I’M a fully paid-up football mum, so one of the many interesting things about the World Cup has been reading the interviews with the England team and their parents.
It’s been touching to see player after player, young men who set transfer fee records and command weekly salaries in five figures, talk in such warm and appreciative terms about the efforts made to ferry them to training and provide love, support and healthy meals.
Recalling his early days as a non-league player, 24-year-old star goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, the most expensive shot-stopper ever in English football, told one journalist: “My dad, Lee, would drive. I’d eat my pre-match meal in the back. Mam would make chicken and pasta and she’d stick it in a tub.”
And if his dad, Lee, was working on a Saturday morning, his mam, Sue, would take him to training in a taxi. “You look back at the stuff like that and realise the sacrifices were all worth it,” Pickford says.
With those words, he touched the heart of every parent who has ever got up on a weekend morning, week-in, week-out, to head off in freezing fog, hail and rain, just so their child can play football.
My own son, Jack, could kick a ball before he could walk. He played in goal for local teams from the age of four until this year and was also with both Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday youth academies for a spell.
Too many anecdotes and memories to recall, but the time we drove to Hillsborough and back in a blizzard one Tuesday night – training still took place – and it was so bitterly cold the tills in the Burger King on Leppings Lane froze, stands out for both of us as the epitome of dedication.
I’d wager that almost every player who turned out for their country in Russia comes with a back-story which offers myriad variations on this theme. One exception is Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli, whose troubled childhood saw him move out of the family home to live with foster parents – whom he met because he played football with their son.
These boys are just like the lads me and Jack know so well. Only far more talented and a lot richer. This immediate sense of connection with ordinary boys, living ordinary lives, should be capitalised on immediately by schools, local government and yes, politicians in Westminster.
Here is a chance for sport to be recognised as the positive force that it is. For too long now there has been a puzzling attitude towards the achievements of not only footballers, but our international cricketers and outstanding Olympic athletes too.
And it must be said, Yorkshire stands head and shoulders above the rest of the UK for producing outstanding young sportsmen and women. Out of the 23-man England squad, 15 players came from north of Birmingham and seven were born in Yorkshire – John Stones, Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire, Gary Cahill, Danny Rose, Jamie Vardy and Fabian Delph.
Talk about a Northern powerhouse. Here’s where the action really is, but there is precious little connection between the sporting stars who show the rest of the world what Britain is made of and the promotion of sport in school and the wider community.
Playing fields are sold off for housing by cash-strapped local councils. Competitive sport in schools is downgraded in favour of sports days where no prizes are awarded for fear of causing upset. Public gyms and leisure centres are forced to curtail opening hours and tennis courts and golf courses are only for those with the money for membership fees. And still we have a crisis of childhood obesity.
In addition, it has been proven time and time again that taking part in any kind of group activity builds resilience in individuals and therefore strengthens communities overall. It’s also good for offering parental role models for kids who are lacking strong authority figures at home. And even though every child won’t grow up into Dele Alli, they may go on to coach and inspire others.
We have the right to celebrate our recent sporting achievements and to laud the young men and women who have brought home so much pride, and so many medals in recent years.
But how many boys – and girls – who watched the World Cup and heard the players talk so proudly of their families and felt sad? Sad that in their house, it’s not even possible to scrape together £5 for weekly subs, let alone pay for boots and shin-pads.
Until politicians wake up this wasted potential, we should all keep a look out for children like this and do our best to help them. It might not be with a gift of money, but the discreet donation of outgrown kit, or the offer of a regular lift to a training session. As a nation, we’ve shared our jubilation, but as the dust settles we should think about how to prolong the uplifting sense of solidarity that gives us all hope and identity.