By Mike Deverell
It’s every football loving parent’s dilemma. You naturally want them to like what you like and acquire the football habit. Even more importantly, you want to cement their affection for your team. You dream of the day you can go to the match together, but you need to wait until their old enough or it will be a nightmare for all concerned.
I’ve been wrestling with this dilemma for a while. As an Everton fan living near Manchester I need to get my son into the Everton habit sooner rather than later. Leave it too long and I risk him selecting the wrong shade of blue or, even worse, red!
A City fan I know took both of his sons as soon as they had their first birthday. Maybe it’s easier to get family enclosure tickets than it is at Everton, or maybe City fans are more polite than the average, but I couldn’t imagine exposing a one year old to the noise and choice language of the Gwladys Street!
At the age of three I think Zac might now enjoy a match, but I’m worried that 40,000 fans in full voice might just be a little scary. Add in the travel to Liverpool and I think it might just be too much for him.
I opt for a compromise. My father-in-law is a season ticket holder at Altrincham FC in the Conference (or whatever I have to call it these days). Crowds are a little more sparse, it’s just around the corner, and if Zac gets bored there’s nothing to stop you going for a bit of a wander!
So Grandad John studies the fixtures for an appropriate game, against a team with a smaller away support. We decide to go to a match against Dartford, reasoning they’re unlikely to bring too many fans such a long way.
The day of the game doesn’t begin well. Zac is up at 5am and has developed a nasty cough. Luckily it is my wife’s turn to get up, so I can have a nice lie in until 10am!
I’m not sure whether we should still go, but Zac tells me he’s “’cited for the football” so the decision is made. He has been practicing shouting “come on Alty!” and it would be a shame not to put it to good use.
We get to Moss Lane at ten to three. It makes a nice change being able to park 100 yards from the ground and there’s nobody asking me for a few quid to “mind ya car mate?” After a short wait we’re in, and head to the main stand to find Grandad who’s saved us a seat.
The first half begins and Zac is enthralled. He loves it when the men kick it really high. Five minutes in and one of the Dartford players goes down injured and needs treatment. This is apparently really funny.
“Don’t be laughing if an Alty player goes down!” says Grandad. An Alty player then needs treatment. Zac laughs.
The game settles down and Altrincham are on top. Several shots from outside the box are well held by Dartford’s goalkeeper, who looks decent for this level. Zac starts to get a little bored but a box of raisins and then a pack of crisps keeps him entertained.
There’s a bit of wrestling in the Dartford box. A foul is given against Altrincham’s centre forward, who gets involved in a bit of handbags with the opposition’s centre half.
The Dartford player grabs him by the throat and chucks him to the ground. Yellow card! In the Premier League that’s a straight red, no arguments.
Just before half time, Altrincham score! Grandad and I jump up and cheer and I try to encourage Zac to do the same. Unfortunately, it turns out he is bawling his eyes out!
Zac had stopped watching the match and had no idea what was happening. All he knew was that a load of people suddenly jumped up and made a huge noise. No wonder he was scared.
Then comes the first “I want to go home!”
I manage to dissuade him from leaving by promising to go and get him a chocolate bar at half time.
During the interval the home fans on the terrace behind the goal Altrincham had been attacking move to the side terrace. When in Conference North, the fans used to change ends at half time just as the players do. Now they are “big time” and Conference rules demand segregation, they must content themselves with being as far up the side towards Dartford’s goal as possible.
I leave Zac with Grandad and go and queue at the food counter, which takes me the entire of half time plus the first five minutes of the second half.
While I’m queuing, Altrincham score again! Zac cried again, but Granddad is there to comfort him, and he cheers up when he finally gets his KitKat.
However, soon the chocolate is all gone and the “I want to go home” cries become more persistent. At half past four, I give up and decide to leave. Frankly, I had not expected him to stay interested for 90 minutes so this was probably the best I had hoped for.
On the way home, Zac tells me he had fun. We are going to our first football class the next day, and he is excited to go to that so he can be like the men on the pitch.
Grandad texts to say that Dartford pulled one back but that Altrincham held on for the win. It will be a long hard season for the Robins and a win against potential relegation rivals will do them a world of good.
For Zac’s experience of football, it has been a similarly stuttering start. Perhaps we’ll go again in a couple of months. Grandad and I even make tentative plans to take him to Goodison together when he’s ready.
I think we will wait a while though. I don’t want to put him off for life.