The gift of football

I can’t remember how old I was when I was given the gift of football. Nine, maybe ten? I do remember seeing the round bulk of it in my stocking on Christmas morning, of drawing it out to marvel at it.

Yes, fine, technically the gift wasn’t football itself, but it was the closest my dad could get: a book about football, in the shape of — of course — a football. Though the book has long since been lost, or more likely given away, its subject’s presence in my life has been far more enduring.

In fact I have a lot to thank it for. If it were not for football I would not have the memories of the endless weekends spent driving around Norfolk with my dad, heading to away games against Stalham or Dereham or Mulbarton.

I always struggled to distinguish one game, one team, from another when we looked back on the season but Dad always kept track, taking note of the scores on a fixture list he printed out. He would remember the opponents’ star players, or the ones I had personal battles with, while for me, after a while, one team blurred into the next.

Instead what I remember are snippets, moments: the match we were meant to play against a team on the coast — Hemsby, maybe? — when our opponents didn’t show up, and so the dads and the girls had a kickabout on the clifftop pitch, buffeted by the sea winds.

The thrill of getting to play on the proper ground at Fakenham Town, which has a capacity of about 2,000 but may as well have been Carrow Road to me, even though we were only watched by about seven people, and yes, probably a dog or two.

Though my mum and sister are largely absent from those memories they too are there when I trace the thread of football back. Despite their committed disinterest they would gamely surrender the telly for the big occasions; I was a bit too young to follow Euro 96 but France 98 — and Emmanuel Petit’s ponytail — was a watershed moment for all of us.

Thinking back now, football’s echoes are everywhere — even in the name of our cat, Rumee, named after (obviously) Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. I remember the exam when I chose to write about the first Norwich game I attended, because it was the most vivid, multisensory experience I could think of.

I remember when I decided I wanted to be a football writer, inspired by The Observer’s Amy Lawrence, and read every autobiography by the 1966 World Cup winners that I could find in the local library, deciding that was the obvious place to start my education. I wrote lists of facts to memorise: the names of all 20 top-flight grounds, all 20 managers, which means to this day I can’t think of Charlton Athletic without thinking of Alan Curbishley. I remember covering my Spanish books with pictures of Real Madrid’s galácticos.

If it were not for football I would not have the job I have now, on the sports desk of a national newspaper. I would not have known the joy and distraction of two particular promotion seasons, the ones that will always mean the most: 2003–4, because I experienced it all with the sort of full-heartedness that only children are capable of, and 2018–19, because it offered lightness and relief in an otherwise gloomy year.

The latter season may be the most precious of all, because it also gave me and Dad the chance to go back in time: to go to matches again together in a sustained way, which we hadn’t done for the best part of a decade.

We travelled to Anfield for that first Premier League game the following season, and, later, to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for our FA Cup fifth-round match — a night that ended up having to sustain us for months, as it was the last game we went to before the pandemic shut down the sport.

In fact we are still yet to return to the pattern we fell into during that promotion season, partly because of Covid, and partly because my work schedule makes it that bit trickier to get to games.

While I haven’t been able to get to Carrow Road, I’ve still been there, in a small way, through this column — but that will not be the case next season, as I’ve decided to hang up my boots.

Writing these columns has given me the chance not just to be a tiny part of the club I’ve loved for the best part of 25 years — and to share some of my deeply held and absolutely correct football opinions — but also to reflect on what the sport has meant to me.

So yes, technically, Dad gave me football, though I suspect I would always have found my way to it eventually. What becomes clearer, though, with every passing year is that the gift wasn’t really football — it was him.

This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Premier League game against Tottenham Hotspur on May 22, 2022.

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Hannah Shaddock

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