“There must be many fathers around the country who have experienced the cruellest, most crushing rejection of all. Their children have ended up supporting the wrong team.”
I shuddered when I re-read that line from Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. For me, it wasn’t just close to the bone, it plunged into the innermost depths of the marrow. Not that it’s happened just yet with my two sons (the oldest is barely three). But with terrifying precision, Hornby foreshadows the anguish that I know lies ahead.
Here’s the thing: although my mum is from Queensland and I’ve lived in Australia for 18 years, ultimately you are what you feel. Having grown up in England and moved here when I was 25, I’ll always be an ex-pat.
I feel lucky to live in Australia for all the usual reasons – the fabled lifestyle, the natural beauty, the confectionary magnificence that is the Cherry Ripe. Nevertheless, one of the few principles in which I truly believe is that you don’t change your team.
Naturally, therefore when I head to the Ashes, I’ll sit with the Barmy Army. When it comes to the World Cup (the proper one – i.e football), I’ll wince through my fingers as England contrive to find another slapstick means of implosion.
As a father, there are some areas of life where you hope your kids follow in your footsteps (albeit with the hope they’ll proceed with a little more sobriety, dignity and financial nous). But the issue of sport for me is destined to be inescapably harrowing.
There’s no way around this either. My long-suffering wife is Australian and my sons were born over here. Sure, I’ll ensure my boys get dual-nationality to scupper their political careers if nothing else. But make no mistake, they are Australian-born and bred. Therefore they’ll grow up to support their national team.
This is, of course, as it should be. I’ve always taken the wilfully tribal view that you don’t choose your team, you’re born to it. The lottery of your birth location should determine your loyalties and you support the local team for better or worse. Personally, I see no coherent alternative. Otherwise we’d all end up as excitable glory-hunters blindly following whichever powerhouse is dominant at the time of life when our sporting consciousness starts to take shape (about age six, I reckon). If everyone took the “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em approach” we’d all support the All Blacks. And no one wants to see some pasty Englishman attempt the Haka.
In addition, such happy-clappy bandwagon jumping goes against the masochistic spirit that defines the fan experience. You need to suffer through the bad times – the refereeing blunders, the last-gasp defeats, the relegation heartbreaks – not because it’s character-building or any of that crap. You need to do it in order to appreciate the good times when they finally come.
The upshot of this sporting parochialism is that my sons and I will inevitably find ourselves barracking for opposing sides. As a result we’ll miss out on many moments of shared jubilation and despair from celebrating extra-time winners to watching a gutsy tail-ender grind out a draw that’s all the sweeter for being totally undeserved.
My own father died when I was 11, but I certainly bonded with him over sport. In the drawer of the desk where I now sit, I have one surviving postcard from him sent from Italy. The heart-felt contents of this precious memento? A lengthy indictment of David Pleat’s appointment as the new Leicester City manager.
A couple of years before, on a bitterly cold day, my father had taken me to my first game to watch the mighty Foxes stutter to an ill-tempered 0-0 draw with Luton Town. I don’t recall particularly enjoying the match – I was more excited by the prospect of watching The A-Team later that night on TV. Yet that bore draw was to prove a formative experience that defined part of my life and would later propel me to away games around the country as I followed Leicester from Hillsborough to Griffin Park.
I’m hardly alone in harbouring those types of memory either. Back then, sport often formed the connective tissue between father and son. As comedian Adam Hills says in our interview with him here , “It’s a ridiculous thing the way sons bond with their fathers over sport.”
Perhaps sport won’t prove quite as important to our generation of dads who have an opportunity to be more involved in the lives of our children than our fathers ever did. As a result, perhaps we’ll be more in touch with the broader reality of our kids’ lives. We’ll find other subjects to fill those long silences on car journeys home from school. We’ll find other ways to talk a load of old balls.
Just to be on the safe side though, I’m hedging my bets. I’ve accepted that I’ll never be able to join my sons in cheering home the Green and Gold. But I have taken the liberty of ordering them replica Leicester kits so the brainwashing process can now begin in earnest. It’s hardly ideal, but that’s the thing about fatherhood, sometimes you just have to do your best.