Let’s get one thing clear straight away. If you are the dad of a promising young footballer, then you are a nobody! The clubs will not speak to you. Your son doesn’t care what you think. If you tell him he had a great game, but the coach has told them they were disappointed at how they dealt with a particular one on one situation, who do you think they will listen to?
I do know that I am not the only dad who has been through this. There are approximately seventeen thousand young footballers at the ninety-two professional clubs in England and Wales from the under 18 sides, right down to under 9’s. That’s seventeen thousand young footballers who all have parents living the dream or experiencing the nightmare.
I could have been a decent player if I hadn’t discovered fags, booze, and women at the age of thirteen. I could have played pro if it wasn’t for that, oh, and of course, my lack of ability. My undistinguished career took me all the way from the now unfortunately named Bushey Queens side in Watford, to the unfortunately then rubbish side of Alderbury in the third division of the Salisbury and District Sunday league (Fourth division after my one season at the club!).
Despite my own chequered career, I have always been a football fanatic. I am a mad keen Watford supporter. Yes, all right, I know, what’s that got to do with football? No, I haven’t had a relationship with Elton John!
So, when my middle son, Joe, started showing immense promise as an uncompromising centre half for Salisbury City juniors, I was very excited. I could see that he was head and shoulders above the other players in his team and his league. I was sure that it was only a matter of time before he was scouted by a professional club. Sure enough, halfway through the under 14’s season, I got a call from Martin Allen at League one Swindon Town asking me to take Joe along for a trial. I was ecstatic. I was so excited. Oh, yes, so was Joe. Me, living my life again through my son? Never!
Joe played in one trial game and was asked to complete a six week trial as a result. Two days later he was playing for the Swindon Town under 14 side against Portsmouth. He should have been playing against Spire Juniors in the Burbage league. I don’t know about Joe, but it was a dream come true for me.
He did well in that game, and continued to do so over the next six weeks. He was signed on until the end of the following season. I was in full time employment, and lived over an hour away from Swindon’s training ground. I had to have Joe at the ground for training at 5.30 on a Monday, and 5.00 on a Thursday. The games were on a Sunday morning, and could be as far away as Swansea, a two and a half hour drive. What this meant, of course, was that I needed and got the support of my management at work. It meant spending a fortune on petrol. It meant spending anything up to twenty hours a week away with Joe’s football. I needed and got the support of my long suffering wife, and my other children. Most importantly, it meant spending up to ten hours every week in the car alone with my son. Not many Dads get to spend that sort of time with one of their children. It meant being prepared to do all that without a word of thanks from anyone.
The rest of that season went well for Joe, and he established himself in the side. I made some good friendships with some of the other dads. We were always very careful not to criticise each others children. You can criticise your own, but God help anyone else who dares to!
There was a big disappointment for Joe, and me, at the end of that season. A squad was selected for the summer Milk Cup tournament in Northern Ireland. Although Joe was young enough to go again the following year, I had high hopes that he would be selected. He wasn’t. He was devastated. So was I.
The following season was full of highs. Joe played well in almost every game. He scored some goals, and defended beautifully. I regarded him as one of the best players in the Swindon under 15 team. After every game, I would ask Joe what his coach had said. ‘Not much,’ would come the unhelpful reply. It became very evident that I was a taxi driver, motivator, encourager and supporter. Nothing else. My opinion was never asked for, nor appreciated.
Shortly before the Milk Cup tournament that summer, Joe sustained a serious head injury that necessitated a scary and long night in hospital. He went to the Milk Cup, despite not being fully fit, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying so, he had an absolute stinker! In the first game, after only a couple of minutes, he scored an own goal by chipping his keeper from fully forty yards. It was spectacular. To be honest, his performances went down hill from there!
The next season, at under 16 level, was crucial. This was the year that would decide whether he would be given a two year scholarship. The season started badly, with Joe struggling to get into the side due to his poor Milk Cup performances. He showed great ability, and great strength of character, to force his way back into the side. Did I play a part in keeping up his morale, and rebuilding his confidence? I would like to think so. I didn’t see anyone at the club doing it. He played wonderfully well until February when decision time loomed. He had played a few games in the under 18’s, and although keeping our feet on the ground, I thought they would offer Joe something, and I’m sure he did too.
Decision day arrived and we were invited into the office to meet with the Youth team manager, Ian Woan and the director of the academy, Iffy Onoura. ‘This is the hardest decision we have had to make’ was the first thing that was said. I wonder if they said that to all the players they released. ‘I’m afraid we’re not going to offer you anything Joe’.
I didn’t hear much of what they said after that. I vaguely remember something about Joe being a great lad, and a good player, but that they had taken a centre half from the previous year and couldn’t afford to take another. I was absolutely destroyed. Poor me. All that work and time for no result. Why does everything bad happen to me? Oh yeh, Joe was pretty disappointed too.
Seriously, Joe was inconsolable. His dream had been shattered. He felt that his life had been destroyed. On the journey home he was crying. I stopped the car to give him a hug and try to reassure him. I’m not sure who required the hug more.
On his release from Swindon, I had to encourage Joe to get another club as soon as possible. He went to Salisbury City and Eastleigh. At that time, Eastleigh, a Southern League side, were much more accommodating, and they were eager to sign Joe. He was put into the reserve team set up rather than the youth team, and the young reserve team manager, Danny, did an absolutely wonderful job in rebuilding Joe’s self esteem and confidence. He played brilliantly for them until the end of the season. Danny told him he wasn’t a centre half, he was a footballer. They played him at centre half, full back, and even in midfield. He loved it. For the last game of the season, he was even included on the bench for the first team. He wasn’t even sixteen yet.
At the end of that season, Joe was invited to a trial with League two Bristol Rovers. He did well in the trial game, and was invited to join Filton College and Bristol Rovers for two years. This meant that Joe would have to live in digs in Bristol, but he was keen to do so. His mother hated the thought, but was totally supportive. Joe moved to Bristol.
At first, things went well for him. He was playing regularly for Rovers’ under 18’s and doing pretty well. He was clearly not happy in his digs, but the success of his football was making it bearable for him.
Everything was OK until the first round of the FA Youth cup. Bristol Rovers against Bristol City at the memorial ground. A big crowd including Joe’s mother, me and his younger brother. Joe was playing right back. A pulsating game finished 5-3 to City. I thought Joe had played well and I was so very proud. He had been up against a very quick and skillful left sided player who has since gone on to play age group football for England. This player had ‘roasted’ Joe a couple of times, but overall, I thought he had done very well.
The following day, Joe found out that his coach did not agree with my assessment. He tore a strip out of Joe for his performance and left him out of the team. This setback was too much for Joe who was by now terribly homesick. The extreme pain I felt seeing my son so unhappy had to be balanced against his (my?) desire to be a professional footballer. It was a very difficult time.
Joe became unhappier by the day, and being a confidence player, his performances for the second team were never going to get him back into the first team reckoning. It became a downward spiral very quickly, until we agreed for him to leave Bristol and come home.
Having returned home, Joe played the rest of the season with Salisbury City youth team. He didn’t enjoy it. I hated the fact that he didn’t seem to be enjoying playing football any more, and will always believe I left him in Bristol for too long.
That summer Joe told his mother that he was seriously considering packing in football altogether. Neither of them told me that because they both knew how much that would upset me.
The following pre-season went well, and Joe rediscovered his enjoyment of the game. He had a great season as captain of Salisbury City youth team. He won player of the season and was asked to stay on as a senior. He has agreed a part-time deal with the club who have recently turned professional and now play in the Conference. At the age of eighteen he is now the captain of the Salisbury City reserve team, and has achieved his (my?) initial ambition of being paid to play football.
This, of course, is only the very start of an enormously long journey. I still have every confidence that Joe has the ability to go all the way. I will be there to support him whatever happens. If he needs a lift, a shoulder to cry on, some encouragement, or even an opinion, I will be right there to deliver what he wants.
It has been an emotional rollercoaster ride so far, and there is no doubt more to come. It has taken a great deal of my time, and energy. Even now Joe tells me nothing about his training, his future, or what his coaches think. If I want to know anything I have to ask. Even then, I’m likely to get a one word answer, or something he thinks I want to hear rather than the truth.
My youngest son is 13, and he is also showing great potential. If he is scouted by a bigger club I will have mixed feelings. I know what the process is likely to entail.
Will I do it all again if that happens? You bet I will!