x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A gift of sporting happiness

Youngsters should be free to choose their future affiliations, not be sentenced to a lifetime of matchday misery.

If you love someone, set them a choice of three: Liverpool, above, Manchester United or Arsenal.
If you love someone, set them a choice of three: Liverpool, above, Manchester United or Arsenal.

Here's a 21st century dilemma for you: which football team should your son support? The knee-jerk response - "he'll support my team" - is considered to be the correct and honourable one. But pause for a second. Isn't that the kind of crude and illogical thinking we should have evolved beyond?

You would not dream of limiting your kids' aspirations in any other aspect of life - "Don't bother learning to read, Johnny, you are destined to be a toilet cleaner" - so why would you insist they support, say, Southampton? Now, if you still live in Southampton, I can see the logic. Dad takes little Johnny to the match and they "bond" - albeit in shared misery, like First World War soldiers comparing trench foot.

But who sticks around in their home town nowadays? Take me, for example. I was born and raised in Birmingham but for the past 10 years have lived in Liverpool, where my first child Harry was recently born. Now, the temptation was to create a football fan in my own image - to drape young Harry in the royal blue of Birmingham City and present him to the St Andrews faithful as their latest disciple. A proud moment for me, a lifetime of misery for my son. It would surely be kinder, more logical even, to dress him in red and take him to Anfield. One League Cup versus five European Cups sounds like the classic "no-brainer" question.

And what about you? The fact you are reading this newspaper suggests you do not live in Birmingham, Liverpool, or even Southampton (or, if you do, you have a exceedingly dedicated paperboy). Nor indeed do you live in any of the multitude of American, Canadian, Australian and European towns and cities blighted by association with an underachieving sports franchise. You have cut the apron strings of the Motherland. You have dared to taste the milk and honey of the UAE - a land newly invigorated by the twin pillars of ambition and optimism, not the strangulating weeds of stoicism and the good-natured acceptance of failure.

If you raise children in this new New World, you are effectively offering them a blank canvas upon which to paint their own sporting colours. Why burden them with your own nostalgic baggage - a pointless affiliation to 11 journeymen who gather each Saturday in some half-empty stadium, in some damp mill town, thousands of miles away? That would be like the poor US immigrants of the 19th century, who fled the disease and degradation of old Europe and made it all the way across the Atlantic, only to settle in the disease and degradation of a New York slum. So close and yet so far.

There is an old cliche: if you love someone, set them free. I say if you love someone, set them three. By which I mean a choice of three: Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal. Tell your boy to pick one, then swallow your pride and know that you have bestowed upon him the greatest gift a father can give: sporting happiness. Incidentally, the answer to my son's allegiance dilemma was also a "no-brainer", in the sense that I did not use my brain to produce it. Harry is now three months and 12 days into the lifetime of misery he will endure as a Birmingham City fan. Sorry, son.

Journalists are usually painted as the pantomime villains of the sporting world. Like Cinderella's wicked stepmother, they connive their way into the lives of athletes, then abuse that position of trust by spinning any unguarded comment into a monstrously distorted story. Well, that is what the sports clubs would have you believe, which is why they have spent the last 10 years putting as many barriers as possible between their athletes and journalists. Access to players is restricted, interviews are monitored by shadowy "media officers" and journalists who dare to write the "wrong" thing can even be ex-communicated, and banned from the press box. But, thanks to the Internet, you no longer need a journalist to put you at the centre of a media maelstrom - you can just do it yourself, as cricketer Tim Bresnan discovered last week. Bresnan used his Twitter page to respond to a fan who dared to mock his weight, giving a foul-mouthed response that led to newspaper headlines being devoted to the incident and him having to making an apology through the ECB. This comes shortly after footballer Darren Bent used Twitter to express his frustration - which was equally offensive - at his delayed transfer to Sunderland. Both men have since apologised, but would the stories ever have come to light if they had vented their frustration to a trusted journalist instead? I suspect not. When journalists are actually allowed to build proper relationships with players - and this does still happen occasionally - they will often act as an unofficial sounding board. A friendly hack may well have advised Bresnan and Bent to sleep on it before going public with their gripes, or at least helped them to find a more elegant phrasing. So before we start booing every "evil" sports journalist, it is worth remembering that they sometimes play the role of Fairy Godmother. Will Batchelor is a writer,broadcaster and self-confessed cynical sports fan sports@thenational.ae