Father and son

Un­for­get­table SAM STAFFORD re­flects on an cam­paign that cap­tured hearts...

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - FEATURE -

IT IS dif­fi­cult to put into words how spe­cial the 2016/17 sea­son was, but I felt the need to try. So here goes. It has been a sea­son I can say with some con­fi­dence that will never be repli­cated. My team, Lincoln City, won the Na­tional League and be­came the first Non-League side since 1914 to reach the quar­ter-fi­nals of the FA Cup (and we got to the semi-fi­nals of the FA Tro­phy). That was spe­cial enough, but even if the Mighty Imps do have an an­nus mirabilis again, it will not co­in­cide with the year that my el­dest boy fell in the love with the game.

This is ac­tu­ally the story of two peo­ple fall­ing in love with the game. One for the first time and one re­new­ing his vows.

Some back­ground. The first Cup Fi­nal I can re­mem­ber is 1986 and ev­ery­one at my Not­ting­hamshire ju­nior school sup­ported For­est.

I re­mem­ber get­ting tick­ets through school to watch a game against Coven­try and was a For­est fan when Des Walker’s own goal lost the 1991 Fi­nal.

I had a dam­a­scene con­ver­sion in the sum­mer of 1992 though. My school in Not­ting­ham had a large catch­ment area and a pal, still a pal, lived near Swinderby, which is be­tween Ne­wark and Lincoln.

I stayed with him for a week­end dur­ing the school hol­i­days and he took me to watch Lincoln, of the fourth tier, beat top-flight Mid­dles­brough (the Pears, Hen­drie, Wilkin­son side) 5-1 in a pre-sea­son friendly. That was it. Love at first sight for the first time.

The father of the girl that I fell in love with at first sight is a Leeds sea­son ticket holder.

He has two daugh­ers. The el­dest daugh­ter, my sis­ter-in-law, had two daugh­ters.We had two boys so he was un­der­stand­ably keen to get El­dest to El­land Road.

He took us both last year to, fun­nily enough, the For­est game when two of his pals were away. He had to sit on my knee for the last 15 min­utes, El­dest, I mean, not the father-in-law, but oth­er­wise sat there po­litely and at­ten­tively.

We (I) had col­lected stick­ers dur­ing the 2014 World Cup and I’d taken him to the Na­tional Foot­ball Mu­seum (once for a swap ses­sion), but it still was not his game at that point.

He showed some in­ter­est in the 2016 Euros (we both had sticker al­bums this time), but it still was not his game when I tested the Lincoln wa­ters in our third home game against Sut­ton in Au­gust. An­other pal had ac­cess to the box of one of his pals and I thought that that would be a quiet, civilised in­tro­duc­tion to the ‘Bank.

It was per­haps too quiet and civilised though. Our two boys just played down at the front of the box. Lincoln lost a man early and went on to lose 3-1. There were signs of life, but lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of what was to fol­low.

Switches were flipped in Oc­to­ber though. For El­dest, it was the foot­ball party that he had re­quested for his sev­enth birth­day hav­ing en­joyed one a few weeks ear­lier. He has be­come more and more be­sot­ted with foot­ball ev­ery day since.

For Lincoln, Oc­to­ber her­alded the start of a 17-game un­beaten streak and the first round of the Cup run. It made a pleas­ant change. Since we’d come out of the league in 2010/11, we had never even fin­ished in the top half of the table and had even flirted with rel­e­ga­tion. It is in these pe­ri­ods that, in eco­nomic terms, the in­elas­tic­ity of foot­ball sup­port be­comes ap­par­ent. You go be­cause you go.

De­spite a pa­rade of man­age­rial medi­ocrity, it was still a jolt to be re­minded in a fea­ture in The Times (The Times!) in Jan­uary that the Cow­leys were the first man­agers to be poached from gain­ful em­ploy­ment at an­other club in all my time fol­low­ing the Imps. Any club that spends money and is suc­cess­ful has bought that suc­cess. That’s foot­ball. And whilst the in­volve­ment of a South Africa-based global equity in­vestor and re­tired hedge fund man­ager in at­tract­ing first the Cow­leys and then their trans­fer tar­gets lays Lincoln open to the ac­cu­sa­tion, what has been so en­gag­ing is the way the club have gone about their busi­ness. It is easy to spend money and be un­suc­cess­ful. It is also easy to spend money on the ‘big name’ and the safe op­tion. Lincoln’s re­cruit­ment has been on young and hun­gry play­ers and staff. The Cow­ley broth­ers look and sound like gen­uinely nice peo­ple who love the game. They ap­pear to be hav­ing fun, which means that ev­ery­body around them ap­pears to be hav­ing fun. They are clearly foot­ball peo­ple. There is no cyn­i­cism to them, no sense of world-weari­ness. When they do of­fer the odd foot­balling cliché they are say­ing it for the first time and not the umpteenth time. They work long hours be­cause they want to and not be­cause they have to and I sus­pect that they prob­a­bly do not see full-time management as work at all. Watch­ing the Cow­leys, and watch­ing a child fall in love with the game, is to be re­minded why you fell in love with it your­self. El­dest does not see Cris­tiano Ron­aldo as a ve­hi­cle for sell­ing un­der­wear on In­sta­gram. He sees a su­per­hero who can score from all an­gles. He knows not that Wayne Rooney’s pri­vate life was once quite com­pli­cated or of his seem­ingly an­nual ag­i­ta­tions for a bet­ter con­tract. He sees the cap­tain of Manch­ester United. Most of the other chil­dren in Year 2 have Manch­ester United shirts. I know not why El­dest alighted on Spurs as his first, fleet­ing love. I

think that Harry Kane and Dele Alli play­ing for Eng­land at the Euros may have had some­thing to do with it.

Suf­fice to say that be­tween me telling him that I would take him to see Spurs at Burn­ley, which is not far from where we live in West York­shire, and the match it­self, Spurs had gone out of the Europa League to Gent and his in­ter­ested in them had waned. He still sat there cap­ti­vated, though.

Guise­ley. Al­trin­cham. Old­ham. Ip­swich. Brighton. Burn­ley. Arse­nal.

There is a tra­jec­tory to that Cup run that is al­most per­fect. Each round (ac­cept­ing that there is lit­tle be­tween Guise­ley and Al­trin­cham) a step up in sig­nif­i­cance and achieve­ment. I have a story to tell about each and I will re­mem­ber them for­ever.

I will re­mem­ber trav­el­ling back from the Brighton game work­ing out how to tell Mrs Stafford that the fifth round clashed with a trip to Lon­don that I had ar­ranged for the two of us as her Christ­mas present.

Hav­ing dis­patched Burn­ley, I then needed to tell her that the sixth round clashed with a trip to Le­goland Wind­sor that we had booked for boys’ Christ­mas present.

I will re­mem­ber watch­ing Match of the Day (MOTD) with El­dest and Lincoln hav­ing top billing. I will re­mem­ber burst­ing with pride as we dom­i­nated Ip­swich for large pe­ri­ods in front of the nigh on 5,000 strong #Im­p­va­sion of Port­man Road. I am get­ting a lit­tle teary even now think­ing about it.

El­dest has three tiers of clubs. I think that Burn­ley and Spurs are in the sec­ond tier, but it is fluid. I know that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Por­tu­gal and Ar­gentina form the first tier be­cause of Ron­aldo and Messi.

I also know that Lincoln’s cup ex­ploits have squeezed them into the third tier with Leeds. He has big de­ci­sion to make at some point, or he may not, or he may think he is in a re­la­tion­ship with a club when an­other one catches his eye.

It is his de­ci­sion. All I know, and I have told him this, is that the highs are not the highs with­out the lows. That feel­ing at Ip­swich was the div­i­dend ac­crued from 25 years of emo­tional investment.

As the Cup run and un­beaten run gath­ered mo­men­tum in De­cem­ber, we moved house and, with so much go­ing on prepar­ing for that, I had promised El­dest that we would ex­plore a lo­cal side for him to try out once Christ­mas was out of the way.

He went to train for the first time on a quag­mire in his Gran­dad’s Leeds kit and some new (black) boots. He loved it, and I was not that dis­ap­pointed that the white kit came back un­wear­able. I saw the first half of his de­but a few weeks later be­fore catch­ing my train to the Burn­ley game. He scored his first hat-trick in an end-of-sea­son 5-aside tour­na­ment and we both beamed with pride. My sea­son has had so many spe­cial mo­ments, but it is easy to pick the high­light of our sea­son. The sea­son that he and I have shared. Watch­ing MOTD on a Sun­day morn­ing is nice. See­ing him score his first goal was lovely. Tak­ing him to Burn­ley ver­sus Tot­ten­ham was good, but tak­ing him to watch Metz against PSG was spe­cial. We like to get away at Easter if we can be­cause the Au­gust hol­i­day al­ways seems a long way away at that point so we ex­plored an ex­tra six nights in a Euro­camp car­a­van on a site that we have been to when go­ing to Eurodis­ney. When we told the boys that we were hav­ing an ex­tra week in France the first thing El­dest asked

was whether we could go and watch PSG. They must have been added to his radar cour­tesy of the Cham­pi­ons League ‘Match At­tax’ cards that his spend­ing money is now go­ing on.

I googled the PSG fix­ture list and it turned out that they were at Metz on the Tues­day night of our six-night stay.

I googled where Metz is and it turns out that it is near the bor­ders with Lux­em­bourg and Switzer­land. I put Vic-sur-Aisne and Metz into AA Routefinder and it was two hours and 45 min­utes from the camp­site. I do that kind of drive at work and was up for it. So was he. She thought that we were crack­ers, but did not ob­ject. Af­ter an hour nav­i­gat­ing my way, with some trial and er­ror, through the FC Metz web­site, and hav­ing se­cured the last two seats next to each other in the ground, we were go­ing to go to Metz.

We waved Mrs Stafford and Youngest off early and they headed to Eurodis­ney on the coach trip or­gan­ised by the camp­site. Then we had the morn­ing to kill so we did what he only ever wants to do now.We played foot­ball.

It was a 6.30 kick off, but we set off af­ter lunch. I had full con­trol of the Ipod. He played FIFA 15 on his Nin­tendo DS, paus­ing ev­ery so of­ten to ask if so-andso still plays for such-and-such.

He soaks up as much in­for­ma­tion as he can. I used to too, but find my­self an­swer­ing ‘we will have to have a look’ more of­ten than not. I was a Champo devo­tee. I hope that he does not dis­cover Foot­ball Man­ager un­til his A-Lev­els at the ear­li­est.

We had a lit­tle wan­der around Metz and took in the Cathe­dral and the Place de la République be­fore head­ing to the ground. It was still hours be­fore kick-off, but the shop was open and that was the only place he wanted to spend his grand­par­ents’ spend­ing money.We came out with a train­ing kit and ball for him and a scarf each.

The ball was taken back to the car where he put his new shirt on, we found a McDon­ald’s, and got back to the ground, which was ter­rific, an hour be­fore kick-off.

Foot­ball is like life.You win.You lose.You might de­serve to win and lose.You might de­serve to lose and win. Some­times noth­ing hap­pens.You draw.You love.You get hurt.You take the rough with the smooth.

I had no ex­pec­ta­tions of the game it­self. I was just happy with the ex­pe­ri­ence. I wanted to tick off an­other ground, my first in France, and spend some time with my boy.

As it turned out, not only did the sun shine on us, be­cause it was a beau­ti­ful, if crisp evening, but the foot­balling sun shone, too.

We were re­warded for our ad­ven­ture with an ab­so­lutely bril­liant game. PSG did not need to get out of third gear to stroll back in at half­time two-nil up. They could have won by as many as they wanted, but they did not want to and Metz held on.

Cheick Di­a­baté came on and lifted a flag­ging side and a flag­ging crowd. When he scored an equaliser on 88 min­utes the crowd were up and it was the whole crowd at this point and not just the Ul­tras in the Trib­ute Est who had banged the drum for their team in­ces­santly through­out.

Metz hit the bar from a free-kick and, hav­ing been dead and buried, could have won it.

As I said though, and as El­dest will learn, foot­ball is like life. PSG went straight up the other end and scored. The lo­cals around us me­an­dered out with the same air of res­ig­na­tion that they came in with.

We stayed un­til the end. My Dad was al­ways big on leav­ing early. I could not un­der­stand it then and I do not un­der­stand it now. The game is 90 min­utes long. See it through.

I felt sure that El­dest would fall asleep as we headed back to the camp­site, but he stayed with me, now play­ing as Metz on his DS, and we got back to the camp­site at about mid­night. He dili­gently laid out his new kit, scarf and ball on the table to show his Mum and brother that morn­ing.

Lincoln fin­ished as cham­pi­ons on 99 points. I got to the Good Fri­day game against Torquay on the way down to France and we came from one down in the last five min­utes to win 2-1.

I got to 11 matches, and saw all of the BT Sport TV games. I do not think that I have done dou­ble fig­ures since the boys were born.

The league was sealed at the re­ar­ranged trip to Le­goland a week later, which was on our way home from France.

El­dest has not alighted on a team yet. I do not mind if he does, when he does or who it is when he does. I just know that he will be look­ing for­ward to the new sea­son all sum­mer. So will I.

Goal: Eric Dier cel­e­brates scor­ing in Spurs’ 2-0 win at Burn­ley in April

Stars: Ron­aldo and Messi

Cham­pi­ons! Lincoln cel­e­brate win­ning the Na­tional League

Lincoln fan: Sam Stafford

El­dest at Metz French flair: Metz against PSG

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