LAST week marked a very poignant day. My son, who turns 16 this summer, hung up his football boots – or rather, threw them, covered in mud, into the kitchen – for the last time.
He’s retired from a long and illustrious career in youth football and I don’t know who’s grieving more – me or him. He was four when he started. It was inevitable, really, that Jack would play the beautiful game. It’s in his blood. Although athletic skill of any kind clearly bypassed both his parents, his grandfathers and his maternal great-grandfathers all enjoyed their stint on the pitch.
Indeed, it’s fair to say that my mother’s father did more than play. He was absolutely obsessed with football. Between the wars, there can be few team photographs from our village where he doesn’t make some kind of appearance; player, coach, secretary and referee.
He kept meticulous notes on key matches and records of scores in little notebooks. When I hear Jack recite every team in every international league, conjuring forth match points and the precise cost of major signings, I marvel at the power of DNA. Grandad died a decade and a half before Jack was born, but before every big match or academy trial, for luck I would rub the ring he left me and imagine his pride in his great-grandson.
When Jack kicked a ball before he could even walk, it made an instant connection, a family spark if you like. Although he was born in London and came back to Yorkshire with me as a baby, this shared inheritance bound him to the place of his forefathers. For us then, football runs deep.
It has certainly given Jack an identity, especially when he struggled academically at school. His prowess on the pitch quickly became apparent. A coach came to his school to run a training session when he was only four and approached me straight away to sign him up.
Yet he was lucky enough to be asked to join a team absolutely jam-packed with young talent. Every week academy scouts from across South and West Yorkshire – and even Manchester City – would come and watch the five and six-year-olds perform. Barnsley is where the England and Manchester City defender John Stones comes from. In such a febrile atmosphere, even Jack’s impressive skills weren’t going to guarantee a game every week.
In the interests of preserving my son’s fragile self-esteem, I persuaded him to go in the nets, partly because none of the other lads wanted to do it. And so “Jack the Cat” was born, a fearless goalkeeper with all the attributes associated with that position – agility, speed, a stupendously long kick and moments of sheer madness, such as the memorable match when he swung on the rigging and tangled himself upside down as the attackers descended.
And despite the terrifying unpredictability of watching Jack play, some of those scouts spotted potential in the lanky kid with the crazy shaved head and huge gloves. He had trials for Rotherham, trained with the Sheffield Wednesday shadow squad for his age group and was at Oakwell with Barnsley’s Academy for two years.
He was about eight years old when the decision came to let him go; his physical ability was never in doubt, but he lacked the killer spirit to become a professional. He thanked the coach who delivered the news and told him that it wasn’t the end, just the beginning. This resilience of spirit has borne him well through everything life has thrown at him since.
The day after Jack’s final match, we attended the annual presentation evening. Even his younger sister, Lizzie, came. She spent her infancy strapped in a pushchair next to the pitch. Misery is one word she uses to describe the experience, but she too has made lifelong friends in other “footy-sisters”, who also endured sub-zero temperatures and no lavatory facilities three or four times a week. And, as I like to remind her, she enjoyed the annual summer trips to play a team in Filey and the tournaments when we would all set up camp and hang out with other families. It was a communal experience rarely found these days.
And oh how I recall the bunfights of old when the mothers would stand guard over the buffet table – everyone brought a plate of sandwiches or buns, according to a strict list – and the fathers would stand at the bar.
Now Jack’s under-16s squad sat at a table by themselves, a dozen well-dressed young men on the cusp of adulthood. Each one of them going out into the world having faced their own personal battle, dealt with disappointment and euphoria in equal measure, in the sure knowledge that there is no “I” in team. And with an abiding love of a game that still helps us to define who we are in the world, despite the frustrating performance of the national side and the questionable morals of some of our highly-paid professional players.
And guess what? Two days after the presentation, a text pinged into my phone. Would Jack be interested in joining a brand-new under-18s team? I think you can guess what the answer is.