For WILL SHARP, football means more to him than just a mere game or past time. Growing up without a male role model - barring his Grandad and some prick called Dave - it helped him grow and learn to be a man in so many ways.
I never had a father growing up, but I did have football.
It’s strange; never before have I ever bothered to juxtapose those two truths. As clear to me as they have always been, I’ve never before attempted to build a tangible link between them or acknowledge their synchronicity at any great length. But I suppose the truth is that football, whether I was watching it or playing it, inadvertently provided me with a father I never had.
Growing up I had a complicated relationship with my mother — that is to provide as laughably succinct a summary of my childhood as possible — and a completely non-existent one with my father. To cut a long story short, and to provide for you about as much information on the subject as I myself have; my mother and father were never really together. The pregnancy from which I came into the world was unplanned to say the least and my father, though never a practising magician as far as I’m aware, performed such an incredible disappearing act upon hearing the news of my mother’s proof of fertility that should he have actually been a magician, performing atop some stage somewhere, there is no chance he’d have departed without a standing ovation.
I was born in late 1992 and was almost immediately (informally) adopted by my grandparents; a Nan and Grandad who cared for me better than I could possibly have asked for, and who between them shared not a single fault as far as I was aware. Well, perhaps there was one single fault: they weren’t particularly into football—but I was keen to change that.
I don’t remember the first football match I ever watched, the first goal I ever saw or the day I realised I loved kicking a football about. I just remember a joyous childhood irrevocably entwined with the sport.
I remember adoring Manchester United; a fact I hasten not to share unless completely necessary and instead endeavour to banish deep into the darkest recesses of my mind; a necessary practice given that I’ve spent the last 18 years supporting Arsenal. I remember wanting to be David Beckham more than anything in the world, so much so that I spent many years (more than I should have) eagerly following him on his barmy journey through a maelstrom of messy barnets. I remember wearing a United shirt, so proud that it had my surname — Sharp — on it. It didn’t really matter that it was actually their sponsor, emblazoned in the middle of the front of the shirt and not at the back on the top like the real footballers’ names were.
I remember football being on my mind all day every day. As a young child, any time I were at home, I could be found sat at my Playstation contently playing FIFA. Memories of other games still fill me with nostalgic warmth when I recall my childhood—Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, Spyro the Dragon—but for hours which would turn into days and then into weeks I simply sat playing FIFA, every FIFA, all the FIFAs I could get my hands on, to feed my addiction, as I set about discovering football teams and players from places far beyond the country I inhabited and had, to that point, never left.
I learned of Bayern Munich. I learned of Juventus. I learned of Real Madrid. So enamoured was the eight-year-old-me by my discovery of the latter I asked to be escorted to my favourite sports shop up town where I—actually, my Nan—could buy a Real Madrid jersey, which I wore any time I played football with the local kids on my street. On the back of it I had ‘Raúl 7’ printed, replete with the Premier League logo at the base of the number seven, such were the limitations of the local stock available at the shop; an inaccuracy I cared little for but that I distinctly recall being mocked for by an older kid at a training session a few years later.
I vividly recall being on holiday in Cornwall, sitting on the floor of the almost anaemically everything-cream-coloured caravan in which we were staying, virtually ignorant to the change in surroundings on account of my eyes remained transfixed on the tiny 13” TV-VCR combo that at the time was showing Manchester United versus Juventus. I still recall my Nan remarking “they’re bloody dirty, them Italians” (those particular Juventus players, not the entire nation) as knee-high tackles traded.
Such was my desire to consume any and all football it wasn’t long until my Nan and Grandad went along with it too. It was easier that way. Despite the 50 or so years they had spent on earth, prior to my surprise appearance, caring not in the slightest for “the bloody football”, because of me or, more likely, for me, they took an interest. They would call themselves Manchester United fans. My Nan still does, almost 20 years on, though she will often declare with an impassioned injustice, “I don’t know any of the players anymore!” That’s fair enough, Nan. Although, even you’ve got to admit, United wouldn’t be all that today should they still be fielding the treble-winners of ’99; great as they were. Mortality’s annoying like that.
My Grandad passed away in 1999, when I was almost seven, and though I can’t recall ever being more heartbroken in all my life since, the tragedy did provide the smallest of silver linings as far as my love of football was concerned. A few years after his death, I can’t recall exactly how much later, my Nan eventually strove to move on with her own life and attempted to rediscover happiness with somebody else. This lead her into a somewhat forsaken relationship with a man named Dave.
As it turned out Dave was a prick. They dated for a few years before breaking up, much to the delight of most of my family who rightly believed my Nan to be far too good for somebody like Dave. But I, not yet even old enough for secondary school, enjoyed his company immensely simply because he loved football.
Whenever my Nan went to his flat they would sit in the living room and chat over refills of tea while Dave would put on for me any one of his grand collection of old Arsenal videos; cup finals from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Whether or not the older, more wizened and socially aware me would care to admit it, it was probably from him I inherited my love of the Arsenal, a love I couldn’t now imagine not (sometimes begrudgingly) carrying with me everywhere I go.
I remember Dave taking me to watch our local team, Folkestone Invicta, at their tiny ground. Striding through the mustard yellow turnstiles, paying just a couple of quid for the honour, gazing out from the typically spacious concrete terraces at a tatty green that seemed to stretch out for miles.
Without a father, and having lost my Grandad so early on in my life, I wasn’t particularly good at being a man. I wasn’t even sure what “being a man” meant and that was, to me, even worse. I was never taught how to ride a bike or how to shave. To me, watching on from the sidelines, most men could ride a bike and shave with ease, at the same time should they so wish, and I was clueless on how to do either.
But at the football, though I felt it were ironically more apparent there than anywhere else in the world just how little of being a man I understood, I could at least watch and learn. Perhaps they weren’t the greatest of role models but they had plastic cups of beer in their gloveless hands and they gulped their choice poison without grimacing. They met unsatisfactory shots or tackles with loud remonstrations, shouted insults littered with obscenities I’d later share on the playground amidst hushed clusters of schoolmates, and acted blokey, so it seemed like they knew what they were doing.
I remember wearing a jumper and a pair of shorts to a match once. It was an evening match, in December, and it felt as though it were about 20 degrees below zero. I shivered for two hours straight, standing on the stone steps of the home end, wondering which would greet me first: the full-time whistle or death. When we got home my Nan berated Dave for letting me go out so late, in such cold, in so little clothing. “He wanted to wear shorts!” Dave attested. He wasn’t wrong. It was fucking idiotic — I’m still surprised I didn’t return with a scarf, a match-day programme and pneumonia — but I did want to wear shorts. It’s what the players wore and they were men, damn it.
I’ll never forget the day Arsenal won the FA Cup final against Chelsea in 2002. I was ten. Dave was in hospital and I recall watching the game at home, desperate for them to win to make him better. I remember excitedly calling him on the phone immediately after full-time to let him known Arsenal had won, “Parlour scored from miles out, it was amazing! Ljungberg scored too!”
As I said, Dave didn’t stick around for very long. Eventually he and my Nan broke up. But my love for Arsenal, and for all of football, stuck around. I played football, watched football, talked about football and learned about football whenever and wherever I could.
My evenings and weekends were punctuated by a varying accompaniment of shouts from my neighbours. Footballs raining down on their doors, their walls, their windows, their cars. Some couldn’t help but roar the odd, unstifleable “fuck off down the park!” from their doorsteps. Others, the neighbours I liked, unsurprisingly, would instead raise an eyebrow and remind us to be careful.
The number of brand new footballs I promised I’d save for the park, so as not to scratch their leather on the road, that I would then surrender to the urge to play with and have end up looking years old after my owning them for mere days. The number of footballs that were popped under the wheels of cars speeding along the road that adjoined our cul-de-sac. “Sorry!” We became very accustomed to shouting that.
Me and my mate Charlie — Henry and Drogba, Pirés and Lampard, Ljungberg and Cole, as we were more often known by one another while playing on the street; such was the unerring passion with which we felt the need to represent our diverging allegiances at any and all opportunities — the accidental terrors of our neighbourhood. A two-man pint-sized pestilence. Not quite deserving of an ASBO each but certainly an unyielding annoyance to anybody with a home or car they’d rather not have decorated with ball-marks.
I remember growing up wishing to be nothing other than a footballer. To tell the truth, there was a time I told people I wished to be an estate agent. At an event organised by my primary school we were each instructed to write and perform a short monologue, to a crowd of teachers and parents, on the subject of what we wished to be when we were adults. I, of course, told my teacher I wanted to be a footballer but in true modern-education-system-style my dream was killed. I was told I couldn’t pick footballer because it was already taken by a couple of the other boys in my class. “Pick something else.”
I racked my brains. “I don’t want to do anything else. I want to be a footballer. I’m going to be a footballer,” I thought. “I’ve already pointed out the fancy house that I’ve promised my Nan I’m going to buy her when I become one.” Then I suddenly remembered: an estate agent had been showing a house on our road that week and they drove an incredible fancy-looking car. For what it’s worth, I think it may have been a Lotus Elise. It was definitely yellow, I remember that much. I settled for estate agent, not really knowing what they did for a living, just aware that whatever it was they did meant they could afford cars that certainly didn’t look like the rest of the cars on my road.
At the school event I took to the stage when my turn came around and enthusiastically announced that I wanted to be an estate agent when I grew up. Cue laughter from every corner of the crowded hall. “That’s it,” I told myself, “now I’m definitely becoming a footballer. Nobody laughs at them.” They just get pelted with abuse on a national scale each week.
As it turned out I had nothing like the kind of ability needed to become a professional footballer, despite the incalculable hours I spent practising as a boy. That didn’t stop me trying though.
I remember feeling sick with embarrassment when I was substituted onto the pitch during a Herald Cup match for my school, circa 2001, only for the full-time whistle to sound literally seconds after I’d entered the field; at the same time, I feel I should mention, as our team’s only girl Stevie. Our school team’s manager had asked the referee how long was left and soon relayed back to me that he had been told five minutes remained. Whether or not he was lying I suppose I’ll never know but I got nowhere near my promised five minutes. Still, I got the same small wooden accolade as all of the other lads, so, no harm done; beyond the irreparable emotional scars. Cheers, Mr. Lamb.
I remember the kindness showed to me by the parents of boys I played with in the local youth teams. With just my Nan and I at home, me being so young and her not being able to drive, I found myself agonisingly out of reach of training sessions and local tournaments. Every time though, as far as my memory serves, somebody stepped in. The team’s voluntary coach, the striker’s Dad, the captain’s uncle. Every time a training session or match or tournament came around a knock would sound on my door, as I’d be waiting in my living room with shin-pads and boots already on, knees bouncing with excitement, and outside there’d be a car waiting to take me to and from the football.
As I think back upon their selfless commitment to affording me every possible opportunity to play football, remembering collecting the tiny trophies that still take pride of place in my Nan’s living room cabinet, that still mean the world to me, and that without those generous parents I’d never have had the chance to win, it is hard to stop my eyes from watering. Though I honestly never dwelled upon my lack of a father — I would say, whenever asked, you can’t miss something you’ve never had — I didn’t need a Dad so long as I had them.
I remember my best friend discovering his love of live matches at Charlton. He too had grown up supporting Manchester United but had attended a Charlton Athletic match at The Valley, as part of a school trip, and from that point on never looked back.
It wasn’t long before I joined him. Still an Arsenal fan at heart, I adored our trips to Charlton. Boarding the coach from our home town and journeying up to south London felt to me as though we were discovering unmapped territories; they were certainly unmapped to me. Sharing seats alongside fans who had been making the same trip to the same stadium, a stadium they called home, for what seemed to us like centuries. Suddenly we were a part of the hallowed tradition.
One time boarded the coach to Sheffield, a round trip of some 15 hours or so; two teenagers travelling miles just to watch Charlton, to sing songs about putting other teams on bonfires and Valley Floyd Road and indulging in every match-day tradition we could think to tick off; walking about the roads surrounding the stadium, taking in the sights, sampling a pre-match burger, flicking aimlessly through the matchday programme, taking our seats earlier than early.
I distinctly remember Charlton losing in Sheffield, the painful silence in which the coach was held for the whole journey home, but that didn’t stop every one of those fans turning up to The Valley the following week. I still have the programme, and the ticket for the game sellotaped inside the front cover, from every single Charlton match I attended. I’ll continue to do the same for every future fixture too.
I remember going to watch football with my uncle: the country’s most southern Scunthorpe supporter; my squeaky southern voice being lost in the harangue of northern accents. I remember being called in from the street for dinner every single day, every time the warmth of my meal ebbing away while next goal won. I remember wearing hand-me-down Arsenal shirts, with the sponsors JVC and SEGA writ large across the front, that my football-averse cousins were secretly desperate to depart with. I remember waking up absurdly early on weekends to watch highlights of the Copa Libertadores; “they play in South America too!?” I remember Charlie sleeping round my house every Friday night so we could wake up early on Saturday morning to watch Soccer AM while we ate cheese and beans on toast.
I don’t remember having a father growing up. But I do remember football, almost nothing but football, and I remember being so happy to have it. Truth be told, I still am.
FOLLOW WILL ON TWITTER @shillwarp