiny Hoppers or the Preston Pipsqueaks).

Something had to be done. The plan was to drag the entire family along to our next home match against All Saints. There I hoped to inspire young Thomas with a commanding display of old-fashioned centre-back play, perhaps head a dramatic last-minute winner and celebrate by stripping off my shirt, running across the road and diving into the Thames.

After the match, I could explain our attacking wing-back system and introduce him to our leading scorer. (Jonner, as I recall, whose contribution this season is two goals and an e-mailed apology for missing a penalty.) Sadly, the match was postponed because of a waterlogged pitch and we spent the morning in the park. With a football, of course. After kicking a ball about for just 10 minutes, Tom and his sister Harriette decided to hire bicycles.

Couples, families and people walking their dogs witnessed the pathetic sight of an uncle chasing two uninterested children, aiming balls in their direction as they cycled away.

Taking with them what? The future of English football? Preston Grasshoppers' hopes of winning the 2020 league title? No chance. I'm not giving up that easily.

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