I wrote this short piece about ten years ago when my son, Seán, was playing under 9 football, which has seven players per side.
I was never a sporting person when I was young. Looking back, I feel that this was a deficiency in my childhood. So, I was determined that my own children would not be so deprived. I feel that participation in team sports is important for a child. It teaches them many skills, such as team working and co-operation, standing up for themselves, social skills, and helping others.
My son’s first introduction to soccer was when he was selected to play in St. Kevin’s Boys Under 9 "C" team. Now, the St. Kevin's Boys Under 9 "C" team is about as low down in the football pecking order as you can get. But it is a start, nevertheless. The club itself fields many teams from boys like Sean to senior players, and boasts the former Irish International, Liam Brady, among its past great players.
The club is based in Larkhill on Dublin's Northside, where all the best soccer players come from. Every year, together with Home Farm Everton, it runs the Luke Kelly Festival of Football, to commemorate another great Larkhill hero. Luke, as many of you will know, was that marvellous singer with the Dubliner's whose renditions of such songs as "Raglan Road" and "Scorn Not His Simplicity" still bring a tear to many an eye. Luke, unfortunately, drank himself to death, and many of the participants in the Luke Kelly Festival of Football try to emulate that feat every year.
My greatest pleasure every Saturday now is to go along to the weekly match to cheer on Sean and his friends as they battle for St. Kevin’s. The spectacle of twelve little footballers swarming up and down a football field after a ball is organised mayhem in action. I say footballers, because girls are now allowed to play football with boys up to the age of about twelve. They are even allowed to manage teams, as one of them demonstrated so effectively recently by beating our team by a humiliating score of five-one. On that occasion, Sean was playing in left back (as Jimmy Magee used to say "He's a very left footed player").
He and his pals were constantly overrun by a horde of Swords Rovers brats, who regularly found the net with ease. Being a team player, however, Sean's analysis of the problem was speedy. At half time he turned to our goalkeeper and asked him gruffly why he kept letting the ball in the back of the net. The goalkeeper responded quickly and effectively by punching Sean in the face and flattening him - a first lesson in tact and team play for number one son.
Now I believe in fair play on the pitch and try to encourage a high standard of behaviour in Sean. But knowing nothing about the game I am watching, I have picked up some useful phrases and words of advice from other commentators, whether on the television or actually at the match. So, at every game, I coach Sean with the sage-like words: "Don't foul your marker, son, but let him know you're there. Break his heart." Sean invariably interprets this advice absolutely correctly and proceeds to flatten any opponent he can lay hand or foot on.
A fascinating feature of the game is the number of sideline managers and coaches present at every match. I must admit that I now count myself among their number. Every one of us knows more about the game than the real managers, it seems. We shout out constant advice to the team in general, and to our own son, daughter, nephew, or niece, in particular. There is nothing more amusing than to see a little under nine player being totally confused by simultaneous shouts of "Watch your back", "Stay where you are", "Go in on him", "Clear it", "Pass it", or other such useful advice. Or shouting something like "On your left", or "Pass it right," and seeing the poor child holding up both hands to figure out which is left and which is right. The stars spinning around the poor heroes' heads are almost visible.
I recently observed a father, who obviously loved his son, utter a stream of abuse and expletives at him when the poor lad failed to stop the female-managed team murdering us in Swords. What these mixed signals of love, abuse, pride, and shame do to a nine year old head might some day be the subject of a psychological or sociological study.
After every match, of course, there is the obligatory analysis between father and son. Trying to encourage a child who has just been part of a dismal failure challenges even the most loving of fathers. Resisting the temptation to strangle the youngster for getting you out of bed to see him letting down the family name is difficult at times. But invariably, I and all of the other parents or guardians succeed in salvaging some pride for ourselves and for our little footballers. The analysis over, the sweets and drinks are produced and the mud-covered players receive their just rewards. Then all attention turns to Monday's training session and to who will be awarded "man of the match." The defeat now firmly behind them, they look forward to next Saturday, and to the prospect of glorious victory.
Being part of this fascinating sporting movement, and sharing it with Sean, has helped me to experience what I may have lost myself as a child. For sheer enjoyment, and for a great mornings entertainment, there is probably nothing to beat a bunch of innocent kids running around a football field thinking they are Eric Cantona or Ryan Giggs.
And who knows, perhaps some day they will be.