Dani Garavelli: My son the Hamilton Accies baller and what it’s like bringing up an aspiring young player

Hamilton's Lewis Smith celebrates his goal against Kilmarnock. Picture: SNS
Hamilton's Lewis Smith celebrates his goal against Kilmarnock. Picture: SNS
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Dani Garavelli’s son Lewis Smith has made the breakthrough at Hamilton Accies, the team he has supported all his life. But what impact has it had on his family? In this article from Nutmeg, she writes frankly about her reservations about Lewis’ choice of career.

My favourite photograph of my middle son was taken on the pitch at New Douglas Park. He is six years old, dressed in an over-sized Accies kit and is taking a shot on goal. His arms are stretched wide, his face rapt. Most of the image is in focus, but his left foot is a blur of motion as he swings it back, ready to strike.

The six-year-old Lewis Smith at New Douglas Park. Picture: Dani Garavelli

The six-year-old Lewis Smith at New Douglas Park. Picture: Dani Garavelli

I love this photograph because it is so definitively, defiantly him. That afternoon in 2006, he was the Hamilton Accies mascot. Whichever first-team player had offered his services as ad hoc goalie was just messing around. But Lewis was incapable of approaching the occasion with any less commitment than he’d give the deciding penalty of a big city derby. When it comes to football, messing around is not in his nature.

My affection for this image is also bound up with its uncanny similarity to an illustration in Michael Foreman’s Wonder Goal, a book both of us know by heart. Night after night, we pored over this tale of a boy who dreams of becoming a football star. The newest member of the his local team, he is teased, but proves his worth by scoring a spectacular goal; a Wonder Goal. “It was perfect. Head over the ball, balance, power, timing,” Foreman writes. Just like Lewis in our cherished photograph.

In the book, the boy’s dad is working overtime and misses his big moment. But wait; what’s this? Just as the ball flies over the tips of the keeper’s fingers, Foreman jump-cuts to the future. We’re now in a massive stadium. There are crowds and flags and the boy is all grown-up. The keeper hits the ground. The ball goes in. The fans erupt. As the boy is raised on his team-mates’ shoulders, we are told that this Wonder Goal, scored in the World Cup final, will be in all the papers. “And this time – THIS time – his dad is there to see it.”

My baller is all grown-up now, too. His story is more prosaic, but still, for him, a dream come true.

Today, Lewis is a winger with the Accies, the family’s team for at least four generations. So far, he has played mostly for the reserves. But he has made a handful of first-team appearances, with more to follow.

Perhaps. If he avoids injury and the fates align. Will he ever score a Wonder Goal? Who knows? But even were he to go no further, we have experienced enough highs to balance out the lows.

Watching him pull on the Hammy the Hamster costume; hearing the fans singing: “He’s one of our own”.

That’s enough to justify the years lost to driving round Scotland in rush hour traffic; of subsuming others’ needs to his ambition; of lamenting that he belonged more to the club than to us, isn’t it? No, seriously, I’m asking: Isn’t it?

On a league table of things I wouldn’t have wanted Lewis to be, footballer would have sat just above soldier and just below serial killer. Years of covering football-related trouble led me to associate it with self-entitlement and toxic masculinity. And what self-proclaimed feminist wants that for one of her own?

Yet despite the times I have blamed my husband, Graeme, for projecting his childhood ambitions on to his son, I know Lewis was born to play. He started kicking in the womb and never stopped. As a toddler, he kicked footballs, tennis balls, ping pong balls and those brightly-coloured plastic balls in soft play areas. He kicked in the living room; in the kitchen; in the hall. Walls were dented, lights were shattered.

If you confiscated whatever spherical object was at his feet, he would reappear minutes later with an alternative: an orange, say, or a cuddly toy.

Long Sunday kick-abouts in the park with his dad were as much a respite for me as an opportunity for male bonding. The relentless thwack, thwack, thwack of a ball against the fence. Like Chinese water torture. But there was much to love too. A fierceness and determination that seared the heart. Bruised legs, grass-stained shorts and dirt-encrusted feet. And the smell of him when you rubbed your face in his hair; an elemental smell, like a sweet potato plucked fresh from the soil.

By the time Lewis went to school, he had started Mini-Kickers and was well-known for his mono-mania, which extended to the collecting of Panini stickers. His news jotter read like the Saturday afternoon results show. “Lewis v Dominic. 5-0 to Lewis”; “Lewis v Hugh. 3-0 to Lewis.” Strangely, his losses went unrecorded. He charted the ups and downs of the Accies like a pocket almanac. At one early parents’ night, his teacher said: “I love coming in on a Monday morning so I can find out the latest score.” Then she smiled a weary smile.

On holiday in Spain, teenage boys would knock on our caravan to ask if Lewis was coming out to play.

They weren’t as interested in his older brother, Jamie, which sparked an intense sibling rivalry. They were exactly like the Murray brothers; if the Murray brothers had been moderately good at football, as opposed to world-class at tennis. And if one of them had been markedly better at it than the other.

Unless you have direct experience of Scottish football’s youth academy system, it is impossible to imagine how all-consuming it is. Having been “scouted” from Giffnock Soccer Centre, Lewis signed for Accies when he was ten. On the night he was invited to the New Douglas Park boardroom, Jamie was having two of his teeth removed to make way for braces. There was less than an hour between the two appointments and it takes 45 minutes to drive from our house to the stadium. As a result, all I remember of this seminal event is Lewis’ boyish frame at the huge table. I was too busy trying to stem the blood pouring from his brother’s mouth before it hit the carpet to take in more.

That moment stands as a metaphor for the next nine years. We no longer had a family home. Rather, we were nomads travelling the country in search of sporting venues which hid themselves away like Brigadoon. We snacked in the car and pitched camp at wind-whipped fields in the back of God knows where.

For several of those years, there were thrice-weekly training sessions at Ravenscraig Regional Sports Facility – a soulless building on the site of the former steelworks in Motherwell. Oh, man, the stress of getting everyone fed and out on the road. We would battle through traffic with Lewis yelling because we were going to be late. Again. Arriving even a few minutes after the appointed hour had consequences:

You. Might. Not. Start... the next match. Punctuality wasn’t a matter of life and death; it was much more important than that.

Ravenscraig became the focal point for all domestic activities. It is where Jamie struggled with his first English close readings and Cal, our youngest, learned to count. It was where Christmas cards were written and interviews were transcribed.

When forced to watch the action, I would ape the expressions on other parents’ faces. I wasn’t always faking it; there were moments I perceived Lewis’s ability to control a ball as a kind of sorcery. But other times my mind would wander and I’d have to ask the score. Of course, Graeme, played a vital role in all this too. When his job allowed, he ferried Lewis back and forth. But for him, the vicarious pleasure of seeing his son on the field outweighed the hardship; and for me, it didn’t.

As time moved on, and the commitment grew, our domestic dissonance became more pronounced. The odds of making it as a professional footballer are much slimmer than becoming a lawyer or a doctor.

Lewis was clever: why were we encouraging him to put football first when he could be dropped any time? The crunch came when the club asked him to turn professional at the beginning of fifth year. This would mean him attending school part-time when he was preparing to sit his Highers. The school and the club said they were willing to work together to make it possible. Graeme was supportive. Lewis was ecstatic.

The only thing standing in his way was me. So I said “Yes”. What choice did I have? I cried; but I said, “Yes”.

We like to think we shape our children, but in reality they shape us. They have no interest in our designs for them and take on weird and wonderful forms beyond our imagination.

Lewis successfully divided his time between school and football. By the end of 2017, he had been selected for the Scotland Under-17s at the European Championships, so he sat four out of five of his exams in Croatia.

There were milestones: last autumn, he played for the 
under-19s Accies team in the Uefa Youth Champions League before coming off the bench to make his competitive first-team debut during a league match at Pittodrie. There were set-backs too: two bouts of glandular fever and a foot injury put him out of action for months, but he bided his time and was back at the stadium in late February, training, cleaning the older players’ boots, his ear always straining for word of a first-team start.

At some point, I stopped worrying and started marvelling: at his tenacity, his even temperament and his willingness to sacrifice so much. Where these qualities spring from is a mystery, but they are to be respected, not resented. To be emulated, if possible.

I also realised that those aspects of our lives I feared would divide us had come to define us. The gulls casting their shadow over sun-speckled turf in summer, the snow drifts gusting into the stands in winter; the chants, the rants, the back-of-the-car adolescent bantz; the stinking feet on the dashboard and the traffic jam sing-alongs; the triumphs and the disappointments, are knitted into our DNA. It might not have been my first choice, but whatever we do, wherever we go, there will always be the football years. There will always be the Accies.

This is important too. As Lewis was growing up, his granddad, the patriarch of our little Accies dynasty, was growing old. Now 85, Bill has been a fan since he was a boy. He took Graeme from the age of five.

A gift of an Accies season ticket was his way of welcoming his Rangers-supporting son-in-law into the family. And his son-in-law’s acceptance of it and attendance of the games was his way of expressing his desire to belong.

Bill has supported the Accies in the Third Division and in the Premiership; he has watched them lose 6-2 to Dundee United in a League Cup semi-final and win 1-0 against Rangers in the Scottish Cup. He has cheered lustily, jeered gustily and vowed never to set foot in that Godforsaken stadium again – only to return the next week for further punishment.

Bill suffers from memory loss. We are lucky; he still recognises us, recalling our names even when disorientated. And despite his frailty, he still comes to home games. Lewis knows his granddad will be there. Every second Saturday, as he warms up pitch-side, he looks directly up at our section of the stand and smiles. Bill doesn’t always acknowledge him. But once in a while he will say: “There’s our boy”. For a moment, at least, he understands the kid who used to punt balls on to the roof of his garden shed now wears the No.28 shirt.

Wednesday, 17 July, Ochilview Park, Stenhousemuir. Hamilton are playing Clyde in the Betfred League Cup. Lewis is starting for the first time, so we are all in attendance: Graeme, me, Jamie and Cal. It’s drizzling. The crowd is just over 500, but they have split up home and away fans, so we are standing in the terracing at the Tryst Road end. I am balancing a cup of lukewarm tea on sticky red railings. Nothing about this evening feels auspicious.

The first half kicks off. Lewis plays well. He has a few good runs and a shot on goal, which is tipped round the post by the keeper. By half-time, Accies are 1-0 up.

The second half kicks off. Hamilton score again. Then Clyde score. Lewis appears to be tiring. We wonder if he will be taken off. But no; the manager, Brian Rice, makes one substitution and then another.

Lewis is still on the field.

It’s now the 75th minute. Darian MacKinnon puts a header through the middle and Lewis fires the ball into the bottom left-hand corner.

The four of us erupt. We are jumping up and down and screaming and it feels like the start of something, but it also feels like the end of something. Like champagne smashing off the hull of a ship or the reaping of a harvest. Never again we will ask ourselves: is this worthwhile?

In the car home, we dissect Lewis’ performance. We agree he was our man of the match (but then, he always is). We read the fans’ comments. Message our friends.

None of us is convinced this goal was a Wonder Goal. But it was his first. It will be in the papers. And we were there to see it.

This article is from Issue 13 of Nutmeg, a Scottish football quarterly publication available by subscription at: www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk