Football and me

So, I was talking to the new guy at work the other day; just being friendly, and trying to make him feel welcome – you know the kind of thing – and we got on to the topic of hobbies. He asked me what my hobby was, and I told him; ‘football’ I said. Hobbies are a common topic in my line of work, but seldom has anyone’s follow-up question given me pause for thought. ‘Why?’ he said.

It wasn’t asked in a facetious, why on god’s earth would anyone want to be interested in having that pointless pursuit as a hobby, kind of a way (much as I might respond on hearing that someone’s hobby is trainspotting or baseball), but was much more a genuine enquiry into the genesis and nature of my connection with my sport. Sort of, what is it about football that you love? How did you come to be so entranced by the game? What started you down that road? All rolled into one delving word. Weighty questions indeed for a fan of any particular hobby (except train-spotting and baseball, obviously), but my answer at that time satisfied neither me nor my new colleague – ‘I don’t know really, It just always has been.’ – and led to my giving it a little more thought on the train on the way home that night.

Football has been a driving force in my life, that much is clear both to those who know me and those who have shared my passion with me over the years. I don’t want to come over all Fever Pitch, but it was/is a bit like that. I can mark time through my life and time through my football ‘career’, and there are many crossroads where the two are fused with meaning and significance for me. I’ve played the game since I was 4 years old, competitively since I was 6, I watched my first game when I was 8, invaded my first pitch aged 12, got my first winner’s medal when I was 15, had my first scrap at 16, my first (and only) red card around the same time, took my first girl to a game aged 18… and so it goes on from trials and triumphs, through low points and let-downs, to injuries and injury-time winners.

So, I’ve been involved with football for a long time, and will be for a long time to come (until the final whistle, I’m guessing), but what is football to me? Where did it begin, what have I learned, and what’s the future for football and me? These were the questions I considered that night on the train.

Prince of Wales (Feathers)
Well, in what must be a story familiar to many, I have my dad to thank for my involvement with football. He was a footballer too; a pretty useful midfielder by all accounts. He loves the game, and to be sure, he’s passed his love down to me. These days he follows football from his sofa, only occasionally going to watch a match with me, but when I was young he was still playing. In fact he played until I was about 12 years old, when a back injury cut short his playing days. He would have been 33. In the photo, he’s in his prime; that’s him on the back row wearing number 12. Nice hair! And check out the sideburns on number 2!

Sitwell Rovers
I'm in the other photo; I'm the one at the end of the front row. The hair's fine, but it looks like I brought the wrong socks that day.

It was a good few years before these 2 photographs were taken, when I first learned to play football with my dad in the back garden of the house where I grew up. Playing football with Dad was a special time for me. I had no brothers, only 2 sisters, and they were always busy with our mum, or with each other. But football was just for me and Dad, and I loved it. He did too, I could tell. I can still remember (in fact it’s one of my earliest memories) how I felt when I first connected sweetly with the ball, and fired it straight into the corner of my dad’s goal. I was so proud of myself, but I could see that my father was also proud of me even though I’d just scored past him, and that filled me with joy. When I connected with that shot, I connected with him.

I also began my connection with ‘the beautiful game.’ One that remains as strong today as it ever has been, though sometimes after I've played or watched a particularly poor game, I do wonder why. I also wonder why the game is so important to me, and what it’s taught me over the years.

Racing Universitaire d'Alger  1928
The famous French writer and philosopher Albert Camus once said; “All that I know most surely about morality and obligation, I learned from football.” By “morality” he meant honesty and fairness, and by ‘obligation’ he meant duty, responsibility and a sense of doing the right thing. Certainly what my football life has taught me is that Camus was right. Through football, I have learned to stand up for myself, my beliefs and my friends; I’ve learned to be strong and brave; I’ve learned to work hard, for myself and for others; and I’ve also learned to play fair. By the way, that’s Camus at the front, with the cap on. He was an outstanding goalkeeper in his university days.

Yes, I’ve learned many things through football; about myself individually and about the dynamic of, and my role within, the group; the team. As I said, I’ve learned how important it is to work hard, be strong, and be brave, but more than this, I've learned the value of determination and never giving up. I’ve also learned the importance of being committed to the cause, and making sacrifices for the good of the team. As a group, we must help each other and push each other, and if we do that the team will achieve more than we ever could on our own.

As I just mentioned, working as a team is key in football. Football is very much a team game. A team full of individuals is no match for a group of 11 hard-working, well-organized players working as a team, but there are many other things that are important too: like strategy – always have a game plan, but be ready to change the plan if the game changes;  technique – all skills need to be learned and developed; practice – as we all know, makes perfect; depth in defence – spot danger early, be organized, be strong; width in attack – be adventurous, be unpredictable, keep the other team guessing; heart/head balance – play with your heart, but make decisions with your head; and playing to strengths – know your strengths, know your weaknesses too, and always play to them.

For me, the really interesting thing about all these aspects, is that they can all be called life skills as well as game skills. They can be applied to any kind of team; a sports team, or a team at work. The many things through my connection with football, things that have helped me through my play, and through my life, and things that will hopefully continue to help for many more years to come. Which brings me to my final question here; what does the future hold for me and football?

Well, at the time of writing, I’m still watching and still playing, but it’s clear even to self-delusional me that I can’t go on playing forever. With every season that passes, I move further away from those days in the garden with my dad, and closer to a sofa similar to his. I still play almost every week, but now it takes longer for me to warm up, I play a little slower, and I score less often, mind you as a left back, I was never prolific in that department. It's also true that my aches and pains take a little longer to ease than they used to. I don’t think there’s much chance of me playing in any rearranged midweek matches these days.

I’ve always promised myself that I will play competitively until my current team stops asking me to, and then retire with grace and dignity. That way I can avoid making the decision myself, as surely I wouldn’t be able to.

And then what? Well, I’ll still follow football as a spectator, either live or on TV, or on the Internet, much like my own father does, and I know nothing will ever stop me supporting my beloved team (the Blades, if you’re asking).

Haruki
I’ll also play football more often with my son, Haruki, in the park. There may even be opportunities to play football in the park with my dad and my son, so I will cherish those. Now that my son has found his first team to play and coach with, I will watch him learn and grow, and see that as he is my future in every sense, he is clearly my future in football. I will support, encourage and help him as he heads out on his own football journey, and I hope his is as fruitful and inspirational as mine has been.

When I think again of Camus’ words, and the life lessons they have imparted to me; the importance of working hard, playing fair, and understanding the duties you have to yourself and others, I reflect that there are probably no finer pieces of advice I could now pass on to my son for him to take into his future, except possibly, steer well clear of baseball.


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