I wrote this seeing my granddaughter in an Aston Villa shirt. Aila’s three. I wish Barry Hines had read it. He would have understood. Why do so many of us give pain to our children? We knowingly condemn them to suffer, year after year. Then watch this pain with pride. Are you one of the guilty parents?
Years ago Michael and his school friend Brevin were on the sofa immersed in the TV and fiddling with a device on their laps. I looked closer and saw an early version of a video game, Premiership Football Manager. Brevin had all the latest gadgets.
This was odd. Michael had shown no interest in football, but here he was, excited by the competition and complexity, pitting his wits against his friend. More fun than chess, clearly. Brevin, it turned out, was a Chelsea supporter.
Instantly, my paternal duties were upon me. If I did not act my dereliction would have serious consequences, ones that could not ever be overturned. I did not follow football. I would idly look at the results. During all my years in California, it had barely crossed my mind. But now Michael was at risk: he could at any moment decide to support Chelsea or another London club. I must not let that happen.
Ours is an Aston Villa family. My Granddad would go to Villa Park way back in the 1890s. All my uncles were Villa supporters. The Villa was the default position of even those with no interest in football. It was just second nature. It was part of who they were. So Michael must support the Villa. My older son, Will, was a rugby man, but of course he was automatically Villa. He had spent his boyhood in Brum, so it was in his bones.
Why was this important? It’s only a game, people tell me. Grow up. None of it matters.
They do not understand. The fact that it is a game is irrelevant. Football is not even about football, except on the surface. A football club is not about the players, who are guns for hire; or the owners, who buy and sell; it is about families who go on through generations. It is about place, belonging and continuity. It is the invisible link which helps to bind people, even the living with the dead. It is about memory and identity. To deprive Michael of all this would be to impoverish his sense of who he was.
This was especially important to him. His father came from Brum, which he did not know. He had lived his early years in Los Angeles and was now settled in London. His mother was brought up in Los Angeles, was now in London and would eventually move to Paris. Her mother was Cuban, her father Russian. So who was he? He needed some firm anchors. He needed Aston Villa.
I did not need my friends to point out that I was condemning him to a lifetime of pain and disappointment, although they all did so, with relish. I replied that it was, at least, character building. I told him about his Great Granddad, Albert. He already knew Uncle Fred, the milkman, who was drily amusing about the Villa. “I don’t care what they say, they’re the best team in Aston!”.
Mind you, I’m not sure that’s even true now. Just a few weeks ago the first team played the Under 21s. Lost 3-0. I expect the Villa Ladies to thrash them next.
I took him to Villa Park. He chose the replica shirt of his favourite player, Dwight Yorke, and then suffered the pangs when he was sold to Manchester United. He seemed to get over it. I still haven’t. But within weeks our Michael was claret and blue, through and through. Mission accomplished.
Of course, we all have many identities. Now, this one was firmly established. Some say if it weren’t for me, he could have supported Chelsea with the glory of much success. Instead I’ve condemned him to misery. But that’s not the point. Anyway, it’s been character building. Life isn’t always smooth success.
His club is where one part of his family belongs. Therefore one part of him. He is now enmeshed in that family’s mythology. He has a direct link, through the Villa, with Albert Westley Poulton who would go on the tram to Villa Park in the Nineteenth Century to cheer on the team; and would also shake his head with Brummagem pessimism as each open goal opportunity was spurned.
Football is about family.
Everything else is detail.
Ps It seems fitting to end this with one of the most loved scenes from Kes. Enjoy.