DAN WILLIAMSON is second up in our 'What football means to me' series, and tells the story of his early football days with his dad; forgoing professional games for the less glamorous windswept fields of the North West.
Last year on Father's Day I performed the usual morning ritual of browsing Twitter accompanied by a hot cup of tea in a football-branded mug. My timeline was replete with stories from writers about their earliest football memories, the majority of which were experiences of first trips to the local stadium to watch their team with their dads, the symbolic and important passing of club allegiance from one generation to the next. My football relationship with my dad was different to most, and from the moment he got me into the sport until the day he died, we never actually attended a professional match together. He was a very good amateur goalkeeper and therefore, that occupied his Saturday afternoons, leaving him unable to take me to a game.
The first professional match I attended was on the opening day of the 1991/92 season, when Notts County visited Old Trafford to play Manchester United and left empty-handed following a 2-0 defeat. I don't really recall anything that happened on the pitch in terms of who scored or played, yet many of the memories from that day are still vivid despite the passing of almost 27 years. The colours all seemed so sharp: the lush green grass, the red seats, and the electric blue sky. The "Wonderfuel Gas" advertisement above the Stretford End also bizarrely stands out. In the days before the Metrolink and the rebranded Old Trafford station, we took the train two stops to Warwick Road, now known as Sir Matt Busby Way, and I was clutching a bag of Maltesers. Yet, I didn't go with my dad. He dropped me off at his best friend's house, and off he went to play for his team as usual. Until I was old enough to go on my own, my mum would fill the role usually reserved for dads, taking me to games and making sure I didn’t miss out on a crucial experience for young football fans.
My parents divorced in the early 90s and it just so happened Saturday was one of my dad's days to have me. The routine saw me picked up at noon after a morning usually watching Gazzetta Football Italia on Channel 4. His team was called Linotype, and played in the Mid-Cheshire League, the highest level of amateur football at level 11 of the English football pyramid. Home games were at the British Airways Club, near Altrincham, and away games would take us throughout Greater Manchester and Cheshire, sometimes as far away as Shropshire, Staffordshire, and the Wirral. The far-flung journeys seemed to take forever to my young mind, but in reality were probably a maximum of an hour in the worst cases. I could get in my car and make that journey now anytime I like without even blinking but back then these places felt peculiar and might as well have been on the other side of the world.
I've always been fairly independent, happy with my own company, and often I'd be given a few quid for spends and would be left to my own devices for a few hours whilst the team prepared for, and then played, the match. I'd go to the vending machine or bar for drinks and snacks and, with a football as a trusty sidekick, would go exploring when we were away from home. I'd watch some of the game and would sneak onto the pitch before kick-off and at half-time to boot the ball into nets which seemed ginormous to a small ten-year-old lad. Often, I'd go into the changing rooms to mither for more money, the sanctuary of the players reeking of liniment, stale football gear, and masculinity. Whenever my senses experience the same nowadays it immediately takes me straight back to those days.
The journeys home from away games usually saw me squeezed into the back of my dad's car, in the middle seat between two burly blokes. Due to a lack of floodlights at many of the grounds the games kicked off at 2pm in the winter, so after a quick shower and pint in the away team's club house we'd be on the road listening to the scores come in on the radio, with the amber glow from lamp posts whizzing by. Then, it was usually back to the British Airways Club – via a country pub en route – for a few more pints. The less said about the indifference to drink driving in those days the better.
The Cheshire Cup was the amateur equivalent of the FA Cup in our part of the world, and winning it was a huge deal. It often meant trips even further afield, and I always remember that the Merseyside teams were usually the ones to beat if you wanted to go all the way to the final. These sides were strong, and it ignited the Manchester-Liverpool rivalry, albeit on a much smaller scale.
My teenage years in the late 90s coincided with the declining physical state of my dad as he wound down his footballing days. Age was catching up with him, years of wear-and-tear from playing two games a week, and weight gain that accompanies many men as they approach middle age. Form dips and eventually evaporates and younger, fresher, more reliable bodies come in to do the job that you once did so admirably. Football is a cruel, unforgiving game, but it will always be the same.
I was reaching an age where I wanted to break a routine that had been set in stone for most of my childhood. I wanted to be hanging out with mates in shopping centres, eating McDonalds, going to the cinema and generally just causing mischief, what teenagers do. Nowadays I spend many a Saturday watching amateur or non-league games and it feels like I've almost come full circle. I look back and wonder what I found so enthralling about some of that teenage stuff but I guess the biggest thing at the time was the concern about missing out on something that would be talked about at school on a Monday morning. Perhaps I should have forgone that and ended the journey with my dad, watching him play until his goalkeeping days were over once and for all.
We later reconnected by watching matches together on TV, usually accompanied by a pizza or other takeaway. This gave us a chance to continue bonding over football, albeit in an altogether different manner, yet we still never went to the stadium together. However, post-2005 my enthusiasm for Manchester United and all things Premier League subsided dramatically. I went round less, often lazily making excuses, preferring to watch other matches or take advantages of Orange Wednesdays at the cinema. This apathy on my part a direct echo of his latter playing years when I stopped going to watch him because something else took my fancy.
This is something I've felt guilty about at times since his passing in 2009. Should I have gone round more, watched more football, pushed harder for us to go to games together? Well, that's life I suppose. And that's what football means to me. Whether it is with a family member, a friend, or just an acquaintance, football is about bonding, sharing experiences, creating and maintaining relationships, and connecting with people. Football is more than just a sport.
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