I’ve been rather distracted by football lately. But not just the Euros on the box – I’ve also been reading You’ll win nothing with kids: fathers, sons and football by Jim White, sports journalist and manager of his son’s football team. In it Jim tells the tale of a season which culminated in a cup final and a relegation dogfight, interspersed with the politics of boys’ football and the familial dynamics which led him to take on the mantle of manager. It’s a generously written and easily read account, full of arch humour and flowing pass and move, with occasional moments of high farce and strong sentiment. Not unlike a fair number of the matches we’ve seen in Austria and Switzerland this month.
What comes across most strongly is Jim’s affection for the kids in his charge. His instinctive inclination is to trust them more than any tactical nous he might possess. His belief in the team pays off and is backed up by the professional help he can’t help himself calling upon while carrying out the day job. At Manchester United’s Carrington complex, he observes a training session taking place in near silence on the coaches’ part – the only noise is from the youth players themselves. They are being taught to work things out for themselves. Jim makes a mental note not to rant and rave on the touchline the following Sunday.
Managing a team which includes your son is a potentially tricky task in the parentally zealous world of boys’ football. Jim’s pride comes from the fact that Barney makes the task easy by giving his all, even to the point of getting sent of against a side from Germany, and by being distraught after the match at having let the team down. You’ll win nothing with kids is touching, humble and wise as well as funny.
Reading it brought to mind one of the most memorable moments I’ve had watching football. In 2002, Ipswich were 1-0 down at Millwall after only five minutes. As the second half began with the score the same, I realised that the man sitting directly in front of me was signalling to our striker, and incredibly the player did indeed appear to be looking up and taking note. The striker was Darren Bent, a teenager I’d seen score at Highbury in the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup a couple of seasons before. That the man in front of me was one of the very few black faces in the away end made the connection obvious – surely this was Darren’s father, communicating where he thought the space was and where his son should situate himself. Not exactly in the United spirit of self-learning, but ingenious in taking advantage of ethnicity and perspective. And it came good with only ten minutes of the second half gone, when Darren ran into space on the right and tucked the ball away at the keeper’s near post. Any goal your team scores is celebrated with a degree of emotion, but – from where I was standing – that one more than most.