When I was 12 I fell off a horse called Rambo and broke my elbow. Three hours later I settled into my season ticket seat at Vale Park, the plaster warmly hugging my arm and disarming the icy frisk of the air.
Two-decades-and-more later my dad tells the story of his impatience at the hospital. Convinced of my melodrama he reached peak agitation in the X-Ray Department, so eager he was to not miss the kickoff. The opposing team and result of that game are long forgotten but we still laugh about this 90s precursor to a Parenting Fail.
My childhood Saturdays were spent horse-riding at a local stables in the morning followed by dinner (lunch, if you’re a southerner) at home. We’d gobble down North Staffordshire oatcakes filled with melted cheese and tinned plum tomatoes, or a meat pie with a lid of red sauce slammed out of a reluctant glass bottle – always too much or too little. As I got older it became my pre-match duty to fill up the flask with hot, sugary tea ready to share at half-time.
From October until April (it’s cold up North…) we’d pile on the layers and I’d try in vain to keep my feet warm. I settled on tights under jeans, thick socks and rubber-soled boots but after every winter game I’d limp down the steps from the same windswept corner of the ground, joints screaming, frozen feet begging for soft landings. The hard ache would set in almost immediately as we warmed up in the car, toes and fingers throbbing all the way home. The arrival of Spring was heralded by the welcome absence of this gnawing thaw but it also marked the ending of another season where big things never happened.
We made it to Wembley twice in the early 90s though. We walked down Wembley Way surrounded by West Brom supporters bouncing and shouting, ‘Boom BOOM Baggies BAGGIES’. Weaving between them my brother and I dared to turn our scarves in on themselves and pull them onto our heads. We were Vale and we were proud.
We won that day and, in the grips of celebration, my dad allowed us to trap the ends of our scarves in the rear windows of the car. They flapped behind us all the way up the M6, and I didn’t know what to call the swell deep down my chest. I imagined the cars we passed knew and admired what my team had achieved that day… The unifying beauty of football was so clear to me when I was thirteen.
Later, at university in Kent, I witnessed rugby-boy-bravado-contempt for ‘Kev-ballers’. I never checked but I understood the reference – the Kevins of this world don’t come from leafy Home Counties backgrounds, they don’t attend fee-paying schools, and they definitely don’t play The Gentleman’s Game…
‘Your dad works for my dad’ was the rugby rallying cry of the posh boys who complained because the uni seminar groups were bigger than their A-level classes. I couldn’t make sense of the disdain though – controlling a ball with your feet surely required more skill? But of course it wasn’t about reason or logic. At twenty-one I understood the role of football in defining where we belong.
I continued to watch football in pubs and at home on the settee. I never joined in the half-time analysis – I knew my place – but I understood the rules and I enjoyed the spectacle. Until I was 31 I spent more hours watching football than I ever did putting on make up or painting my nails.
But at 31 I became a mother and I stopped watching football.
As a child of the 80s, I grew up with the assumption that I would have it all.
But I never stopped to consider how I was going to do it all.
I won the life lottery when I birthed my children, but their arrival also ushered in a loss of identity and financial independence. Motherhood ground my face against an invisible wall of gendered discrimination that told me I was no longer welcome in my workplace. I found myself performing the same role my mother had – a role I had assumed would not be mine. I was devastated by my responsibility for all the things my 80s upbringing had not conditioned me to value.
The glass box I had been living in for thirty years had revealed its walls: my illusion of freedom was shattered.
There was cooking, washing, tidying and folding to be done. I wanted to be out of the house enjoying the rare hours we had to spend together as a family. I didn’t want to be solely responsible for entertainment and bum-wiping for any more minutes than were absolutely necessary. Motherhood meant that spending sleepy Sunday afternoons watching The Game became like the dream of a velvet settee – a nice idea, an indulgence, but fundamentally flawed when small children were around.
But why is it it that seven years later, now the children can entertain themselves and wipe their own bums, I still barely cast a glance at the men’s major tournaments? It wasn’t until I sat down to watch the semi-final of the World Cup this week that I even wondered about that question.
Football offers men a universal language that makes it easy to find childhood friends on foreign beaches, and to be good at football is to be rewarded and lauded. But while it is a central part of many mens’ lives, there’s an undeniable ugliness in the beautiful game’s exclusion of women.
For 50 years, from 1921, women were banned from playing football in a move to keep the space for the returning soldiers of the First World War. While that ban might have ended in 1971, cultural barriers persist for women wanting to enter the game in any capacity.
So perhaps football lost my heart when I opened my eyes.
When I started to see the injustices inflicted by a patriarchal system on women like me, and the even greater oppressions experienced by those from marginalised groups.
When I started taking notice of the life-altering decisions routinely made by rooms full of men unaware of, or unwilling to act on, the concerns of women.
When I learned about the structural and cultural barriers that prevented women from taking their rightful places in those rooms.
When I discovered terms like second shift, mental load and domestic burden which allowed me to label what I already knew.
And when I read how we suffer from a thousand daily paper-cuts of compromise. The doors we open; our safety in cars; the public transport systems we use; the tools we are given; the medical treatment we receive: the appropriateness of it all (and more) is determined by our gender, and we are not on the winning team.
Motherhood radicalised me (I’m only half joking) and at the same time that gender inequality lit my blue touch paper, it can’t be coincidence that I also lost interest in that most male of arenas – football.
Tuesday’s game brought this home to me. My children started the game sat in front of me, their heads in silhouette against a screen that insisted I watch. Over-tired and barely interested, they ricocheted around the room while I ignored them. Instead I exhaled, gasped, yelped and groaned. England scored and my fists punched the air; my open palms clutched my face when the goal was disallowed. My head tossed in frustration when the penalty was missed and I murmured what-ifs when the final whistle was blown…
…perhaps I never fell out of love with football after all, I just fell in love with women more.