Tomorrow’s game is an incredibly special one for me; it is the first game I get to take my 11-year-old nephew to.
Isaac is my nephew, he lives in the south of the county and he likes his football. He plays a bit of FIFA, and I sometimes give him advice on his Ultimate Team. He has been to a game; I managed to get him and his Dad (my brother) tickets for the FA Cup semi-final a few years ago. Paul, my brother, is a Chelsea fan, and they went along to that in 2018. A couple of weeks later a generous blog reader got me two tickets for the final, also involving Chelsea, but due to my back op I couldn’t go, so Paul took Dad, rather than Isaac, fearing the final would be a bit overwhelming for him (he was only just eight at the time). That, as far as I know, is his only experience of a football stadium, unless Paul has taken him to York Street without my knowledge, which is very unlikely.
I don’t have kids, nor will I, so this is a big moment for me. I remember my first game, I remember who I was with and that connection remains today. I went to my first game, as regular readers know, in October 1986, we lost 4-1 to Hartlepool and I went with my Dad and Grandad. After that, we attended a handful more (Cardiff and Swansea) in 86/87, before kicking off 87/88 in style (Enfield and Bath). After that, I do lose count of the games I attended, but I do well recalling the first five I think! Sadly, we lost my Grandad at the age of 67 in 1992, before I’d got to a stage where I could argue about the virtues of players and tactics.
However, those first few games shaped me. They set me up as a football fan, they gave me an identity amongst my friends, and they remain amongst the best memories of my life. If I ever think about the best day of my life, I always think about May 2nd, 1988 and that win against Wycombe, usually before much else. It all came from my first game, one that I would imagine I recall more fondly than any of the 2,000 or so fans spread out across three sides of the windswept, chilly stadium that October afternoon.
Tomorrow, Isaac will get a very different experience. He’ll have a seat for a start, not a granite wall to grind his teeth on. He’ll be watching a team that play good football, not one in decline. There will be 6,000 or so extra fans in a stadium with four sides, and a hell of a lot more noise. Like 1986, he’ll be bribed on the way in with junk food, plied with sweets and fizzy drinks all evening to give the impression of having a good time even if he is cold, or even worse, bored. Dad used to do that for me; football day meant sweets and drinks, it meant adults not saying ‘sorry’ every time they said f*ck or bugger, and it was a day I didn’t feel like a kid. That’s the day I want Isaac to have.
When Isaac turned ten, I bought him a Lincoln shirt with his name and the number 10 on it, half in hope that he might feel the connection. Every time he comes to mine, or goes to Dads, he wears it with pride and I think Dad even bought him the new one this Christmas. Isaac doesn’t pretend to be a Lincoln fan, but I think he likes the idea of wearing the shirt because it’s my team, and Dad’s team. In that respect, he’s halfway there, isn’t he? Seriously, if you get what it means to have a family team, to want to keep with family tradition, you’re already understanding football’s true beauty without seeing a ball kicked. For me and my Dad, I’m not sure we’d ever have been as close as we are without football; for many years it was literally all we had to keep us engaged, not least through my awkward teenage years, and his bloody awkward every year past about 43….. I jest, of course. But seriously, it is certainly something we have always bonded over. Football does that, as it does with me and Isaac when I’m recommending FUT players to him, but supporting the same club is next level bonding. He’s halfway to getting it, can the lads push him over the edge with a big win, leaving him hungry for more? Does it matter? We lost my first game in miserable style, but I was back a month or two later, just as eager and excited.
If he gets the family bit at 11, then what is laying in store tomorrow night? What needs to happen to truly hook him? It could go either way; he could be cold and miserable upon arrival, it could happen. He might be playing a video game and he’s at a crucial part and he may wish he could remain at home. I had that, not for football, but with my Grandad. In April 1992, I was asked if I wanted to spend the evening with him and Nanna at Goltho, but I declined so I could go home and play Speedball 2. He died the next day, without me ever seeing him again. Sadly, I didn’t know that was going to happen, I didn’t even know he was poorly, but it did teach me an important lesson. Still, when you’re at that sort of age (I was 13), it is hard to keep focused on the important things. Maybe that made me all the more intent on following Lincoln, in getting that connection with my Grandad that I so easily dismissed as a kid. Maybe.
Of course, Isaac could go tomorrow and be super invested from the off. He might meet a couple of players, particularly fellow Boston-boy Tom Hopper, or someone he knows who played for a big club like Chelsea, such as Liam Bridcutt. He might see the passion as the Imps win (I bloody hope so), hear the songs all around and feel part of something. Sometimes, when you’re younger and lost in a digital world, you don’t understand how important it really is to be a part of something, to feel as if you’re a member of this massive collective, all different people shouting and cheering in one singular direction. Maybe he’ll feel that, as I did in 1986, and maybe he’ll want to come again.
The truth is, tomorrow isn’t all about Isaac. It’s about me as well. I’ve said at the top of the piece I don’t have kids, nor will I, and I’m cool with that, but a part of me hopes that Isaac grabs onto Lincoln City like I did, so when he approaches 15 or 16, and the big hug he gives his Uncle Gary when he sees me becomes a grunt and a nod, I want us to have something to connect over. I want him to tell me a player is crap, or suggest who we should sign. I want him to be mildly interested in my shirts and programmes, I want him to see the things I do, like this blog and the podcast, and feel a little pride. When I’m old and sitting in a chair staring into space, I want him to bring his children and get their Great Uncle Gary to tell them stories about Gareth Ainsworth and Peter Gain, about times when programmes were printed on paper and you had to have a physical ticket to get into matches. I want that because I want my family to still be in the ground when I’ve gone, I want the things I do to be a ‘legacy’ of sorts for my family tradition. I don’t want this passion to die with me (in many years time), and tomorrow night is my chance to light a fire under my young nephew that could burn bright many, many years after me.
Because that is what football is all about.