Another guest blogger today, this time Roy Thomson gives us a touching and honest account of how football has played a critical part of his relationship with his son. You’ll enjoy the next five or ten minutes read, I know I did.
Being a part-time dad, as I am sure anyone who has been through it will agree, is a difficult role to play. My son was only four when his mother and I went our separate ways, and, hard as it is to admit, in the early years after the break up, I was neither a good dad nor a good person, often behaving more like a poor man’s Alex Higgins or Ollie Read than a responsible father,
As time went by I realised the impact my behaviour was having on others, especially my son, so I started to sort things out and became more responsible, but it was a long hard process. I knew it would take time and effort to convince him and others around me that I wasn’t a loser and that a leopard really can change its spots.
Football played a part, I knew the role that Arsenal played in young Hornby’s relationship with his absentee father, who like me needed to find common ground; something to do and talk about on weekend visits, a common interest, something we could both enjoy and be happy about. The problem was that I supported Lincoln City, who, for the most part, were rubbish, and not really the sort of team you want to be associated with when you are trying to convince a young boy you are now a winner.
Neither of us can remember his first game, but I do know that despite the sullen face every time I told him we were off to the match I persevered. The problem was exacerbated by the fact we lived down south, I had moved away in the early nineties, so there was no real connection for him other than me and perhaps his nan, who still lived just outside the city. Even a home game involved a 200-mile round trip, which was often conducted in silence. Truthfully, he was probably sullen because they were crap.
I so wanted them to be better, to not let me down and play more like Brazil than the ‘Dog and Duck’. I wanted them to engage my son, like I had been engaged all those years ago, watching Lincoln greats like Peake, Cockerill and Hobson. I wanted us to chat happily about a victory on the way home, I wanted it to go well, I wanted to support someone else.
Despite a few rare highpoints, such as a Forester hat-trick at Underhill, the team never really grasped their importance to my situation. Then one day I picked him up and quite out of the blue he told me, rather uncomfortably, he supported Arsenal not Lincoln. By this time, I was just about mature enough to take such an announcement on the chin, and decided I had better sort some tickets out for Highbury. I reassured him supporting Arsenal was fine, but there was no way he going to do it sat on the sofa watching Sky Sports.
When I investigated how to get tickets, the promise I made to take him to a game was looking a bit rash, to my surprise you couldn’t just rock up to Highbury and pay on the gate. I really needed a bit of luck, his mum had recently met someone else around this time and this bloke was now challenging my position as his dad. I needed more than ever to prove, that unlike Lincoln, I was a winner.
It was, just by chance, that I got involved in a conversation at work with a woman who was keen to tell people her husband was a youth team coach at a London club, he wasn’t a big name, but I knew of him and his playing career, and I knew I had watched him play against Lincoln. This got me an ‘in’, she was flattered I knew who he was and it wasn’t long before I was meeting him and doing the deal. When it came to the terms, he agreed that if I gave him discount he would get onto some contacts at Arsenal and sort me some tickets for Highbury, deal done, handshake time, all those hours spent at Sincil Bank were not in vain after all.
We both kept our word and the deal came good, but even as we were waiting outside the Marble Halls at the appointed time, I knew my lad was anxious; he unsurprisingly lacked belief in his dad, given my recent track record, but when the lady appeared in her Arsenal blazer and read out my name and handed me the envelope containing complimentary tickets for the East Stand, there was only one winner. The smile on his face when we opened the envelope will always stay with me. For a change, we enjoyed watching players who could pass the ball to each other and Arsenal won. It was a great day, a turning point, slowly but surely, things started to get better between us.
Arsenal moved to the Emirates, and we started going to a handful of games a season but I didn’t give up on Lincoln, if I was now forced to go to the Emirates, the least he could do was come to Sincil Bank to watch some proper football. I shared in his joy at Arsenal winning, and he wasn’t so crestfallen about having to watch Lincoln lose in return.
Then this season, something changed. Lincoln appointed a decent manager, got some decent players and started winning games, not only in the National League but in the FA cup too, taking us unbelievably to a sixth-round tie at, of all places, the Emirates. Now I could use a bit of artistic license here and say the match led to a dramatic life changing moment, but to be honest, it didn’t. We travelled together but he watched a full-strength Arsenal win from the North Bank and I watched Lincoln lose from the away end.
It was what came after that is important, a conversation between a dad and his twenty-year old son of great significance, not about women or the dangers of drugs but about the issue of supporting two teams. I’m not one of those blokes who lives by the unwritten doctrine of fandom, which states you have your team and that’s it and if you dare deviate from your chosen path you are an inferior being and not worthy of an opinion about football or indeed life in general. He had obviously heard these arguments, probably on phone ins from fans who only support via a subscription, because the conversation was awkward, he wasn’t looking to do something unacceptable like swap, just get some reassurance that it was ok to follow them both. I reasoned with him it was fine, they operated in two different football universes, I knew lots of lower league fans who also supported Premier league teams, it would be another 100 years before they played each other again and anyway he had probably been to more Lincoln games than many of those stood with me at the Emirates who had recently jumped on the bandwagon. I mean let’s face it, why shouldn’t someone who has watched us lose away to Kettering 1-0 in the dark days, get some guilt free pleasure in a once in a lifetime season.
Whatever I said, seemed to work. I noticed he became less self-conscious about celebrating Lincoln goals and talking about the team, if he wasn’t at the game we started texting each other at half-time, talking about the match. We still spoke about Arsenal, but it now seemed easier to talk about Lincoln.
I was still surprised when he agreed to accompany me to Gateshead away but really pleased he did. It was the trip I had always wanted when he was a boy. We chatted on the way up, went into Newcastle for a pre-match drink, he asked me about old players, seasons gone by, matches I’d been to. Lincoln could clinch the title and promotion with a win if Tranmere failed to beat Guiseley, the atmosphere was brilliant, nearly 3000 other imps had made the trip, all was fine, then the game kicked off.
At 89 minutes, I couldn’t believe they were doing it again, not this season’s team, letting me down, just like they always did, playing badly and losing 1-0, Tranmere were also winning, it was all going wrong.
Then suddenly a penalty, which Rhead puts away, a point will do. Then slow motion, third minute of added time, Rhead flicks it onto Arnold, chest, turn, volley, top corner, it’s in! We are hugging each other, jumping up and down, the most amazing shared moment of happiness; all those cold, horrible, quiet miserable days forgotten. It was finally like watching Brazil not the ‘Dog and Duck’, finally we were winners not losers, finally after a lot of hard work, determination, perseverance and a little bit of luck, the leopard really had changed its spots.