Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday mornings. There was one which seemed to involve being in a big hall colouring pictures, but I didn’t much like that, so the memories that have stuck are of sitting outside. Now, I love outside, it calms me, so pretty much any outdoor activity would have held some thrall for my turbulent child self. But the family Sunday activity was football.
When I was very small my Dad played. He was past his glory days by the time I can remember. The cartilage in his knees had run out before the rest of his body- and so much of my memory of him was as he “ran the line”. I’m pretty sure he sometimes did that in wellies, but its been a long time.
Sunday football was part of our life. We would go to the game and then mum would join us as we had drinks at the social club next door. It’s why I drank beer from the age of eight and could snaffle my way through about a thousand calories of crisps in a sitting.
And then we would go home, have a massive roast and waddle to see grandparents- where if we were lucky- there would be some Sunday football on the television.
When Monday came round, the kit, heavy, ugly, big collared seventies kit- was all over the kitchen. Sometimes the mud would win and mum would curse as the washing machine groaned. Sometimes the weather wouldn’t play ball- and there was damp kit around for longer than might be necessary.
Dad’s friends were football people too. They ran clubs, and coached and loved the game. Ours was not the only garden with twelve matching shirts and a uniformly green Keeper’s jersey on the line each Monday.
By the time I was thirteen I was going to Luton Town home games with just my sister. Sometimes we would get dropped off, other times we would catch the bus. Now, these were the days of the away fan ban and the plastic pitch. It was a safer place than most grounds, but it was still football- top tier football. We stood, as Luton had their best season ever. We stood in cold and rain, in sun and laughter. We stood on the same day that Hillsborough unfolded and we stood in silence in following weeks, the sizzle of the burgers the only sound as we remembered the lost.
Football provided my emotional outlet. For all sorts of reasons I had decided that crying was for other people and that I would be strong no matter what. So when I cut to the shin bone, no tears. When I tore an Achilles, no tears. But when it came to relegation and promotion days there would be choked voices and leaky eyes. As David Pleat ran on the pitch our emotionally stilted family allowed the feelings to run more freely than the man in the beige suit.
And then there was playing. When I was about four, I had a little net of goodies that I had declared to be my football kit. It included a tennis ball and a spare pair of big pants that would be my shorts. Fret not, they were soon replaced with a proper kit- none of your replica stuff at sixty quid a pop. This was a BHS special, but I loved it.
Unusually for a seventies girl, I was allowed to play football all through primary school. I will ever be grateful for having avoided the odious nemesis of true sport that is netball. I will also always be fearful of those stippled plastic balls that used to bring up welts on a bare leg on a February day.
I played at home, I played down the park with friends- only stopping when the social conformity of pre pubescence dictated that I should be doing something else. I wish I’d never stopped. I picked up again at uni and have dabbled ever since.
In the last few years though, I have had a love hate relationship with the sport. The money, the paucity of our national team, the associated greed, violence and depression of being an England fan. They all put you off. That and the realisation that actually footballers are not the fittest, most dedicated, most well disciplined and trained sports people you can get. And yet, on a Saturday afternoon in early May, you will still find me with tears running down my face as I hear the stories of who has scrapped their way to survival in their chosen league.
Just this week I found myself gulping with pride as Lincoln City made it into the FA Cup Sixth Round. It brought up memories of my second cousin, an avid Imp who would attend every home game. He had learning difficulties, but Sincil Bank was a place of safety for him. The club and the fans would always look out for him, keep him safe and send him back home with his Pink Un.
But the rest of the week has just made me sad.
This week has served as a painful reminder that the game that I love is now a big business that, with a few exceptions, is about profit and power, over and against pride and passion. The tale of Sutton United, with their plastic pitch and their fill the goal reserve keeper. Their FA Cup run was marred when said keeper- who also kept the place safe, put up the nets, cared for the pitch, resigned because eating a pie may have broken some betting rules.
I’m not sure anyone even stopped to question if we haven’t got it a bit wrong if football is about betting on pie eating.
And then Claudio.
We don’t know if it was “senior” player revolt, or sheer greed that pushed the Board to sack him. We know it wasn’t the fans. Was the fiscal drama of a relegation really too much to bear? Had Claudio lost his touch with the players, or had they lost touch with reality- rueing their loyalty as others achieve more (money)? Whatever it was, it was desperately sad- a lack of loyalty to a man who could have walked away.
Some might say that the word has moved on, that football is a big industry and one of our greatest exports- and maybe that’s true. But if the big money and the global brand leads to what I have seen this week, I am not sure I want a part of it.
I don’t like what it does to big clubs and I don’t like what it does to children and young people. I grew up trying to perfect Zico’s scissor kick (I never did, though nearly took a chunk out of my head on the rockery). The kids I work with now are more proud of their ability to roll around in mock agony. I dreamt of lifting the FA Cup- the kids I talk to now dream of making a lot of money.
I know I sound nostalgic- but for me sport is culture. Its something that brings out our better selves, helps us to believe that there is more than what we experience in the every day, and brings us together in wonder and delight. And I am not sure I see that any more.
And so football I am done with you.
Apart from maybe the 11th March from 5.30.. and maybe May 6th and 7th. .