Sport: If you're tempted to discuss football with your children, skip it

Mike Rowbottom on the allegiances of the young
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The Independent Online
THE playground was filled with parents and children awaiting the school bell, and an unofficial football game involving 10 or so boys provided a minor health hazard for those who stood and chatted.

I mastered the temptation to join in without overwhelmingly difficulty. But I harboured a vestigial regret that no one was passing to me.

As I watched the ragged progress of the match I recalled fondly the innumerable hours of my life I had spent in similar scuffling pursuit.

Nothing changes, I mused. You can build all the Wendy houses you want, you can set up picnic tables, you can mark the playground with a stencil of the world's countries, but some activities are ingrained in the psyche of the British child. Perhaps there is such a thing as as a national characteristic, because, like generations before them, these boys...

Something had happened. The game had halted. "Let's make it basketball," shouted one of the larger players, snatching up the ball and bouncing it vigorously in front of him. He soon had his little fellows clamouring excitedly around.

Presumably William Webb Ellis displayed similar charisma on that fateful day when another perfectly good game of football was ruined. If only someone on that Rugby School pitch had had the sense to remove the ball from his hands there and then and drop it to its rightful place.

Speaking personally, as I do, I hold Webb Ellis's companions responsible for three wasted sporting years. Custom, practice and snobbery dictated that football was excluded from our school curriculum. Instead, we had to endure the zealous urging of our diminutive but ferocious games master, Mr Barrett, to "bind and push."

I suppose that old resentment may have accounted for a small part of the dismay I felt on witnessing this impromptu alteration of a sporting agenda.

But for the most part, the incident served only to confirm my growing fears about the fickle relationship these kids displayed towards sport. Anyone would have thought it was purely a matter of enjoyment.

I confess, I was already troubled by discussions I had had with my children about which football team they had chosen to follow.

My darker fears were confirmed by information acquired from one of my eldest daughter's friends, who told me - without appearing to be in the least bit perturbed by the information - that one person in the class supported 10 Premiership teams. And 10 in the First Division.

Now there, it seems to me, is a child that needs to be stopped. What kind of an example is that setting to others?

Because it is important to set an example in these matters. For my part, I have tried, tactfully, to bring up the subject of West Ham United whenever possible in our household. Of course, I don't expect my children to follow the same team I do. I just hope.

I have spoken to my five-year-old son about their nice shirts. The sky blue is not so easy to sell, so I steer clear of that. "I know red is your favourite colour, but these have got a kind of red in them. Claret is a kind of red, you know..."

So far, that particular line of persuasion doesn't appear to have been effective. A few weeks ago, he announced that Manchester United were the best team in the world. When asked why, he replied: "Because they kick the fastest." I couldn't think of anything to say to that.

The other day, apropos of nothing, he announced that Chelsea were the best team in the world. When asked why, he replied: "I don't know."

My eldest daughter has a more stable approach to the serious business of choosing a football team - but the news, from the West Ham United point of view, is not good. For her last birthday, she requested a Liverpool shirt.

Obviously, you worry for your children at crucial times in their development, knowing that one bad decision can have ramifications throughout the rest of their life. But there it is.

I couldn't be sure that she knows most of the players, or too much of the club's illustrious history. But any doubts she may have had about the benefit of continuing to support them have been expunged by the fact that Liverpool's England midfielder Jamie Redknapp is going out with Louise.

Who knows. If the announcement of Posh Spice's engagement to David Beckham had come earlier, we might have had a Manchester United supporter in the house.

As footballing controversy swirls around out kitchen table, my younger daughter remains aloof. At the end of a recent, fervent discussion on the topic, her sister demanded that she made her own position clear.

"I don't support a football team," she said with quiet dignity. "I like skipping."

Now what could be sweeter than that? You know where you are with skipping.