Soccer is a family matter in our household. My lovely wife will eagerly watch two or three English Premier League matches with me every weekend. My 12 year old son will check in on scores between sessions with FIFA 11. My 10 year old daughter will draw upon her burgeoning fluency with the game to accurately estimate stoppage time – even if only to more accurately calculate when she can finally have the TV to herself again. About that time, my son will appear in his youth league uniform and neon blue cleats, waiting for me to drive him to his weekly game where I will take up my position on the sidelines as his coach.
Judging by what I hear from some of my soccer friends – whose families or girlfriends remain resolutely indifferent to the sport – I know I have it pretty good, from a soccer fan’s perspective. In fact, in this otherwise harmonious domestic set up there is only one slightly discordant note to be heard: See, I am a true blue Chelsea fan while my son walks about the house openly supporting Manchester United, donning a bright red jersey no less.
Sure, I’ve considered having him psychoanalyzed, but I know enough about father and son relationships to recognize that there is no cure for this condition. My young son is merely trying to show me that not only can he recognize a terrific team when he sees one but also that he can make his own way in this world. As his father, I know that I have to support him in this – and of course I can only admire his pluck.
So with his 13th birthday approaching, young manhood looming ever closer and, incidentally, the 20th season of the Premier League just getting under way, I decided there was only one thing to be done: Book a father-and-son trip to England over a late August weekend to visit Stamford Bridge on a Saturday and watch Chelsea take on Norwich City, then head up to Old Trafford on the Sunday to witness Man United host Arsenal. Remarkably, my wife wholeheartedly endorsed the idea (I told you she was lovely). Off we set, then, to share in our love for the beautiful game and fathom the unsubtle differences in the blues and reds that run deep within our respective veins.
Arriving in London with a Friday to spare, we took in a stadium tour at Stamford Bridge. When our friendly guide gave the group of us the chance to experience what it’s like to line up outside the dressing room doors and head out of the tunnel and onto the edge of the pitch, I lined up on the home side while my son lined up on the away side and offered me a knowing smile. Later in the Chelsea Megastore, however, a small frown began to form on his face. He’d already gotten me to agree to purchase a cheap soccer ball for a kick-about in the park that afternoon, but of course the only footballs in the place were all covered in Chelsea logos. Under the circumstances, though, he did what he had to and picked out a blue one, after generously consulting me for my opinion, and off we went.
The next afternoon, we arrived early at the Bridge to pick up our hospitality tickets and enjoy a pre-match lunch in the Zola Suite. We were seated at a table with three other pairs of fathers and sons. Mine had done me the honor that day of wearing his Lampard jersey, and we spoke not a word about the United away jersey that lay waiting for him back at the hotel.
As the match began, Chelsea sparkled, scoring early on a 25 yarder from Bosingwa. Chelsea’s passing in the first 15 minutes was so sharp and deft, it was perfectly reasonable to imagine a 4-0 final scoreline. But the game grew tense as Norwich fought back. My son kindly commiserated as Chelsea’s passing talent faltered, and even more so when the hapless Hilario collided with Ivanovic, leaving Norwich’s striker Grant Holt standing alone with the ball in front of an open net and an easy chance to score, which he instantly took. Later in the second half when Drogba landed so hard on the pitch, out cold from a head-on aerial collision with Norwich’s keeper Ruddy, my son’s mood was as grave as mine. But some minutes later, when Ruddy brought Ramires down in the box, earning a much-deserved red, and Lamps fired in the go-ahead goal from the spot, my son leapt out of his seat to cheer as loudly as me. And as if to prove just what a decent boy he is, he did the same again deep into stoppage time when Mata scored Chelsea’s third and final goal of the match on his debut appearance. It had been a difficult match, but Chelsea had vindicated themselves with a win, and we felt the rush of being a part of it all. As we walked away from the Bridge that evening, inspired by my son’s generosity of spirit, I promised to be as supportive of him and his team the next afternoon.
And then there we were – both of us for the first time – at Old Trafford. With my son sporting a brand new Rooney jersey freshly liberated from the United Megastore, I snapped his photo in front of Matt Busby’s statue. I had to admit that my boy looked pretty cool, even there in that sea of red. A short while later, his footsteps noticeably quickening their pace as the turnstiles opened, I followed my son into the Theatre of Dreams and we found our seats behind the press area. In the end, neither my son nor Manchester United needed much from me in the way of support that afternoon. By the middle of the first half, Welbeck had split the Arsenal defense and put United on the scoreboard first. When Van Persie missed his chance to equalize from the spot, my son was visibly relieved – but he needn’t have worried, as it turned out. There were plenty more United goals to come. I continued to clap politely while my son thrust his fists up toward the rafters seven more times over the remainder of the match. The joyous noise from the crowd approached pandemonium as the game wore on. It was a ruthless display from United – certainly one for Chelsea to take into consideration in advance of their visit to Old Trafford in a few weeks’ time – and my son was simply in paradise, with a new Rooney jersey and a Rooney hat trick to boot. It had the unmistakable feel of an historic occasion, and even a Chelsea fan had to have felt privileged to see it.
In the relative quiet of the train heading back down to London that evening, I turned to my son and I asked, “So, after seeing Chelsea and United in the same weekend, are you still a United fan?” He gave me the smile again and replied, “I’m even more of a United fan, Dad.” Across the aisle, I noticed another father and son, both United fans, flush with their recent victory.
I might never know the joy that those other Chelsea fathers or United fathers know – of having a son who supports his father’s team. But I know something just as good. Because when Ashley Young put in goal number eight for United that Sunday afternoon and my son’s outthrust arms rose as high into the air as his 12 year old shoulders would take them, he turned to me with a look of awe and wonder on his face, and I could only love what I saw there: An unquenchable passion for this incredible game.
“So,” I asked, as the train hurried southwards across the changing landscape, “should we make this an annual father-and-son tradition?” “Definitely, Dad,” he said, “definitely!”