Grassroots Football: The Gala Experience

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On Sunday 7th July I took my Under 11s football team to compete in the Wakefield Owls Soccer6 Gala, a tournament for various age groups across Yorkshire. This is our story. From previous experience I know that galas are a frenzied affair. There are teams as far as the eye can see, accompanied by parents, close relatives and coaches. And as an actual coach you’re attempting to be in several places at once, coaching your team, instructing subs, keeping parents informed, finding out what’s going on and where you’ll be off to next, as well as trying to stay composed and focused. This may well be what they term ‘mini soccer’ but at a gala it’s like the circus have come to town…and brought the auditions for Britain’s Got Talent with them. And on closer inspection, some of the under 7s do have more than a passing similarity to both Ant and Dec. Gala day begins early in our house as we need to be there to register our team by 9am. Having attended a family wedding the day before, this getting up early lark is not going to be easy. I struggle through a shower and make breakfast for the kids, while intermittently attempting to sort out my coach’s bag and footballs. We load up only the essentials today – first aid kit, bibs, etc and just the 5 footballs so that we can get some practice in without spraying dozens of footballs all over other people’s pitches; after all this isn’t the usual herding cats scenario that we know as training on a Thursday night, with 17 kids and footballs being relocated from anywhere within a half-mile radius. It’s strange how none of our boys can spot the bright yellow football that they themselves have just kicked onto a neighbouring pitch or a patch of grass 50 yards away on a Thursday! Away games can be chaotic in terms of travel. Despite living in Leeds for over 20 years I’m still not that well versed on its geography or that of the surrounding areas and so we’re often screeching up to pitches later than the majority of parents. But today, we’re early, negotiating the journey with no wrong turnings and easily managing to get parked. It helps that we’ve played here several times before, of course. I meet up with my assistant coach and his son. It’s not even 9 ‘o clock and we already have two players present, which is a relief. Just the other six to tick off now. We wander down to the clubhouse and meet some other parents and players before registering the team’s attendance. One of the mum’s makes herself the least popular adult with our squad by producing suncream from her bag and liberally lathering it all over the necks and faces of the boys! There’s an outcry that can probably be heard back in Leeds, but it’s better to be safe than sorry though, right? At this point there’s always a shared sense of determination and optimism. Football at this level is meant to be fun, but in truth, none of us have turned up today to lose while maintaining inane grins all over our faces. We all want to win and nobody is looking to be humiliated. It’s a nice, positive atmosphere to be part of and it’s even nicer to see the undisguised excitement of our boys. Before we know it, we have a list of fixtures and the excitement is ramped up a notch. There’s a managers’ meeting where rules and expected conduct are explained and in almost the blink of an eye we’re on our pitch, sitting the boys down to explain tactics, rules and teams. We’re feeling quietly confident; we have a good set of boys, all of whom can be trusted with the ball and all of whom have shown that they can hold their own against decent opposition. We’ve played three of the teams in our group before and again, never looked out of place. We do still have one nagging problem though. Our goalkeeper still hasn’t turned up. I’ve checked my phone and the text was sent on the previous Thursday, but not replied to. It’s looking increasingly like we’ll be re-arranging the team and start with one of keener outfield players in nets. It’s not ideal, but we’ll have to cope. And then, just as I call my new ‘goalie’ over to give him the shirt, I take one last hopeful look at the entrance to the gala. It’s a miracle. My goalkeeper is jogging somewhat dishevelled and shame-faced over to us! It turns out that they’d lost their door keys, but they’re here now and we can all settle down! Games are one half of ten minutes. It’s only six-a-side and there are no offsides. It’s generally quite hectic, end-to-end stuff and as a coach it can be quite stressful to watch. Usually, if there’s a mistake you’ve got plenty of time to try and put it right, but a game of just ten minutes puts the pressure on somewhat and you have to guard against casual mistakes as you might not have time to put them right. Our first game is against Allerton Bywater, a team we’ve never played. It’s quite an even match, but at the end I feel like we should have won it. Our boys look a little taken aback by the pace and despite warnings they’re fussing over corners and throw-ins, rather than just getting on with it. We snatch at a couple of chances, but defend well at the other end. It ends in a frustrating nil nil draw. We’ve got a point on board, but it could easily have been three. With five teams in a group we get to take a rest next as the other four play each other. It’s a baking hot day, so in one way the rest is welcomed, but it also means that we face three games back to back after this. With that in mind we’ll need to rotate. The rest does give a coach a little bit of time to think though. So I spend the next 5 or so minutes going round my players trying to stay positive, but also reiterating a few key messages and instructions. With that done and dusted there’s time to take in a little bit of the gala. It’s an amazing sight if you love your football. We’re surrounded by games going on and the sound of encouragement fills the air. A glance across at the under 7s brings a flash of nostalgia too and I think back to my son’s first games where he wore a kit that was more like a tent and he barely looked able to run, let alone dribble with or pass a football. The excitement across the site is tangible and it would be easy to get carried away and just wander off to take in some games, but before I know it we’re back to business and our next game. We play a Beeston side from the league above us next and again it’s close. I’ve brought our two subs in to start, the idea being to give everybody a rest, while also making sure that everyone gets a decent amount of football. We lose the game 1-0 though and again have enough chances to at least get a draw. But it’s not to be and if we’re going to qualify for the main trophy we’ll have to win at least one of our last two games. The change in format doesn’t seem to be helping our boys. The pitch is much smaller than we’re used to and the length of game much shorter. And yet, every time we get a corner we’re over-hitting them, lofting them into the air and out of play on the other side of the field. Similarly, when we get a throw in we’re fussing about who should take it or taking an age trying to be ever so precise about where it goes, rather than just getting it taken quickly, down the line as instructed. We’re making mistakes and piling pressure on to ourselves. And we’re yet to score a goal. This changes in our next game. We’re playing one of the host’s teams – Wakefield Owls – and it feels like we are dominant. It takes us a while – which is the very definition of things being relative with a ten minute match – but eventually we get our goal. It’s a scrappy affair, with the ball bundled in at the back post, but they all count. It feels like we can go on and win from this position, but within a minute we’ve presented our opposition with the ball and they’ve scored. Suddenly the tables turn and we’re under pressure, but we ride this out and in the end (again!) we’re unlucky not to grab a winner after we hit the bar once and slam a few chances narrowly wide. It feels like we’ve finally gotten into our stride though. The games seem to be kicking off at different times and so we’re left waiting for our final group opposition, which gives me a bit of time to go around the lads once more, passing on instructions. We eventually sit them down and give them the big pep talk. That’s pep as in building the boys up and trying to make them feel more positive, rather than being any kind of tactical genius with a Catalonian accent. This is a big game for our boys. Exactly twelve months ago to the day we played the exact same opposition at the exact same stage of the gala and lost in a bit of a bad tempered game. It meant that we didn’t qualify for the latter stages of the trophy and a few of the boys ended up in tears. As it turned out we went on to win the less prestigious cup that the teams in the bottom end of each group played for, so the tears soon turned into smiles. But we really want to win now! It seems churlish and perhaps a little immature to talk about revenge, but then again, if we’ve not come to win football matches then why have we even turned up? The game is close, but frustratingly – again – we have more of the ball. We’re fairly dominant, but again we just can’t seem to score. We force the keeper into saves and we hit the bar, but that ball just will not go into the net. I’m struggling to retain any sense of professionalism by this point and each time we go close I’m either sailing through the air ready to celebrate or dropping on to my haunches like some kind of over emotional teenager. But that’s football. I don’t go along with the theory that we’re better coaches because we stand there saying very little. And I don’t think that it’s a case of the more vocal the better. We just all have different styles. I can’t help but get involved. I’m not negative, but I’m not particularly quiet either. And at this point on Sunday I was struggling to maintain control! The game ends in a 0-0 draw. This almost certainly means that we will drop into the lower end of the knock out matches. After a few minutes of standing around I head down to the clubhouse to try and get some more information. This is a well organised gala, so it’s easy to get our finishing position confirmed. And it’s exactly what we thought. However, some games are running over and so we’re faced with an anxious wait to see who our semi final opponents will be. I say ‘anxious’ but it’s of no interest whatsoever to my team who proceed to spend the next ten minutes or so practising elaborate corner kick routines. They even devise a celebration to fit the corners! That’s the brilliant thing about football at this level. Yes, it matters, but the emphasis has to be on enjoyment and my boys are definitely enjoying themselves. It’s getting the balance right, again, that’s key. Meanwhile, I’m having no fun whatsoever, sweating over the team for the semi final and fretting about how we’ll react to the pressure! We play another side from Beeston in our semi final and in the end we make too many mistakes. We lose 2-1, despite some frantic attacking once we’d gone two goals down. We pepper the opposition goal and manage to scramble one in but we run out of time. And that’s it. We’re out. We encourage our boys to shake hands, but for some it’s a step too far. There are tears and sullen faces everywhere I look. We try to get around each player, staying positive, congratulating them on all of the good things that they’ve done today and reminding them that they should feel proud. But it’s to no avail. These boys care deeply about this team and I have to admit that this makes me feel even more proud of them. As I walk around the pitch I hear a distinctive sound. It’s the sound of one very upset little boy and it’s a sound I’m only too familiar with. Like many coaches, I coach my son and for now he’s devastated. Despite the fact that he scored our goal he’s blaming himself as he misplaced a pass in the lead up to Beeston’s second goal. So the coach has to be put to one side and dad takes over. I want to scoop him up like I did when he was much smaller, but I know that he’ll be mortified. So, I crouch down next to him, give him a big hug and talk to him, telling him that it’s not his fault, that it’s no one’s fault and reminding him what we all learn in the end; this is football. We decide to watch the final as a team at the boys’ request and again, like we’ve witnessed all day, it’s a brilliant competitive match. Again there are tears at the end, but thankfully not from our boys who by now, my son included, have moved on. Afterwards we make our way down to the clubhouse where our team are presented with medals; a lovely touch from the organisers. By now, all of my boys are smiling and have their team photo taken holding medals aloft proudly, like they’d won the tournament after all. And there’s that lesson again; this is football. One minute your as low as you imagine you can be and then next you’re flying high. Whatever you feel, it’s an utterly brilliant game to be part of. Thanks to Karen and all at Wakefield Owls for their hospitality and another fantastic gala. We’ll see you again next year!

Some Thoughts on Father’s Day

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Because nothing quite says Happy Father’s Day like fruit does!

As the father of two young children I look forward to Father’s Day every year. I’m lucky; I have two great kids – lively, thoughtful, caring and loving. Granted, they’re not always like this and like many parents, I assume, I spend several hours a week quietly calling them names under my breath and wishing they’d leave me alone! This isn’t being unkind, just honest. Sometimes, my lively, thoughtful, caring, loving kids are complete pricks. And despite loving them with all of my heart, I can’t deny it. But they never let me down come Father’s Day.

Now I suspect that we can attribute a lot of the credit for a succession of successful Father’s Days to my wife. She loves to plan. She explores ideas, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of the perfect gift. And she has a way of making the kids think that this particular idea was there’s all along and that this gift choice was the kind of thing they meant when they told her that they thought I needed more socks. Don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact that the kids themselves – my daughter can be particularly thoughtful – have come up with some great gift ideas, but they still often need the wife’s guiding hand. And that of my Amazon Wishlist! However, the gift is just a part of why I love this particular day.

Both of my children are capable of terrible behaviour. Both struggle to control their emotions and tears are commonplace in our house. I suppose, for their age, in some ways they’re just a little bit immature, like their dad. It can be frustrating, but I’d rather this than a pair of emotional vacuums, holding everything in. They’re typical kids and I feel sure that as they grow they’ll learn to supress their reactions while retaining that emotion and knowing how to deal with it. And this is part of the reason why I enjoy Father’s Day so much. My kids both seem to make a conscious effort to behave. It’s usually payed back ten-fold on the following day, but on that particular Sunday, they suddenly learn to breath and reign their emotions in somewhat. As a result, Father’s Day seems peaceful. An island of calm waiting to be battered by a storm of emotion for most of the rest of the year. There have been exceptions, when one child has decided that they couldn’t possibly not speak up or cause a commotion, but largely speaking Father’s Day is fun.

Another reason to enjoy Father’s Day in our house is because my kids still haven’t lost their enthusiasm for it. Myself, I switched to just giving or sending a card decades ago. Me and my old man get along, but he sees no great need to be showered with gifts – or affection for that matter – and I see no great need to keep buying him stuff he won’t really appreciate now that I’m an adult. I sat through years of Christmas, birthday and Father’s Day present giving with much the same reaction – ‘Aye, that’s nice. Thank you.’ *Puts present on the floor by the side of his armchair – he’ll make it disappear later*. Eventually there seemed little point in the gift side of things. If I was doing it seeking some kind of love or affection, it wasn’t forthcoming and if I thought my present was going to change my dad’s life, then that idea was quickly shot down by his reaction.

My own children, on the other hand, excel at showing their enthusiasm for Father’s Day. The routine is always the same. We’ll decide when they’re going to give their gifts and then they’ll go out to retrieve them. The gifts are always ‘hidden’, adding to the excitement (they’re in the hallway, I’m just not allowed to leave the room). They will then re-enter the room, with their gifts still ‘hidden’ behind their backs. And here’s where the absolute joy of this day kicks in for me. They can’t contain their excitement. Both faces are plastered with wide grins. They can’t stand still, even though they’re lining up as though they’re about to be inspected. And they both have a present held, and usually only partially hidden, behind their back – there are probably others, hidden in plain sight this time, in a gift bag on the floor. Every year I pretend that I can’t see any of them.

They take turns in giving the first gift. Each year they start with something small, usually of their choice; something they’ve generally bought to make up the numbers a little bit. This is where Disney dad takes over, although it’s never a difficult role to adopt. By now I’m genuinely thrilled at what’s going on. My kids are practically quivering with excitement, almost unable to contain themselves and I am the focus of their attention. Brilliant!

After each gift or card I get hugs. If they’ve added kisses to a card – and they always do – I indulge myself, forcing them to give me every last kiss that they’d drawn on their greeting. If the kiss is in any way more of a glance I’ll not count it, just to get more. We squeeze each other tightly and even with my general fear of hugs I could stay like this all day. Even though I absolutely love a present, this is the best part of Father’s Day and the main reason why I love it. We may argue and fall out throughout the year, but for this 10 minute period we have all the love in the world for each other.

On the subject of gifts, over the years I’ve had some memorable ones. I still have a bar of chocolate that’s wrapped in personalised packaging, telling me that I’m the best dad in the world. I think this makes it official. I can’t bring myself to eat it, because of course it’s much more than just a bar of chocolate. I’ve also had brilliant books and CDs – yes, some of us still live in the past – as well as the obligatory pack of socks, because everybody needs socks.

The most memorable gifts though have both come from my son. My daughter has given fantastic gifts too, but the ones that will always stick in my mind just happen to have come from my son. He’s always been a thoughtful boy. Since he could read properly he has taken the time to scrutinise greetings cards so that he finds just the right message for the recipient. And he’s always given lots of thought to his presents. Both gifts, although very well meaning, undoubtedly fall into the category of ‘quirky’. The first one that springs to mind was a banana. Not a bunch mind, just a single banana. I got other gifts too, but the one that he was most excited about was the banana. He was about 5 at the time. He knew that this was a fruit that I liked, so it was definitely appropriate. However, his reasoning was slightly more complex than this. Apparently, he’d told my wife that he had to buy daddy a banana ‘to make sure he’s healthy’. Given my heart problems of last year, it may be accurate to wonder if he’s actually some kind of wizard. Maybe he had watched his dad snaffling one too many chocolates or bags of crisps and thought, ‘this bloke’s out of control, here’s me being force fed fruit my whole life and my dad seems to be working far too hard cultivating a belly that he’s going to really regret in a few years time.’ Whatever the thought process, it was a gift that made me smile and one that I’ll remember forever.

The other most memorable gift though was a bible. No really. As ever, Louise checked and checked that this was really the present that he wanted to buy, in the hope that he’d change his mind, but no; he was adamant. The reason he wanted to buy me a bible? ‘Because that way God will keep daddy safe’. He was only about 6 at the time and of course that’s not an age when you question God, but either way it was incredibly sweet. So although it was a gift with a limited shelf life, when you consider the old maxim about it being the thought that counts, it was lovely.

I didn’t realise that bibles could cost quite a bit and apparently with this in mind, my wife and son trawled around the local charity shops so that they could buy a cheaper one and still have money left to spend on me elsewhere. Maybe I was being upgraded to a whole bunch of bananas, I can’t remember. In the end they settled on a hardback children’s bible with shortened versions of all the stories and some pictures to boot. So you can probably imagine my confusion when I opened it up!

As a matter of course we would then spend time reading it together, at Dylan’s request. We’d lie on our bed, cuddled up and read after his shower at nights, with me rationing the amount of stories, so that we’d get more times reading together! This really was the Father’s Day gift that kept on giving. And an even bigger bonus was that sometimes Dylan would fall asleep on me as we read and so we’d then just lie there for a while longer, warm and cosy with me content to just cuddle him in and listen to his breathing.  So in the end, perhaps it really was a blessing that he bought me such a leftfield gift!

 

 

 

Proof that family and football don’t mix.

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On Friday 12th April Newcastle United secured yet another ‘against all odds’ style victory. The 1-0 win away at Leicester City was, in a way, quite remarkable. We’d lost the previous two and were in danger of being dragged back into the relegation fight. Leicester, on the other hand, had won their previous four and were keen to let us know about their confidence via any available media outlet. We’d lost Florian Lejeune to another knee injury while they had Jamie Vardy in the form of his life. And so on and so forth.

As ever our lads put in an amazing shift, covering the ground, sticking doggedly to Rafa’s instructions and throwing themselves headlong time and again into tackles and blocks. Meanwhile, off the pitch, our travelling support were simply magnificent, turning out in vast numbers, out singing the home support throughout and then staying in the ground afterwards to show their appreciation for Rafa and his boys as well as just having a bit of an impromptu party.

That night tributes were payed to the team and the support – and rightly so. Sky pundits congratulated everyone concerned and social media was awash with videos of 3,000 Geordies asking ‘Who’s that team we call United?’ as loudly as their throats would allow, given their performance over the previous couple of hours. Rafa and some of the players joined in and Salomon Rondon even asked if we’d been playing at home. Magnificent.

However, as great as it all was, I was left wondering – in the very back of my mind – if anyone had spared a thought for me. In fact, I wondered if anyone would spare a thought for the thousands who would have had to go through the kind of trials I had gone through just to watch the game.

Now before we get started let me explain that this article isn’t quite what it seems. I’m playing the fool a little bit and laying on the sarcasm in quite a heavy dose. I’m not in any way making a parallel between myself and the people who took time off work or travelled through the night and stood in the cold and who do so every time we play. In terms of away trips I’ve been there and done that many times; I know the hardships but I’ve also shared in the joy. And I know that plenty of people will regularly have to go through a lot more just to watch us play on the telly. I’m simply talking about what should be the simple act of watching the match at home on my own telly on Sky. Let me explain…

On Friday I finished work after what was an extremely long, arduous term. I’m a teacher. I came home quite fancying a pre-match nap, but found that my family were indulging their passion for X-Box, or as I call it, shouting at each other with headsets on. So the nap was going to be impossible. Instead, as a little treat and a way of trying to take my mind off the match, I left them in the front room and disappeared into the kitchen to do some dishes. La vida loca, I know. Later, at the peak of excitement, I cooked the kids their tea. Beat that.

I don’t enjoy the build up to games and I never have. If I’m at work I have plenty to take my mind of it, but if I’m at home it’s always there nagging away at me and making me think ridiculous thoughts about whether my choice of pants, shirt or even mug will affect our performance. Stupid, I know and as Stevie Wonder once said, Superstition ain’t the way. It’s a habit that I can’t break though.

So on Friday night it was a case – as usual – of just doing anything and everything both to stay awake and to take my mind away from the game. The importance couldn’t have been lost on any of us and if, like me, you often take a pessimistic view, then you could have been excused for worrying that we could easily get beat and be pulled back towards Cardiff.

After a while though the build up to the game was on the telly. My family however were still hogging the living room like travellers on the local fields. Minus the alleged petty theft and casual violence though. Although my wife is quite handy at times.

Undeterred, I turned the telly on and was dismayed at the amount of coverage Leicester were getting. Vardy this, Rogers that, Maguire the other. So the usual type of Sky coverage then. Guessing that this was set for the long haul I ducked out and grabbed the ironing board, because when I said I’d do anything to take my mind of things, I really meant anything.

And so I set off ironing while watching images on a screen with the sound muted. Images of Carragher and Neville bigging up Jamie Vardy. This is Extreme NUFC watching, after all.

As a bit of time passed I started to feel a form of mild outrage though. Why were my family insisting on staying in the living room? Could they not naff off out for a walk or move their (metaphorical) caravans into the kitchen? Mild outrage turned to mild temper and, wait for it…I turned the sound on. Luckily just in time to hear Kelly Cates announce that they’d be back after the break to focus on Newcastle. Time to stop ironing, take the chair in front of the telly and focus on the Toon.

By this point my family are knee deep in the middle of a game of Monopoly. No, really, they are. And with Monopoly comes competition. And with competition in our house – surely in any house – comes shouting. Actually, in our house shouting seems to be the default setting. Whatever had prompted it, it was just more to get in the way of my enjoyment of the match.

Now at this point some people would be forgiven for wondering why my family don’t seem to care. Why, for instance at the risk of blatant sexism and gender stereotyping, my son hasn’t joined me. Well, this is because the rest of the family are all Leeds United fans. I moved here in my mid-twenties, married a Leodensian (that’s someone from Leeds, not a posh word for a lesbian or a lion tamer) and settled here. I’ve now lived in Leeds for twenty years or so. And at the risk of outraging many Geordies, I simply let my kids decide who they wanted to support, when the time came. Both plumped for Leeds, their local club. In essence they’ve swapped one misery for another, really. But more of that another time, eh?

The game is now creeping ever closer. We’re mere minutes from kick-off and I am well and truly settled in front of Sky Sports. I know our team and at the very back of my mind there’s a lingering sense of optimism. It is however, competing with an ever present planet sized chunk of pessimism that comes with being a Newcastle fan. So while I sense we can get something, I fear it’ll be a hiding.

Alongside the optimism/pessimism conundrum I’m now starting to get slightly irritated by the others in the room. As mild-mannered as I am, I’ve had to turn the volume up. Apparently the issue of going to jail and not collecting £200 is way more important than what’s going on in Leicester. I can’t really hear what’s being discussed on screen anymore, but I suspect it’d only make me more nervous anyway. But it’s OK, I think, because both kids will have to have showers soon, in preparation for bed and my wife will be off cooking the tea. It’s almost 8 o’clock for pity’s sake and I’m starving.

Needless to say at kick-off nothing has changed. No one is off showering, no one is cooking and none of the squatters has left the room. I attempt the odd subtle ‘Howay the lads’ in order to drop a hint, but to no avail. My son has bought Mayfair and now can’t afford much else – classic mistake. He’s blaming everyone else and asking for the rules to be bent. The Monopoly volume has actually raised while I’m subtly displaying the quietest outrage ever witnessed.

As the clock on the game ticks past 10 minutes though, I’m beginning to get more than a bit irritated. There is literally no sign of Monopoly finishing. No sign of children starting to get ready for bed. No sign of my tea. And no chance I can concentrate on what’s unfolding before me in Leicester. We’re holding our own though. I can’t relax however, as in my suspicious mind the moment you think a positive thought Toon-wise is the moment Manquillo misses a tackle or humps an over-hit backpass towards our goal. And of course off to my right three of the loudest people I’ve ever met are attempting to have a conversation about a bloody board game while all talking at the same time.

I repeatedly turn up the volume which piques the interest of my son who starts to ask questions. Bloody questions! I’m trying to concentrate on the game! He knows the players, the score is on screen, he can see who we’re playing! Aaaaagh! This truly is extreme NUFC watching!

The half is now ticking by quite nicely and we’ve got a foothold in the game. In fact, we’re the better side. Things are settling down a bit. My wife has departed for the kitchen and strangely, my son is now quite placid. And then my daughter starts dancing. The Monopoly board is still on the floor so she’s improvising somewhat, twirling ever closer to me in the armchair. After probably not even a minute it’s too much.

“Will you bloody sit down?!”

“Alriiiiiiight!”

Her outrage is palpable. She’s 12 and has mastered the art of answering back. And after all, what’s a living room for if it’s not for dancing around all the garbage on the floor while swinging dangerously close to an enormous Smart TV?

The tension has become too much for me. We’ve now reached the stage of the game where you can almost reach out and touch half time, but when there’s actually still quite a while to go. The half hour mark, as it’s known, when sometimes, just sometimes, even Newcastle fans can relax. But this game is so important. And as with every occasion I watch Newcastle on the telly I have to get up. I can’t sit still any longer so I’ll stand. Maybe if I wander around for a little bit time will miraculously pass. Whatever it is, the dancing has snapped something in me and I’m up.

My son decides that he’ll have a little wander too and between him, a now sulking pre-teen, a Monopoly board and three piles of fake money, it’s quite the job to actually find somewhere safe to place your feet. I turn my back for a second and my son chooses this time to engage me in conversation – probably asking who we’re playing again. I’ve momentarily left the game behind.

Luckily the volume has had to be turned up to a silly level so I just here the commentator’s voice go up in tone significantly. Something’s happening and it involves Matt Ritchie, a man in possession of a magic hat and a wand of a left foot.

Instinctively I spin round. Miguel Almiron has just lost the ball, but it’s heading back to Ritchie. My son is practically standing on my toes for some reason and it’s tempting just to push him over. Instead, I place my hands on his shoulders and hold him still. All this to watch a game of football. But this is extreme NUFC watching.

On screen, Ritchie feints, drops his shoulder and pushes the ball past a Leicester defender before delivering a great ball into the box. I can see Ayoze Perez moving towards it, but two small hands are also grabbing at my midriff. I scream at the telly.

“Get across him!” as Ayoze does just that. As he meets the ball with a powerful glancing header I simultaneously pick my son up and deposit him onto the armchair in front of the telly, while my feet leave the ground. Kasper Schmeichel’s dive is futile and in a flash the ball is in the net. I’m a foot off the ground punching the air and screaming again. I land on a pile of Monopoly money and skid, somehow keeping my balance, but scattering my son’s savings and property portfolio all over the living room. Who cares!This is no time for Monopoly!

My son – we’re his second team – leaps up into my arms as I celebrate. I attempt the trademarked Ayoze fingers-in-ears celebration with a child hanging off me, only to look utterly stupid as for once Ayoze doesn’t bother with it. It doesn’t matter. We’re deservedly 1-0 up.

The rest is now history. We won. Thirty eight points makes us look safe. However, that wasn’t the end of my headache. Oh no. As the second half got underway my daughter finally decided to have a shower which created more problems. Even with the volume pumped up high I still found myself competing – and frankly losing – with her shrieking the latest R&B dirge like a tortured animal channeling Beyonce. And no, I’m not exaggerating. Maybe I’m a little bit odd or maybe I’m just a grumpy old man, but I feel like I need to be concentrating fully on the game, almost as if I might spot a runner and be able to warn someone on the pitch – ridiculous, I know – and my daughter’s singing meant that I just couldn’t focus on matters on the pitch.

And then, just after half-time, my wife decided that tea was ready! Nine o’clock at night and I’m faced with a plate full to the brim of Mexican food. Chicken, salsa, rice, soured cream, all waiting for me to clumsily knock it off the plate as I watched the match with it on my lap. Would a half time tea have been too much to ask? I now have an X Factor audition upstairs and Speedy Gonzales’ tea in my lap when all I want to do is watch my team on the telly!

I try in vain to eat without throwing rice on the floor and also manage to drop soured cream on my jeans and all the while I struggle to really watch what’s unfolding in front of me. However, by the hour mark I’ve finished and despite the mess that I’ve made, we’re still 1-0 up.

Thankfully, we’re into added time before my next problem arises. But extreme NUFC watching has one last twist for me. Just before the fourth official holds up the board to announce our now traditional 5 minutes of added time my daughter arrives back on the scene. I’ve managed to see off my son who thought it best he watched the second half while perched on the arm of the chair, leaning on me and asking a series of inane questions. He’s now gone to bed. But then my daughter returns from her shower and decides that, despite her dad’s obvious tension, she has a few questions of her own. The main one of which will almost see me completely blow my stack.

With three points on the line and her dad watching his team, the team he’s spent forty odd years watching and frankly, obsessing over here is what she asks me.

“Is Alan Pardew still the manager?”

My family and football really don’t mix..

The 2018 – 2019 Season – a grassroots football review.

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As a long season in the Under 10s section of the Garforth Junior Football League draws to a close, and every coach’s minds turn to next year and how we step up, I thought it right to have a little look back. A moment of reflection or a review, if you will.

There’s nothing self-important here, by the way. I coach a team of Under 10s and while in my mind they’re a very special bunch of lads, in truth we’re nothing special at all. Not to be disparaging to my boys, but there’ll be hundreds, possibly thousands of teams just like us around the British Isles. The thing is though, these boys and this team have brought me so much joy over the last year that it’s more than worth a few thousand words. And it’s been a hell of a season.

I took over the coaching of the team part way through last season and while I’d like to think I got the boys a lot more organised, we still weren’t winning games. We were undoubtedly more competitive, but we still ended the season with just the single win.

Needless to say, I was desperate to see our fortunes improve this season. We organised some friendlies in June and July and having attracted a few new players, for once not only did we have numbers available, but we were actually improving. We quickly developed a noticeable style of play and identified key players for key positions. And the results were improving too.

Despite the optimism, we started the season with a 2-0 home loss, but it was clear for anyone to see that we’d got better. The team we played, North East Leeds, had dropped down from the division above us, so we took quite a bit from the game and although we didn’t score, we went close.  And not too much short of a year previous we’d conceded 18 goals in a game, so a 2-0 loss here was nothing to be alarmed about!

A week later we travelled to Horsforth for an away fixture against a team who we’d played a few times last season, losing all but one where we’d equalised with 8 seconds to go! I must admit though, even early on in the season, I felt fairly confident. However, I wasn’t expecting quite what happened. We were fantastic that day. The desire to win was evident from the very start and we were passing the ball beautifully. By half-time we were leading 3-1 and ended up winning 4-2; a huge win for us. This was only the second time we’d scored more than 2 goals in a game since I was put in charge! It was only our second win ever! I think we were all a little shocked. This winning thing felt strange, but great!

And so began a four game unbeaten streak. We won the next two and drew the fourth game. Suddenly getting lads to turn up and want to play wasn’t a problem. In fact, by the last game of this particular run we had 6 subs. At times in the previous season we’d turned up with just 6 players! Now we had more than enough players and every last one of them with smiles on their faces. That said, you should try getting 6 subs on a field and giving everyone a decent time!

Next came one of the most disappointing parts of our season though. We lost 4-2 away from home against the team who’d beaten us in the first game of the season, but the worst of it was that we were 4-0 down at half-time having performed really poorly. For some reason the boys looked unfocused and a little overwhelmed. We rallied a bit in the second half, making sure that we were as positive as possible with our half time chat, but nothing would shake the memory of that first half performance. I sulked for the rest of the day and couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week! It’s funny how, even as a calm, rational adult, such things can affect us.

The next game brought a change of emotions and in many ways summed up what grassroots football at this level is all about. It was another away game and I was tickled to see that our opposition played in black and white stripes, like my beloved Newcastle United. As the teams were warming up though, the opposition coach came over for a quiet word. He explained that his team were having a poor season and had been getting hammered every week. He’d taken over just before the season started when they only had 6 registered players and the whole thing was a bit shambolic. He asked if we’d sub one of our players should we get too far ahead in the game. Knowing how things had been for us the previous season, I quickly agreed.

We won the game 7-1 and were excellent. We were fair, our players encouraged theirs and it was a pleasure to witness. I have to admit I felt guilty though. I felt sorry for their boys. This team were exactly what we had been the season before and I was pleased that, although we won in a one-sided game, we were magnanimous and mature about it. The best part of the whole morning came when our opposition scored. Every spectator, every coach and every player cheered. A lovely moment that got lovelier at the end of the match when all players shook hands. Our opponents left the field with some pride and something positive. Yes, we’d won at a canter, but it had clearly felt good not to be mocked and even better to have scored.

Our next two games continued the pattern we were setting. We played the same team – one league game and one cup – and won both well. Winning the second game also meant that we qualified for the Quarter Final of the cup, something that we wouldn’t have thought possible only months before. In their brilliantly naïve fashion our boys also took this to mean that we could genuinely go on and win the thing, which made me smile but also alerted me to a level of expectation that I’d not really felt before. A cup quarter final would most likely mean playing a team from a league above us and I feared that we could be in for a bit of a thrashing. Waiting for the draw to be made for the next round of games certainly had me tense though! I was relieved when we drew a team that we’d played before. We’d lost to them in the latter part of the previous season, but hadn’t been embarrassed, even though they’d stuck five goals past us. Maybe we did have a chance after all. This childlike optimism was catching!

As is the way with football we were brought crashing back down to Earth in the next few weeks. We lost our next three games and learnt a few lessons along the way. The teams we played were physical and pushed us around quite a bit. And we let it happen. My lads are quite the polite bunch when it comes to their football and so, when teams employed an under 10s version of the dark arts, we didn’t stand a chance. But this made me think. How could we combat such physicality? I didn’t want my team to start pushing people around and I wasn’t about to get the weights out, so how did we fight back, so to speak? I found myself scouring YouTube for tips and eventually stumbled upon some great ideas from Italy that looked like a bit of fun as well. I managed to ally these ideas with one or two of my own and for the next few weeks in training this is what we worked on. I’d recently gained my Level 1 FA Coaches badge and was brimming with ideas.

We’d have the boys pairing up and then working on their balance and their core strength while throwing footballs to each other. One exercise involved balancing on one leg while holding a football before pivoting the whole body forward so that you touched the ground with the ball. Then, keeping their balance, they’d pivot back up and bounce the ball to their partner who’d do the same again. Trust me when I tell you it was hilarious! The amount of our players who simply can’t stand on one leg is unbelievable. It was like watching the world’s worst flock of flamingoes!

Other balance games involved jumping over a line, landing on one foot and holding the pose until told to ‘Go!’ and sprinting five to ten yards. We’d also get them to sit down and balance with their legs out in front of them while holding the ball. The ball was bounced to their partner who’d balance and catch it after a few seconds. The drill would end with the pairs working on shielding the ball from each other, twisting and turning in order to hold their partner off and protect the football. It was amazing how quickly they started to use their new found strength and balance in games and extremely satisfying when we noticed it happening.

And then it was time for our Cup quarter final. Every available parent, sibling and even some grandparents travelled over to Wakefield with us and the excitement was tangible. Even at my age, I was desperate for us to win, desperate for us to put in a performance and compete and as a result I was feeling ridiculously nervous. The boys had worked so hard in training and in every match they played just to get to this point; where they could tell themselves, ‘We’re a good team.’ We warmed up, had a chat about our tactics, focus, work rate and supporting each other and we were ready to go.

The game went reasonably well, but in the end we were narrowly defeated. We fell behind midway through the first half when we didn’t close down and simply allowed our opposition to shoot and score. It’s something we have a tendency to do and probably common at this age. But we’d been the better side up until that point and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Another sign of our progress though was that the boys didn’t let it get to them (unlike their coach!) and they carried on looking for an equaliser.

Not long before half-time, it arrived and it’s safe to say that the proudest man at the game was me. My son smashed in an equaliser, following up as the goalkeeper parried out a shot.  I’d spent months sitting watching football with him and telling him that every good striker would follow the ball in, and he’d done just that. As he jogged back to his half of the field he looked my way and we both clenched our fists in celebration. It was one of those tiny moments of joy that you get as a coach and a dad, and as such, one of my favourite moments of the season.

We continued to battle on after equalising and for a short while we looked likely to get another goal. However, it wasn’t to be, and in the final few minutes we were first denied a penalty (home refs, eh?) before conceding a goal from a corner. Another followed and that was us done for. There were tears at the end. My boys had genuinely believed that they could win and this had hurt them. But they were quickly reminded that they’d done themselves proud and that this showed how far they’d come in a very short space of time.

We went the next two games unbeaten with solid performances, before a game that had all of the good and bad of grassroots football. We played a team we’d previously lost to and were 5-0 down at half-time. The pitch was heavy, but the light drizzle that greeted the start of the game quickly gave way to heavy snow and for the first time in a long time players were asking to come off. But it wasn’t just the weather. The opposition’s coach was ridiculously loud and quite aggressive and some of the boys commented that they couldn’t concentrate. If intimidating the opposition is your thing at Under 10s level, then get on with it and feel good about yourself, but it’s not for me. We kept the talk brief at half-time accentuating the positives of our team and telling them to win the second half. And they did just that. The game ended – still in snow – 6-3 to the visitors, but we’d made an impression on their overly loud coach and he’d asked us to finish early as the snow got harder and my boys were pressing for another goal. I agreed and we finished the game, but we’d made our point! Once again I was left immensely proud of my boys, even if I was soaked to the skin. We gathered together in the clubhouse afterwards – players, coaches, parents and siblings – and made a massive puddle together!

As the season ticked on we began to play teams from the division above. The FA seem to just thrown in these extra games without explanation. We still had league games to play and even as I write and the season is finished there are teams in our league that we’ve only played once or not at all. I’m sure the task of organising the games is both onerous and thankless, and I’m not criticising anyone, but I can’t fathom out why we don’t seem to play the right amount of games.

Against opposition from a higher league we lost both games. But narrowly and we always gave a good performance. In fact, it felt like we really should have won them, but a combination of factors seemed to get in our way. Most of this was down to missing chances, but there’s one moment I’ll remember for the rest of my days. At 2-1 down, going into the closing seconds of an away game against Division B opponents, our right midfielder found himself in the opposition box with the ball in front of him. As the goalkeeper advanced he pushed it past him and was sent crashing to the turf by a high kick that had more in common with events in the octagon than Wembley. Surely a penalty, right? Wrong.

But this is where things took a turn. A bizarre turn. That football fans reflex prompted me to call out – ‘Ref?’ I simply asked the question – was that a penalty? No aggression, no attitude, not even particularly loud. I think both of us on the touchline asked. So what followed was mildly ludicrous and really quite amusing for me. The ref in question literally jumped up and down and screamed at me – ‘He got to the ball first!’ (he didn’t). I actually found myself asking him to calm down. I pointed out that I was merely asking a question, that there was no aggression and that, as the coach, I simply had to ask the question. He was not amused. But then again, neither were my team of 9 and 10 year olds. My own son was outraged and in tears in defence of his dad – ‘He can’t talk to you like that!’ – but we wisely let it go. We hoped, like the pundits tell us, that these things even themselves out over the season.

This then left our final two games of the season. And if ever I needed an indicator as to how far my boys have come in just over a year it was with these two results. The first game was at home and we were back to a league fixture. We’d played this team a number of times already in both league and cup games and remained unbeaten against them. However, the matches had always been tight. This time was very different. We won 8-1. I was stunned. I was thrilled. But I couldn’t really enjoy it. This had been the type of walloping we’d been given for most of last season and I must admit, I felt sorry for the opposition and their coach.

Don’t get me wrong, it was brilliant to see the lads enjoying themselves. They just controlled the game from start to finish and I was able to rotate players in different positions and give everyone a fair chance. But there were times when the other team just folded. Whatever they tried just either didn’t come off or was snuffed out by our team and it didn’t feel that satisfying after all. I’d watched players, coaches and parents revel in beating us last season and now I was left wondering what possessed them. I actually apologised to the opposition coach at the end of the game and I wasn’t really that sure what for.

Our final game of the season took us back over to Wakefield and as we warmed up I allowed myself the customary glance over at the opposition. They were big, they seemed to be knocking the ball around with confidence. This would be a test. How wrong you can be!

After an even first few minutes we went ahead and never looked back. Again, I was able to give everyone a decent run out and also to rotate players into different positions. We also gave our goalkeeper some outfield time and he promptly scored direct from a free-kick! We won 6-0. Less guilt and sympathy this time however, as opposition players were vocally critical of our ‘physical’ approach when we came off. We weren’t physical. Never are, never have been. I encourage the boys to stay on their feet and not to dive into tackles and we don’t push and shove. Perhaps all the work on our strength had payed off. Or perhaps, after over a year of hard work, we’ve learnt how to pass and move, how to support and encourage and how we never give up.

So there you have it. The trials and tribulations of another season of grassroots football. My first full season in charge and what a season! Next up? A well earned break. I’m exhausted! Then later on in the month we’ll come together for the end of year presentation and celebrate what’s been an amazing campaign.

 

 

 

Is it me, or are kids just weird?

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Another weird drawing. That’s me on the left. Read on to find out what I’m doing.

Behold below a conversation that I overheard a few years ago between my then 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

Daughter: I’ve got loads of boyfriends.

Son: Have you?

Daughter: Yeah. I had more, but I broke up with some.

Son: Oh. So who do you go out with?

Daughter: I mainly go out with Ryan.

Son: Ryan? Oh. Do you kiss him? Do you kiss him up the bum?

Now ask yourself the question in the headline for this blog. I dare you to answer no.

If you’re a parent this is the kind of nonsense you’ll have heard a thousand times before from your kids. In fact, the chances are that you’ve heard a lot worse or a lot stranger. If you’re a parent who also works with kids then this type of thing is probably an hourly occurrence. There’s a reason for that and there’s no escaping it. Kids are weird.

Just over twelve years ago, as I looked down on my newly born daughter lying on our bed – she was born at home – there were many things I imagined. This beautiful, scrawny little thing was coming with me on a myriad of adventures. We’d be best pals, laughing and joking, I’d be there for her dark moments and I’d share in her many triumphs. That much was sure. She’d be a straight ‘A’ student – because back then no-one had had the 0-9 grading brainwave – she’d be imaginative, friendly, bright, good-humoured, sensible. She definitely wouldn’t be weird. And yet, nine years on she’d be discussing her loads of boyfriends with her brother, who in turn it seemed had become some kind of pervert after only six years on the planet. And why? Because kids are weird, that’s why.

Think about it. Every parent will have marvelled at their kids talking to themselves or holding conversations with something imaginary, or even tangible, like dolls or cuddly toys. And they’ll have done this for ages as well. Cute right? No. Weird is the word you’re looking for. Face it, half of that conversation isn’t actually happening is it?

And then there’s the drawings. As a parent you’ll have received hundreds of well-meaning gifts in the form of drawings or paintings from your children. All handed over with a certain level of expectancy, and of course you manage that expectancy by reacting in a ridiculously positive way. This drawing or painting is literally the best thing you’ve ever seen and it’s so much better than the last amazing one they presented you with all of twenty minutes ago.

But in reality, these drawings are almost always bizarre. In our house – and I’m sure in many others – they seem to regularly feature penises. My son especially seemed adept at drawing me as an actual cock. A family picture where mummy is recognizably small and dark-haired, his sister, slightly smaller, lighter hair, but again quite human and Dylan himself, probably holding mummy’s hand as the smallest of the family. And then daddy, drawn as an enormous phallus with two feet attached to the bottom of him that inevitably look like balls.

To add to this artistic madness he once also did a family drawing where everyone was present and again, recognizably human, while I was not only todger-like, but I was also having a poo. He even triumphantly announced, ‘…and look, Daddy’s having a poo!’ And there can be no other explanation for this type of behaviour than the fact that kids are weird.

We capture this weirdness too. Keep it for posterity. Preserve it on cameras, USB sticks and clouds, thinking that we’ll go back to it and remember how cute our kids once were. Well, look beyond the cute and I guarantee you’ll find that they’re all just weird, freakish and beyond our comprehension.

Recently we were transferring some videos from a phone to a laptop in order to clear storage space. We found ourselves watching them again, as you do in a kind of ‘aaw, do you remember this’ kind of fashion. And we sort of did go ‘aaw’ and we sort of did remember those times too. But we also found ourselves wondering what on Earth we had brought into the world!

Two of these videos stand out. The first was filmed furtively over the top of a bedroom door after my wife had asked my daughter to brush her hair, ready for school. She was about 6 at the time; my daughter, not my wife. Of course, despite several enquiries as to the progress of the brushing, she wasn’t brushing her hair at all, hence the filming. But what was she doing? Well, she was perched on her window sill, singing a song to herself about having a party in her tummy, of course. I can still hear her now, out of tune as always, repeating the inventive line, ‘Party, party in my tummy’ in a kind of weak American(ish) accent. Weird.

The second video will always be cute. When my son is a strapping hulk of a man with children of his own, I’ll still be able picture him in this video. I’ll hear him too. For all but the last seconds of the film he’s as cute as a button, singing along with a talking teddy bear, who when you told it your child’s name, was able to put it in a song. He sings along happily, with the odd coy look at the camera or a giggle until, as the song ends, inexplicably, he makes the noise ‘Booooooooow’ (rhyming with ‘no’) before acting as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened and trying to grab the camera from his mum and demanding, ‘Lemme see!’ But, for the love of God, what was that noise? We’d never heard it before and have never heard it since and despite being immeasurably cute and endearing it can’t be denied that it is simply plain weird. What enters a kid’s head that informs them, just make a noise now?

My son especially, has provided lots of strange moments throughout his childhood. He went through quite a long phase of cutting up wiggly strips of paper and tucking them in the back of his trousers so that he had a tail. This was a phase long enough for it to be suggested that this might be some kind of obsession; almost like he thought of himself as some kind of animal. He was probably only two or three at the time, but the fact was, he seemed to do this on a daily basis and for an unreasonably long time. And there was no trotting around to accompany his tail, like a tiny horse. He would just make sure he had a tail and get on with the business of the day, like making weird noises in videos and asking his sister inappropriate questions.

Further standout memories of the weird in our house also include my son once asking me, ‘Will you leave mum?’ with no context at all as we sat eating our tea. Had he picked up a hint of marital trouble, despite there not being any? I wasn’t sure, but for a while I was staggered. I had no idea where it had come from, but boy, was it weird.

And in every household there’ll be a child who deems it appropriate to dress up as a super hero or a Disney Princess for a trip to the supermarket or insists on having some sort of strange order for eating food or refuses to eat without their favourite knife and fork. As a kid, I even had a cousin who went through a years long phase of adding food colouring to his meals. So you’d go to his house to find him eating blue eggs, green chips and maybe purple baked beans. And while I understand that it’s just kids being kids, it’s also undeniably because they are all very, very strange little humans.

As I work in a school, I’m subjected to lots and lots of examples of kids being weird. I should have enough anecdotes to write a book, but unfortunately either never wrote stuff down or wrote it down but never in the same place. However, from memory, geography seems to be a great source of weirdness in kids. Again, I understand that it’s just knowledge and that these are things that we simply pick up as we go along, but sometimes the strange way of looking at simple geography that kids have, can be absolutely staggering.

In the past I’ve taught Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ to thousands of children. And great fun it was too; putting on the voices, walking around like a big bear to mimic Lennie and trying to act like a flirtatious young woman while pretending to be Curley’s wife. There have been times when I’ve expected a delegation from BAFTA to burst through the door and yet here I am, writing a blog about strange kids, my acting still criminally ignored. In order to teach it though you have to give a class some idea on the background to the story – so The Great Depression, The Wall St. Crash, dustbowls, California, that kind of thing. And it’s here that the weirdness of kids has shone through time and again.

It would appear that there are many, many children out there without the slightest clue as to where America actually is. So before the history stuff I’ve often found myself drawing a whiteboard sized map in order to show where the USA actually is. Now if that wasn’t bad enough, once you’ve got some sort of approximation of where it actually is, you’ve sometimes then also got to go to the lengths of pointing out the East coast and the West coast, in order to show them New York, for Wall Street and then California, where, if you don’t already know, the story takes place.

Now, I’m sorry, as a teacher I totally understand that there are all manner of different abilities out there in children. Believe me, I know that work has to be differentiated in order to make it accessible to all. I also get it when kids are strong in one subject, but maybe not others. But, for the love of God, how can you not know where America is? Firstly, it’s enormous. Secondly, it will have had some significant level of influence on your life, culture, beliefs, the TV you watch, the music you listen to, at some point in your lifetime. And thirdly, why have you never seen a map of the world? I’d predict it was because you spent too long doing drawings of dads that looked like penises, that’s why! Surely this lack of basic knowledge says something about just how weird kids can get?

A few other instances of this general knowledge weirdness immediately spring to mind. The first one coincidentally links to Of Mice and Men, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand the dark depths of the mind that it came from. For context, if you don’t know me, I’m from the North East of England. Happily, I’m from the world’s greatest city, Newcastle, and as such I speak with the accent of those from the city. We’re known as Geordies and we have a Geordie accent; it’s quite distinct and reasonably well-known. Or so I thought.

A few years back a colleague came to tell me a story about what a kid – the weirdo – had asked them in class.  Apparently the child had flummoxed my colleague by asking the name of ‘that Californian teacher’. That Californian teacher was me. Where I’m from isn’t even on the same continent, let alone country. I couldn’t sound less Californian if I tried. Even the weather is incomparable. And yet, said child had identified me as such. There is no link. There is no explanation, other than the fact that kids are weird and on this occasion, almost too weird for words.

Over the years this weird geography curse has struck again and again. Notable examples have been when a kid asked ‘Sir, where’s Bradford?’ Answer, it’s literally less than 10 miles away – and also when I got asked where Australia was. On this occasion I patiently pointed out that it was thousands of miles away on the other side of the world; I think I also drew a very basic map on the board thinking that it would help. It didn’t help though because the child still looked puzzled. Finally, she revealed the source of her bewilderment, crying, ‘Eh? But I thought it was in France!’ In France. Not near or bordering – which, by the way, would have been equally strange – but actually in France. It’s rare that I’m lost for words, but this occasion left me unable to answer!

While a lot of these weird anecdotes have been prompted by the behaviour of toddlers, my final few pieces of weird evidence have come from the mouths of kids old enough to know better. Both anonymous, but both very recent. Firstly there was the food advice given by a child to someone who was considering a radical dietary change – they were thinking of cutting out dairy, including milk. To my utter exasperation the following question rattled around my head and indeed the room for what seemed like forever, while I tried to figure out just where it could have come from.

‘Could you try chicken milk?’

Seriously, let that sink in. But while it is sinking in digest the next piece of child weirdness that I have to offer. Just this week I had a class writing an analysis of a poem. We’d taken a couple of lessons to study it and the class were interested and eager throughout. They had enjoyed the poem and after a brief chat about the kind of language features they’d need to be analysing in order to answer the question, I set them off writing. The silence was tangible. The ‘sound’ of a class just working, thinking about their response to a piece of literature. Wonderful. And then a hand went up and when I asked how I could help, they uttered the following question?

‘Sir, what’s empathy? Is it when you put yourself in somebody else?’

No. No, that in fact, is something very, very different.

As a final footnote, even today a child of 16 has asked me if I’m Scottish. This despite someone prior to the question asking me if I was from Newcastle (which if you don’t know is firmly in England). He repeated his question several times after being told that ‘no’ I was from England. And then as if this wasn’t bad enough the discussion moved on to all things Scottish, including the revelation that kilts were somewhat classed as national dress and, much to the amusement of the boys, were a bit like a big skirt. But this wasn’t the height. No. Not even close. A boy then asked this incredible question.

“Do they play them massive trumpets?” As a stunned silence engulfed the room the penny slowly dropped with me. I thought I knew what he meant by “massive trumpets”.

Bagpipes. He meant bagpipes.

Kids are weird. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

 

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