Help us big man, we said, a phalanx of Scottish pressmen thrusting tiny arms under Romelu Lukaku’s bumfluffed chin. Straining with our microphones we didn’t think much of his beard but we were in awe of his football and that of his countrymen. In the bowels of Hampden, in the mixed zone, Lukaku loomed over us like Belgium had just loomed over our brave boys in dark blue, trouncing them by four to nil.
Help us become as big and strong and slick and even just good enough to qualify for the finals of a tournament, never mind be hot favourites to win it. We didn’t ask the question quite so desperately but this was the sub-text. And then the word came down from on high: kids. For small nations like Belgium and Scotland it had to start with the youth. They had to be given a chance, Lukaku said, and time to develop.
Flashback to the day before the fateful Euro Championships qualifier and a lush and beautifully maintained patch of green not yet sold off by Edinburgh Council for housing, some of which could definitely be turned into Airbnb’s. There’s plenty of development potential here but for the meantime there’s plenty of football potential out on the pitch.
Twenty-two boys who’ve just moved up to 11-a-side, to competitive football with winning and losing and league tables and shiny trophies and referees and everyone present and correct an hour before kick-off like proper big teams. “There better be places we can get coffee,” one mum had said as we prepared to enter the new world of SERYFA, the South East Region Youth Football Association.
As if that would turn out to be our only concern…
This was an under-13s cup-tie, both sides were up for it, one of them rather too much. The game had barely begun when my son’s team were awarded a penalty. The guy in charge of the opposition disputed this. In fact, he spontaneously combusted. On such a sunshiney morning as well. The ref booked him and I know I wasn’t the only parent who thought of Vinnie Jones, once carded within five seconds of kick-off, and wondered how this rated for the earliest censure of a coach, at any level.
This set the tone for the rest of the match. Their side of the pitch challenged very nearly every decision, and screechingly. As time ran out, there was a final, urgent cry: “Get intae them!” One of their boys responded by chopping down one of ours and he became the third in our team to require an icepack. He’s missed training all week.
Why is this still happening? Why are coaches still behaving like complete and utter bampots? In an earlier match – and there’s only been a handful so far – the opposition coach was actually sent off, this for swearing at the referee. This shocked his side of the field and ours, all the players, especially his own. It seemed to shock the official for he can’t have expected to dole out the ultimate punishment this early in the process for 12-year-old boys and wasn’t sure where to despatch the miscreant, there being no stand. Heck, it may even have shocked Ruth Davidson who was walking her dog in the park. Still leader of the Scottish Conservatives at that moment, it might have been the thing which tipped her over the edge.
The ranter-and-raver – face turning purple, neck veins throbbing, arms thrashing like a haywire robot – was a hoary cliché of youth football a few years ago and I thought he’d been laughed out of town. Maybe, though, he never went away and it’s just my lad’s turn to encounter him.
“Oi! Get switched on! Close down! Jockey! Jockey! Make the tackle! Come on! Winners! Out! Out! OUT!” Then, bizarrely: “Relax!” I kid you not, but in another game, this was yet another display of touchline Tourette’s from the far flank. This was what tutoring in the fine arts of association football sounded like, and most likely it came with a training-course pass-out certificate. It wasn’t a set of instructions to boys who’d just stepped up to high school, though, it was a diatribe. This man should have been in Parliament the other day, wailing against the dying of democracy. How was the boy at which it was directed supposed to take all of this in? Did he need an icepack to soothe his fevered brow?
On our side of the pitch we definitely did.
The frenzy, the fierceness, the foul language of competitive matches – these have all taken us by surprise. Is this because of our delicate middle-class sensibilities? In the red-card game, during the end-of-match line-up for the ritual shaking of hands, the greeting from each of the opposition to every one of our lads was: “Posh boy, posh boy, posh boy.”
This didn’t bother me; it made me laugh. The idea that a team of 12-year-olds would have, in the words of a dad, “a target on their backs” possibly because of their 4G is amusing, at least for now. I get that teams want to win, that they would want to try and tempt one of our players – my son – to sign for them in a car park with the promise of always playing him in his favourite position.
I sympathise with the parent who says “Wish we were still playing school games” – less mean-spirited, more Corinthian – but accept that these are young footballers who need, and want, to be pushed in this different and more challenging realm, with my boy saying of the rough and tumble in last week’s cup tie: “I loved that!”
But what does bother me are the coaches. Everything about these chaotic affairs comes from them, including the instruction to “Half him!” when our burly striker gets up a head of steam and the pestering of the ref to check his watch when another of of our players is being treated for a head knock.
You cannot blame the boys at this age but you can surely say to the coaches: “Dial down the radgeness. We appreciate the unpaid effort and commitment you put into kids’ football but you’ve got the tracksuits and the big notepads, you don’t need the Jose Mourinho attitude as well.”
Doubtless I’ll be accused of the need to “man up”. But the macho stuff, the mad 100mph football, hasn’t really been getting us very far. Just ask big Romelu.