It’s a special day for a father, taking your son to his first game. For me that day came last month. Dundee United (my team) were playing Hearts at Tannadice Park.
It was also the first game in charge for former player, and club legend, Mixu Patelainen. He’d been installed as manager about a week before following a rather calamitous start to the season that saw us admiring the rest of the league from the very bottom of it. The only way is up then Toma my son. Unless we get relegated of course (as I write this more than a month later we remain bottom of the league).
We set off in hope though as all supporters must; me, Toma, my Dad and my brother. Toma’s initial confusion concerned the fact that Messi wouldn’t be playing. The Argentinean superstar is the only footballer he knows and thus he was mystified as to why we would go to see a game that wouldn’t feature him. Cost cutting measures in recent seasons at Tannadice have put Messi a little beyond our budget.
Before going into the ground we collected our tickets at the club shop. Here I’d hoped to buy a souvenir of the day but Toma was distinctly unimpressed with the offerings on display.
On then to the stadium and that childlike thrill that’s never lost of entering the stand and setting eyes on the pitch. Toma was quite excited at this point although it’s debatable whether that was from the sense of occasion or the gigantic bag of Skittles he was now clutching.
The game kicked off and it was quickly apparent that our league position was not a false one. Three successive passes was the most we managed in the opening ten minutes. In the sixteenth minute we conceded a penalty – largely the result of playing a centre half at full back. Hearts scored, 1-0. Toma glanced anxiously at the dejected faces of his Dad, Granda, and Uncle. Welcome aboard son.
Shortly afterwards my Dad got a brief touch on the ball as it was blasted into the stand; probably the closest I’ve come to being hit by the ball in almost thirty years of going to watch football. That may in fact have been the most exciting moment of the first half for us.
After about half an hour Toma asked: “why is everyone so angry?” My Dad took this one. “They’re not angry Champ, just very excited.” I would describe some of those around us as apoplectic with excitement.
They had reason to be. It was a dismal performance and a dire game.
For some strange reason it was being played with a yellow ball despite the fact that it was a dry, bright and pleasant autumn day in Dundee. I’m something of a traditionalist and for me, football should be played at 3,o,clock on a Saturday afternoon, with a white ball, by players wearing black boots. As it was a Sunday lunchtime game, none of these criteria were being met.
The crowd was growing increasingly agitated. The wisdom of crowds is a much debated phenomenon but I’ve never seen much evidence of it at football grounds. I’m consistently amazed that people can watch so much football and seemingly have so little appreciation of its subtleties.
“This is torture” someone bellowed in anguish from behind us. He was neither lying nor kidding.
At half time Toma had another question: “is it finished now?” Sadly not, another 45 minutes to go. There’s only so much consolation you can expect from a half time pie or burger.
Still we were only a goal down and it’s a game of two halves and all that. Unfortunately the second half bore an uncanny resemblance to the first.
At around 70 minutes, something I’d feared – Toma turned to me and said “Daddy, I heard somebody say a bad word.” A collective intake of breath. “They said idiot.” And exhale. “Yes son, that was very naughty of them.” He had been offered the opportunity of a rather extensive expansion of his vocabulary but fortunately seems not to have understood much Dundonian.
We were simply awful and so, it has to be said, was the referee. A failure to take 10 steps in counting out the distance of the wall for a free kick was one of many howlers that contributed to his plummeting popularity in our stand.
I had run my first marathon exactly a week before and the longer the match went on the more fondly I recalled that experience. My Dad recalled that it had been twenty years since he was last at a football game. It may well be that long until he returns. My brother, always the most optimistic of supporters, described it as the worst game he’d ever seen.
Quite an introduction then young Toma. How was it? I asked as the final whistle blew. “Bad Daddy, it was bad.”
As we made our way out of the ground I heard a woman say: “minging that.” For those of you less familiar with the Scottish version of the English language, minging means ‘foul-smelling’ or, more broadly, ‘very bad or unpleasant.’
Another word that Toma didn’t understand but he’d understood that the game was exactly that. Back in the car I promised him that one day I’d take him to see Messi.