Any football-loving parent who saw seven-year-old Prince George looking somewhere between bored and confused as he stood next to his dad at Wembley for the England-Germany game will have felt a pang of recognition.
We’ve all been there, coaching our kids into knowing the names of our heroes, past and present, teaching them the club song and chants, encouraging them to watch the televised games and then taking them to their first real one – only to be surprised at how overwhelmed and nonplussed they are at the sight of 22 men running around a massive pitch, often almost 100 metres away, whilst surrounded by tens of thousands of moaning and screaming adults.
Live football is so removed from television football, there’s no wonder there’s a disconnect when children first experience it. There are no close-ups, captions, replays or comfy sofa to enjoy. No bedroom or living room full of toys to walk away to if they get bored. No carpet to lie around on playing with their Harry Potter or Fireman Sam people, only looking up when the adults in the room start shouting in delight or expectation at the TV.
Plenty of proud parents post social media images of their young children posing in front of an empty green pitch of their home stadium or from the vantage point of the stand with a caption like “First time at Goodison!” or “Welcome to Theatre of Dreams”. But you can be sure that within ten minutes, most of their little darlings will be itching to be somewhere else or in front of a screen.
My two boys have both had to endure Dad’s (over-) enthusiasm for them to accompany me to Elland Road to see the mighty Leeds. In the case of my youngest, Billy, he just looked stunned, aged five, when we descended on the ground from Beeston Hill and found ourselves amongst 30,000 people, hustling and bustling with pre-match energy.
Remembering Billy’s older brother’s first proper match experience 12 years before, I’d arrived armed with a bag of McDonalds and Billy’s iPad loaded with games and films. Once inside, he looked around in expectation, asked which colour Leeds were in, watched the match for five minutes and then asked if he could get his iPad out. One fellow supporter looked at the two of us and laughed in recognition: “Ah you’ve come prepared.”
The most significant moment of the game came not when Leeds scored, but when we almost scored after just ten minutes. The crowd suddenly roared with full force and Billy looked up, startled, clamping his hands over his ears. He was genuinely stunned and it was only then that I realised he’d never been anywhere near such a large crowd nor heard so much shouting.
His elder brother fared better at his first game, which was in a hospitality box at QPR as the guest of a late music publicist Rob Partridge. I’ve no memory of the score that day or whether Leeds won, but Marlais was amazed by the half time entertainment, which was a mass display of hand-to-hand combat by over 100 camouflage-clad soldiers.
One soldier ran at the other with a knife and the other disarmed him and rolled him over. There were so many of them, all over the pitch, Marlais said “Daddy, do soldiers fight at every football game?”
At half time, I saw QPR’s massive giant cat mascot walking round and went down to the pitch to see if he would visit the box at some point. Sure enough, ten minutes into the second half there was a knock at the door; Marlais opened it and there was this giant animal asking to see him. That’s the memory he took away from that first game, fighting soldiers and a giant cat.
He was less engaged when I took him to watch Leeds play Southend away, in the blazing sunlight at Roots Hall. I realised there and then I needed to bring his portable games console with him in future. I think he tolerated coming with me rather than looked forward to it – until he was a little older, when he was amazed at how much swearing was going on at Leeds Charlton away. The look of delight as he joined in was well worth the hours of pain I’d put him through.
I don’t take Billy to games any more. I’d rather he be having a good time doing something he loved than be my reluctant plus-one. The next time Prince William goes to a match, I suggest he leaves George at home to play with his Paw Patrol toys – and gives the ticket to one of his mates.