The phrase "You'll win nothing with kids" was famously used in the mid nineties by the BBC's football pundit Alan Hansen, as he wrongly predicted the failure of Alex Ferguson's youthful Manchester United side. It makes a witty title for a self-effacing chronicle of Jim White's time as manager of his son's football team. However, the book at times touches on some fairly deep emotional levels as it examines the relationship between fathers and sons, and the role that football has in that interplay. It also makes some salient points about the way young footballers are trained in this country. This came as no surprise to me; White is a well respected football journalist. I have seen him talking sense on TV on more than one occasion.
As well as a daughter, White has two sons; it is obvious from the book that he was determined from a very early stage to forge a close relationship with them. It doesn't take a Freudian analyst to work out that the time and attention he lavishes on them is probably a reaction to what appears to have been a fairly empty relationship with his own, not particularly proactive father. The difference of dynamic between those two sets of relationships creates a bittersweet flavour throughout the book. Even the funny, light- hearted passages – and there are plenty of them – contain a certain poignancy. As I read on, I suspected that every time White felt a bond with his own sons, his lack of a real connection with his own father was not far from his thoughts.
To his credit, White does not, in regard to his relationship with his father – or his own sons for that matter – lay it on with a trowel. He certainly wasn't a neglected child; rather, his father inhabited a world of his own, and football – along with Jim – wasn't a big part of it. "With my Dad, I remember sitting alone in the same room as him, perhaps to watch telly, and I could feel the tension rising in both of us. Physically feel it. You could hear it in our breathing, as if there was a fear between us, the fear of intimacy. I don't want to sit like that on my sofa with my boys, on one side of a widening gulf between father and son. I want to talk. I want to still be part of their lives. Thank God for the football, then."
White's book highlights the fact that, once a footballing bond is in place between a father and son, it will never entirely disappear. The author recalls walking away from the England team's defeat against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup. Frank Lampard was one of the England players who missed in the penalty shoot out, and was judged by most to have had a very below-par tournament (to be fair, it would be far easier to count the England players who didn't have a poor tournament). As White filed out of the stadium with all the other disappointed England fans, a man who looked even more crestfallen than everybody else walked past. It was Frank Lampard's dad, Frank senior, an ex-pro himself.
"There was something in [Frank's] father's eyes as he looked back at me, a glancing, momentary revelation. It was a glance that said no one was suffering as much as him. And that no matter at what level the game was played, no matter how celebrated the participants, no matter how substantial the prizes on offer, this is what football is all about: fathers and sons."
White hadn't chased the job as his son's team manager; far from it, he'd been suckered into the job by the crafty club chairman. So. on Sunday mornings the author found himself acting as a taxi service and clearing copious amounts of dog excrement from the team's pitch. The author talks amusingly of dealing reluctantly with the club committee, where even the purchase of a new kettle for the clubhouse tea bar proved to be a major bone of contention.
White had intended to be phlegmatic in his approach to the job. He realised how easy it is for managers, no matter what the level, to lose control and end up ignominiously ranting and raving on the touchline, and knew that a boy's football match would be a particularly humiliating, and public setting in which to "blow one's stack". Unfortunately, he just couldn't restrain himself and, in a very important relegation clash, ended up smashing his mobile phone into pieces at the side of the pitch, apoplectic with rage. The author is well aware that while that sort of behaviour has its funny side, it can get a bit ugly. However, he asserts that humans do have an instinctive urge to compete, and scathingly mocks the non-competitive, politically correct attitudes of the headmistress and teachers of the Islington primary school that his eldest son attended.
White unashamedly uses his position as a football journalist to pick up tips and advice from the top managers that he interviews in order to assist him in his own management position. Some of their advice makes for interesting reading. Jose Mourinho, for instance, advised White always to use the ball in training, even when working on the team's fitness and stamina. (Maybe the days of endless laps of the pitch are coming to an end.)
I found the most interesting sections were the conversations with Brian McClair, the ex-Manchester United striker who is now the head of United's youth academy. McClair and his assistant, Rene Mulensteen, take a jaundiced view of aggressive parents and coaches who stand on the sidelines hollering advice and criticism.
United are now apparently keen to withdraw their youth academy from the competitive games structure demanded by the FA academies. For a club with a man as competitive as Alex Ferguson at the helm, that is astonishing. Competitive matches, the coaches contend, produce an overheated atmosphere that is not conducive to learning the skills of the game. Certainly that view is completely at odds with the super-competitive world of boys' football that White inhabits. *
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