Pete Eisenhardt on his experience as a football dad
It’s going to be different this time, no drama and no shouting. It doesn’t even look like it’s going to rain. And we’re playing at home today: no chance of getting lost on the way to the game.
We show up ten minutes before kick-off to find our team’s coach Tony straining on his own to tape the nets to the crossbar. Never mind the ball will go through the gaping holes anyway. Tony looks relieved to know he now has a full side, though he has no idea as to the whereabouts of our goalkeeper, Jamie. He called Jamie’s mum twice to be sure he’d make it.
We’re playing the team’s that’s top of the league – Football is Fun. As before every game, our opponent looks bigger, more skilful and better organised than us as I watch them warm-up. Who sponsored those kits, with player names on the back?
I exchange pleasantries with a few of the opposing parents. They’re like us, coming from all kinds of backgrounds and occupations. There’s Designer Dad, Grandma, Single Mom, Builder Dad, Wellies Dad, and Quiet Dad. They seem pleasant, telling me the team has played badly in the past few matches. A few key players are missing today, with the rest battling flu. Perfectly turned out grandma assures me with a big smile that it’s only about getting exercise and of course, having fun.
Kick-off time comes and goes. No referee. A Grumpy Dad smoking what must be a kid-friendly butt pulls up in a massive four-wheel drive. Out tumbles our plump keeper Jamie, trying to pull on a fluorescent green shirt while wolfing down burnt toast. Baby fat yes, but he can pounce.
The opposing coach, in a track suit with impressive initials and badge, strides purposefully over to Coach Tony and points to his watch. I hear something about league rules and forfeits.
Coach Tony walks over to our parents and begs someone to ref. Grumpy Dad, still dreaming of a warm duvet and expecting a knighthood for coming, shoots back a look that says ‘you must be joking’. The other parents do an excellent job of imitating the invisible man. That leaves me. Duty calls, along with dread.
Sadly I don’t carry a whistle with me at all times. This stumps Coach Tony. I see Opposing Coach roll his eyes, pull out his phone, and mumble that he’s calling the League. Luckily, we have an enterprising midfielder with a house adjoining the ground. He bursts through his hedge and re-emerges breathless with a joke shop whistle. I test it: it would complement any model train set.
I feel like the Fat Controller when I whistle to start the game. The ten or so parents per team cheer, mostly constructively. But there’s the usual ‘Don’t just kick it, control the ball!’ when a boy hoofs the ball. This is always followed later with ‘Don’t mess about, just boot it!’ when a boy fails to control the ball. Can’t win for trying. And they say adolescence is confusing.
Football is Fun, unsurprisingly, score first. Their winger lofts a corner into the box, most boys close their eyes or duck, and their tree of a centre back smashes in a header.
It doesn’t get better. You can sense Football is Fun thinks the world has been put to rights and a stream of goals are only a matter of time. The pressure is unrelenting. We defend heroically and it seems like we have ten players behind the ball. Finally after some neat passing from Football is Fun it’s 2-0.
Oh well, I think: it won’t be long before we’re home and enjoying what’s left of Sunday. I’m relieved that so far, the referee hasn’t been a factor.
Football is Fun piles on more pressure and start showing off fancy moves and back heels. Then we hoof it to our big centre forward Mac, our only man up front. Mac was recently released by the academy that recruited him three years ago at age seven. He’s by far our best player, but sometimes he seems so hurt by rejection that he shuts down, as if in shock. Not today. He breezes by the first defender, jinks past the second, before sending the keeper the wrong way. 2-1.
Football is Fun is stunned, they begin shouting at each other. So do the parents. They surge forward. But they neglect to leave anyone back. Our boys hoof it over the top, Mac is away again and scores, this time with a gorgeous chip over the keeper. Our boys are ecstatic.
But…wait – the Linesman (opposing assistant coach also in impressive track suit) – is frantically waving his flag. Offside! But is that possible? Didn’t Mac start from inside his own half? I’m not sure, so I have to trust the lino. Our boys are furious. I’m no longer Jack’s laid back dad, I’m a thief.
‘We’ll beat them and the ref and lino too!’, says our pint-sized left back with disgust.
We’re in the ascendancy and Football is Fun knows they have a game on their hands. After a Mac shot whistles past the post, Football is Fun put three defenders on him. They’ve finally figured out he’s our entire attack. Mac eventually finds an opening, but a defender grabs his arm before another kicks him to the ground. I whistle for the foul.
Now the heartbeats of twenty-two players and an equal number of parents are racing. War has been declared. The outcome is far from certain. This peacekeeping force is in trouble. Our parents are livid. ‘Off! Off!’, cries Grumpy Dad, belatedly energised. ‘He’s such a diver! Can you believe that?’ says Designer Dad.
Opposing Coach, arms folded, just stares at me. I look down at my watch, there are about five minutes to go. I feel a drop of rain, which quickly becomes a downpour.
It looks like the half will peter out. But Jack, my son, manages to pass the ball forward to Mac, whose shot smacks the crossbar. The ball falls to Jack, whose toe-poke splutters into the net. As I see it, Messi has never hit a sweeter strike. Two all!
I think I see through the rain a raised yellow flag. Offside? But it can’t be: Jack passed the ball to Mac, and was behind him when he shot. I point to the centre circle.
Opposing and Assistant Coach rush towards me for an explanation. The crowd bays for blood. Wellies Dad races forward waving his camera and shouts ‘I’ve got it on film!’ He wipes the rain from the screen and hits play. Out of nowhere, Grumpy Dad comes on the scene and seizes the camera.
‘You’re not allowed to film kids!’
And so went the first youth league experiment with VAR.
Finally, it’s half-time. I decide to be professional and hang out alone under my own private tree, out of the rain.
Opposing Coach is fired up. He’s smashing his fist into his palm. He points at me and I think I hear ‘don’t let that dodgy ref get to you.’ Tony just repeats ‘keep your shape’ over and over.
I get impatient and politely tell Tony to stop talking so we can start play, get out the rain, and go home.
Within thirty seconds after kick-off, it’s clear that Opposing Coach’s team talk has fired up his team, but in the wrong way. A studs up sliding tackle through the mud crashes our winger to the ground. I blow the whistle just as our parents shout ‘Ref!’ in unison.
I think our winger avoided the worst of it, but he stays down, grabbing his right shin. I could have sworn contact was on his left shin. Our parents move on to the chorus ‘Off! Off! Off!’ The offending player points his index finger to his chest and looks at me with disbelief, communicating the universal symbol for “Who, me?” I shoo him away so we can get on with the free kick.
It doesn’t take long for our pint-sized left back to exact revenge on behalf of his teammate, taking out their fouler plus interest.
Wellies Dad races forward waving his camera and shouts “I’ve got it on film!”…Out of nowhere, Grumpy Dad comes on the scene and seizes the camera. “You’re not allowed to film kids!” And so went the first youth league experiment with VAR.
I hit upon my strategy for the rest of the game. I resolve not to put up with any nonsense. I will blow for everything. That should keep the boys from killing each other. Maybe there is a way to get through this final half hour.
Every time I call a foul on Football is Fun, I hear cries of ‘Doh!’ It starts with Quiet Dad, and then it’s all their parents. ‘Doh!…Doh!..Doh!’ Their players and subs start doing it. The ball goes into the bushes and there’s a bit of a pause in play as the boys try to free it from the brambles. I ask Sweet Grandma what the ‘Doh!’ business is all about. She looks at me with pity. ‘It means you’re a ‘homer’ of a ref, you silly sausage!’
The rain is unrelenting. I didn’t come dressed for this. My comfy old leather lace ups have smooth, worn out soles. I’m getting soaked through, and cold.
The ball is suddenly kicked toward their corner flag and I turn sharply to race in that direction. I’m going to be in position to see everything. I start to skate through the mud. I try desperately to keep my footing. I wave my arms like an airplane going through turbulence. My legs slip, slide, and kick out like Fred Astaire before the inevitable. I land backwards on my bum.
I try to get up quickly but go down on my knees. It’s quiet for about a millisecond before the howls of laughter start.
‘That Marks & Spencer cardi will never be the same,’ heckles Designer Dad.
‘Now just a minute, that was from a Christmas present from Aunt Angela!’ I snap back involuntary. That’s it – it’s over. Any aura I might have had has now gone. I’m no longer a credible referee. My watch says fifteen minutes to go. I decide we’re only going to play ten.
Football is Fun has all the play: why don’t they just score and get this over with? Eventually they do: their big centre back lobs one just below the crossbar and Jamie is too short by a foot to do anything about it.
It’s almost over, there are about two minutes to go. We launch a desperate route one pass to Mac. The ball is clearly going out for a goal kick and their defenders stop in their tracks. But Mac keeps running. The ball rolls slower and slower and finally stops in a puddle right on the touchline . The keeper now senses the danger and rushes out, but Mac rounds him with ease. 3-3! A famous result against the best team in the league!
I ignore cries of ‘That was out! You know it!’, ‘Doh!’, and (this one will stay with me) ‘Wet Bottom!’ Football is Fun is in shock. I announce ‘Sixty seconds!’ They kick-off by launching the ball skyward towards our goal, racing forward as if it was a rugby restart.
Twenty-two players jam the penalty area. Football is Fun is going nowhere. I’ve got my train whistle between my lips. Surely we’ll clear the ball to end the game. But Chucky just can’t help himself and clatters their centre forward. With reluctance, I have to point to the spot.
‘Dad, you are the worst ref EVER!’ screams my Jack.
Et, tu, my son?
Their captain places the ball on the spot, backs up win measured steps, and stares at Jamie with menace.
He belts the ball with great speed right towards Jamie. It’s going in – with or without Jamie. But no! Jamie catches it cleanly! The draw is intact!
Excited teammates mob Jamie. One gives him a huge slaps on the back. Oh no! Out pops the ball from his gloves like food from the mouth of a choking diner given the Heimlich Manoeuvre. Football is Fun’s captain shrugs his shoulders and strokes the gift home. Wild celebrations are now the other way.
I’ve had enough. I blow the train whistle and wave my arms for full-time.
Mercifully, Tony keeps his post-mortem short: he likes staying dry too. He comes over to thank me and we head towards the carpark.
The Football is Fun supporters begin to approach. Then, all of a sudden, the proper ref shows up and confronts Tony.
‘Tony, it was a noon kick-off!’
‘No, it was always eleven.’
‘That’s not what the League said. I want my match fee!’
The Football is Fun supporters catch up surround the ref.
‘On your bike, mate. This bloke here done a great job. And he ain’t asking for no fee.’
‘Yeah, he knows how to do it. He’s the best! He looked after the boys real good!’
I dash to the car and hop into my own private world. I max out the glorious heat and close my eyes. The prospect of a quiet Sunday afternoon at home seems boring. Perhaps I should get a refereeing qualification?