Sport: Now I know I've become an old person

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The Independent Online
MY NINE-YEAR-OLD daughter is learning to pass a football with the inside of her foot. Practice, practice is the only way. And so we practise, and the old rituals are passed on - "foot next to the ball, head down, push the other foot through".

It's the drill I heard as a nine-year-old from my schoolfriend's dad, a former Airdrie player, as his son and I kicked a distended leather ball across the springy turf of Chorleywood Common.

Sometimes he showed us how to tug on a shirt, or lean on a shoulder - little dodges that are not, as of now, being passed on to my offspring.

Back and forth goes the ball - 30 years on, a comforting constant. And I like to think, when she is older, that my daughter will remember how she in turn drew a kind of comfort from this ritual, simple yet compelling, straightforward and yet, I don't know, sort of...

"Dad," she says. "Yes?" "Did you know there are 61 days till Christmas?" As a point of information this constitutes news - and evokes a reaction of wincing dread which is, to my daughter, quite bewildering.

It occurs to me that here we have a pretty good test for determining at what point a young person has become an old person.

When such a statement fails to produce intensely excited anticipation of mysteriously bulky stockings and chocolate coins in bed, you can safely assume the sweet bird of youth has flown.

When it rolls a sequence of depth charges into your unconscious - "Where are the Christmas card addresses? And if we can't find them, will it be my fault? When exactly is the last posting date for parcels? Should we start looking for Teletubbies other than Po right now or can we afford to leave it until December? Why have we failed, once again, to budget for Christmas? Will we manage to avoid wrapping presents into the early hours of Christmas Day this year? How? When does Santa Claus officially cease to exist? What happens if the eldest lapses in her belief, but the others remain devout? Did we buy a new angel for the tree after last year's incident? If so, where is it? And if we can't find it, will it be my fault?" - you know the bird is long gone.

Acknowledging as much to my daughter, I find myself yearning for the presents-and-chocolate-coins-in-bed days as one might sniff for an ancient scent. Days when I would wander up to the Common unaccompanied, and back again a long, hot afternoon later, and the biggest danger would be errant shots from golfers teeing off from the fairway beside our habitual playing area.

Such freedom, such safety, is not known to my daughter, or her friends. They arrive and depart from school, tidally, in fleets of cars. On picnics in the Forest, on shopping trips to Tesco, on holiday at the beach, they are told to stay within view. Everywhere they are accompanied, chaperoned, watched over ...

We would always use a particular bump in the ground as one of our goalposts, sometimes flinging bicycles down beside it, sometimes sunbathing on it during lulls in play.

We would have themes, like "left-foot shooting only". My friend Philip would puff his cheeks out like Geoff Hurst as he produced his fitful power- drives. One in five was an absolute belter.

On Saturdays, we would wander over to the far side of the Common and play into the full-sized nets set up for Chorleywood's home matches until we were shooed off by the groundsman. The game then was to fetch any loose ball as it slowed traffic on the Rickmansworth Road, just 10 feet behind one of the goals.

On Sundays, after The Big Match, there would be bigger games back on our patch, 20-a-side, with people coming and going throughout the course of the afternoon.

On one occasion we got formal, and marked the goals with wooden stakes, grinding them into the turf with clenched knees and elbows. That was when we played for the Tinfoil Cup, full of Chocolate Buttons, and the winning team did a lap of honour before consuming the contents.

A few years ago I heard that an unexploded grenade had been discovered under our goalpost mound - apparently left in store by the Home Guard.

Recently I went back and examined the old haunt. A controlled explosion had left a small crater.