Ingrid’s first game
spiked’s resident football columnist faces a parental rite of passage: taking his young daughter to a match.
Saturday was a momentous occasion. I’d been mentally preparing myself for this day since my daughter Ingrid was born six years ago. Sure, there were other significant developmental milestones: her first birthday, her first steps, her first words, her first day at school. But this was the big one. Her first football match: her first visit to South London’s Theatre of Dreams (er, that’s Selhurst Park in case you’re wondering). Crystal Palace versus Preston North End in the Coca Cola Championship. As I said, momentous.
Now, I’ve read all those childrearing gurus: Penelope Leach, Miriam Stoppard, Gina Ford. Seen Supernanny, got the t-shirt. But the one thing none of those parenting experts can prepare you for is your child’s first football match. On this vital question they are all resoundingly silent. Never mind routine versus child-centred care, what I want to know is how to indoctrinate my daughter to support Palace. Will she be smitten as soon as she sees the hallowed stadium? Or is a six-year-old too young for football? What if the roar of the crowd is a bit too frightening? What if she gets bored? What if the game is really rubbish? What if she starts supporting Chelsea while I’m still procrastinating over these questions? It’s a parenting minefield.
Last year, I noticed that she was starting to become aware of club allegiances. One of her classmates supported Chelsea. A boy in her after-school club supported Manchester United. Decisive action was called for. I trained her to say ‘We support Palace’ and ‘We hate Chelsea’. The next step was to take her to a proper game. Taste the matchday experience, I figured, and she’d be Palace for life. Well, that was the theory.
Family Day at Selhurst Park, where it was ‘kids for a quid’, was the chance to put that theory to the test. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been rather cynical of Family Fun days. Cheap tickets for kids I’ve got no problem with. But all that other nonsense: the crap tribute bands, the stiltwalkers, the jugglers, the balloon sculptors, the inflatable clap sticks. It represents all that’s wrong with football, doesn’t it? Noisy, passionate crowds reduced to passive consumers of sportertainment. We don’t need all these fairground attractions to entertain us. Singing, shouting, a cup of stewed tea, and 90 minutes of football: that’s all you need.
Or so I thought until the day I took my daughter to her first game. Ingrid didn’t seem particularly enthused by the prospect until I bribed her with promises of balloons and face painting. I also brought her friend Lola along to keep her company even though she supports Liverpool. You have to be pragmatic as a parent. When we got to the ground we found that the club was holding a clearance sale of old merchandise. I picked up a couple of last season’s replica shirts for the girls. A bargain at £3 each. Then we got their faces painted red and blue. The girls were thrilled. They loved the stiltwalkers and the man dressed up as a Star Wars stormtrooper, too. Maybe this theme-park tackiness wasn’t so bad after all.
But would the girls be thrilled by the match itself? I warned them that it would be very loud inside the stadium. Who was I kidding? ‘It’s not loud at all’, said Lola. And she was right. The stadium was like a morgue. It was hardly surprising as Palace were in the middle of a wretched run of form. No home win for three months. No goals in the last four hours of football. The prospects of the crowd belting out the anthem ‘Glad All Over’ were slim. The girls were pretty soon getting restless. In a desperate attempt to keep them entertained I dished out sweets and hula hoops. Things went from bad to worse when Preston opened the scoring. Here we go again, I thought. Palace were facing defeat and, to make matters worse, the sweets were running out.
But the beautiful thing about football is that every now and then something unexpected happens. On Saturday, rather than let heads drop, Palace took the game to Preston. Within a couple of minutes we’d equalised. The stadium erupted. Palace went at Preston again. A cute little reverse pass by Oster, a low cross by Ifill, and there was Neil Danns to slide home the second. Pandemonium. Now the crowd was in full voice. Lola even complained that the man behind her was shouting too loudly.
At half-time, I asked Ingrid whether she was enjoying herself. ‘Are we still winning?’ she replied. Kids are like that. They can’t read a game at that age. They understand the goals and you’d imagine they enjoy the sense of occasion. But the rest is a mystery. I can just about remember my first football match. I was six or seven and some family friends took me to see Queens Park Rangers. Rodney Marsh scored a hat-trick. Or at least I think he did. I didn’t fully understand what was going on. A love-at-first-sight Fever Pitch moment it wasn’t.
How would Ingrid remember her first game? She seemed quite impressed by the Palace cheerleaders – or ‘pom pom girls’ as she called them – who performed a dance routine on the pitch at half time. The second half itself was less eventful. Preston pushed forward, but Palace defended relatively comfortably. ‘When are we going to score another goal?’ Ingrid asked me. ‘The important thing is to stop them scoring’, I explained. She looked a bit disappointed. Closing a game out is definitely something a six-year-old can’t grasp.
The final whistle was greeted with a huge roar. The girls were happy, too: at last we could restock on snacks. It was celebratory crisps and chocolates all round. The girls posed for photos and tried on their replica shirts. They genuinely seemed excited. ‘When are we going to go to another game?’ Ingrid asked me. Music to my ears. Operation Indoctrination was a success.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.