Memories with my father: how football strengthens the dad and lad bond and forges a lifetime love affair with the game
- The match-going experience brought Andy Mitten and his father closer together
“Good win for the Reds, son.” There are no more words. It could be in Liverpool or Nottingham, Toronto or Cincinnati, Sao Paulo or Shanghai, a father to son comment after returning from a game.
But this is in Manchester, on Sunday evening as winter closes in, two hours after Manchester United 2-1 Everton. It was an unscheduled visit.
This piece was going to be written from Camp Nou with a focus on the Clasico, which finished Barcelona 5-1 Real Madrid. But a phone call changed all that. I needed to get home. It had been coming.
Dad is very ill. He sleeps by my side as I write, this man who gave me a love for football. A man who shared a name with his famous uncle, a star of Sir Matt Busby’s first great Manchester United side and then manager at Newcastle United. That meant dad’s first job interviews consisted of being asked questions by an older generation who wanted to reminisce about United’s clever winger and penalty king.
We’d visit Charlie Snr at his home in Old Trafford, a mile from the football ground in an era when players lived among the working-class fans who attended games. He’d regale us with stories of winning the 1948 FA Cup or moving to Colombia in an era where footballers seldom travelled abroad to play, let alone to Bogota to take on the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano.
My young mind was utterly captivated. I’m from a football family – my grandad and his two brothers played professionally. Dad and most of his brothers played semi-professionally too and I’m about the only member of a large clan not to have received money to play football.
But dad was my hero, along with Bryan Robson, Manchester United’s captain fantastic of the 1980s. Dad told me he could kick a ball into space and who was I to question it?
Dad took me with him from the age of five to watch him play on the football grounds of northern England. While he played on the pitch, my brother and I played around it. A good day out meant a stadium with a big stand to climb. Northwich Victoria or Hyde United was like the San Siro when you’re eight.
At one game, the loudspeakers announced dad’s name, while he was up a horse chestnut tree in full kit and boots shaking the branches so that conkers would fall down for his sons below. Little football was watched, but those now gone sights, sounds and smells: the pies, the Bovril and deep heat oils. They were enough to encourage a lifetime attachment.
The professional football results would be announced on BBC Radio on the way home.
“Good win for the Reds,” he’d say as we tucked into a bag of sweets.
People in Manchester rarely call United the ‘Reds’ these days. It’s a Liverpool thing, isn’t it?
Dad refused to go to Liverpool for his entire life, unless it was to play football there. At a push, he’d concede that Liverpool produced great footballers and football teams.
I couldn’t understand how a man who gave his wages to striking miners and ambulance workers had so little time for Liverpudlians, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as happy as when Gordon Strachan equalised for Manchester United at Anfield in 1988. That was relayed via radio, for games were seldom televised and he preferred to play rather than watch football live.
I begged him to take me to the 1985 FA Cup final, but he said we couldn’t get tickets. Begged him successfully to take my brother and me to a Manchester derby game and then marvelled because he knew all the ticket touts outside Maine Road as he’d played football against them.
Just 32,440 attended that game in 1986, when neither Manchester derby sold out and Manchester was a long way from the top of the football tree.
Dad thought it was entirely normal to take a bag full of sweets to a Manchester United game and hand them out to the fans around him.
We stood together in Camp Nou when United won the treble in 1999. I’m supposed to say it was the greatest night ever for United fans, but dad felt United hadn’t turned up against Bayern Munich, hadn’t done themselves justice.
He was equally frank about his sons’ talent. I saw him wincing on the touchline as a full-back called Ryan Wilson, later Giggs, left me standing again and again on a Salford Sunday morning. I was mercifully substituted at half-time. My other brothers did better and turned semi-pro, while I took to writing about the game instead.
In Manchester football matters most. Football oils conversations in the great cities of northern England and Scotland. It seems everyone has an opinion, even if they don’t go to games.
My father was never short of one. He told Andy Cole that he needed to get his boots back on and do something about what he considered to be a wretched Manchester United performance against Newcastle United in 2012. More neutral minds described the 4-3 game as the best of the season and was it even fair to complain when United were seven points clear at the top of the Premier League at the time, en route to a record 20th league title? Cole was 42 at the time.
But it’s only football. That most important of the things that are not important. Best to remember dad helping educate youngsters, many from challenging backgrounds in inner-city Manchester, towards an apprenticeship. He did it by talking in their language, by talking football. And as he sleeps by my side, he is still my hero, soothed by the knowledge that it was a good win for the Reds.