It’s been a funny old start to this season for me. No, I’m not talking about all the new routes we’re going to have to learn to get to away matches, or the new guy in the seat next to me. No, I’m starting this season without my Dad, as he died towards the end of last season. Yes, I can hear you thinking, so what? Lots of us have no Dad either. But have you ever stopped to think about your Dad’s legacy in sporting terms? Do you ever acknowledge the influence he has in shaping your interests and opinions?
Dad was the best. I know many people can say the same, but this was the man who patiently introduced me to the game I now love. He had a passion for most sport, which he communicated to us, his children, with joy. He dragged us out of bed in the dark to take us fishing. He took us to the old White City Stadium to watch Bruce Tulloh run, and to Wembley to see Peter Collins win the World Speedway Championship. But it’s for the football that I owe him the greatest gratitude.
I remember in detail, as a small child over 40 years ago, being taken to Gladstone Park on bitter Sunday mornings, to stand alone on a windy touchline, watching a bunch of healthy young men follow a ball about in a pack. Over the months and years, I learned to read the shape of the game and understand the rules, and Dad would always answer my questions, however stupid, and however often I asked the same ones.
One of my early questions was why nobody ever really talked to him, and why he had to change on his own. You see, my Dad was that most reviled of men - a referee. I heard the abuse he took without flinching, I saw the determination to teach these youngsters how to play properly, and learned to love the game through his example. Later, of course, I was taken to Loftus Road. My whole family has always supported what was for them the local team, and I’m told that my great-grandfather actually played for them briefly.
During my teens, I became a more dedicated fan even than he was, going to second XI and youth matches, and even attending the supporters club dinner on more than one occasion. (Just in case anybody else was there - do you remember Mark Lazarus singing a Tony Bennett number one year? Yes, the same Mark Lazarus who once did a lightning run down the wing with his shorts in his hand.)
I have watched the ground grow from the mud-banks and terraces to the sleek new Premier-standard stadium it is today. I sat on the roof of the tea-hut to watch us beat Leicester City on our way to the League Cup Final; and, yes, I was there at our finest hour at Wembley in 1967. I have shouted with joy at the triumphs of Stanley, Rodney and the Morgan twins; I even have a vague memory of Brian Bedford. I have wept with frustration as we just missed the highest glories, and wailed with the rest as we have consistently sold our greatest assets for a fraction of their true worth to us. I have held my breath through administration and, without serious mathematical calculation, I can no longer remember all the managerial regimes I have been through.
And all this, I owe my Dad. He bought me my first ticket, not to mention my first replica strip. He took me to my first away game, and brought me flasks of tea in the winter, even though he only drank coffee. In later years we didn’t even sit together - he liked to sit upstairs and look down on the game. He said he could see the pattern of play better. I prefer to sit at ground level, where I can feel much more part of the match. But we always travelled there and back in the same car, fighting for parking spaces with everybody else, although it was just a little easier in the last few years, with his disabled sticker.
It wasn’t always the most harmonious of football relationships. We argued regularly, particularly on the way home, and I sometimes wondered if we’d been to the same game or seen the same players. He always defended refs, as you can imagine, whereas I just wanted my team to win at all costs. And, worst of all, he liked to go early to get the best parking spot, leaving me to wander around for half an hour before most matches, whilst he sat up in the stands with his cronies. That’s how I came to read AKUTR’s, actually - it gave me something to fill the time between being dropped off and kick-off.
And now he’s gone. He wasn’t ill for long, but he had to stop coming just after Christmas, and he didn’t see the nearly-triumphant end to the season. I still travel with a friend but sit alone. There are no more flasks and chocolate bars, and no more fierce debates in the car on the way home. Every result is just a little sadder than it used to be, because I can’t share it with him.
The macabre among you may like to know that he did ‘see’ the big one in Cardiff, though. We took his ashes in a bag, and he sat with us, presumably savouring the atmosphere. Well, it seemed only fair - it was his season ticket that helped us get the six tickets we needed. Although it did give the security team a bit of a jump when they asked to look inside the bag (sorry, guys - this is a true story).
I hope a few of you will now stop and think what you might owe the person who introduced you to your abiding passions. And I hope I make a few of you think about the attitudes you give your own children, when I tell you I’m a girl. Like I say, it’s been a funny old start to the season for me.
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