Kids copy Bruno Fernandes and co; have our girls got better role models?

John Nicholson
Bruno Fernandes celebrates after scoring for Manchester United against Real Betis in the Europa League

On a weekend when women’s football dominated the TV, John Nicholson spoke to a father about copy-vcat behaviour.

Me and my partner Dawn don’t have kids so all things children-related are something of a foreign land, but we do have pals with kids and I was watching Everton v Liverpool, Spurs v Arsenal and Manchester United v West Ham in the WSL over Friday and Saturday with one such friend.

Kevin has a daughter (Suzi) aged 13 and a son (Marc) aged 11. They’ve both kicked a football around since they could walk and are both playing for their school teams.

Kevin and his wife Helen go to watch men’s and women’s football occasionally but mostly just watch it on TV. What he was telling me about his children and their relationship with football was really interesting, so I made some notes as we emptied a bottle of Glen’s vodka on Friday night and again on Saturday afternoon. They might strike a chord with your experiences.

“The one thing no-one tells you about kids and football is that they copy absolutely everything they see either on TV or at a game. I mean everything down to the last detail. They miss nothing.

“I knew they could be influenced by the obvious stuff like that Sturridge goal celebration wavy arm thing, kids loved that. But I never thought they would copy every single thing. But they do. Warm-up routines, goal celebrations, placing the ball on the outer edge of the corner markings, defending with their hands behind their backs in the penalty area, hounding the referees in packs. Everything.

“But I’ve noticed that now Marc only copies what he sees in men’s football, and in the last couple of years Suzi will only copy the women footballers. Is that normal? I ask myself that a lot. ‘Cos you never know if your kids are just weird.

“Marc doesn’t have any of that “football is for boys” sexist shit we grew up with, thank God. He’s currently doing the Marcus Rashford pointing at his head thing when he scores, that’s fine, I’d probably do that if I scored when I was 11. But this season he’s got a red card for swearing at the referee, he got another for doing that heads together thing with another lad who he’d tackled violently and he’s turning into a right little gnarly sh*te on the pitch. Think an 11-year-old Michael Brown.

“I can see it happening and it worries me. He copies all the pushing and shoving, squaring up to each other, doing that hold-me-back fighting-not-fighting thing and then there’s the endless bloody moaning about every decision. It’s all performative. He’s trying to be the hard man, going in hard and pushing kids around and he gets praise for it from his teacher. He’s like a mini Bruno Fernandes and throws a strop about everything that goes against his team. He’s only 11!

“He’s not getting that from me or his mother or his sister. He’s getting it from watching men’s football because it hardly happens at all in the women’s game. When I asked him why he told the ref to f*ck off, he said he just did it because a decision went against him and he thought it was unfair.

“That’s what worries me. It’s like he’s absorbed it from seeing it in every men’s game and now it’s deep in his DNA already. I can tell him not to do it, but ‘cos he sees it in every game that’s a more powerful influence than me or Helen’s words. It’s already become a conditioned response. His teacher doesn’t help.”

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“And yet Suzi is totally different. Her games teacher is all about encouragement and support. She’s a good centre-half and might join an academy next year. Amazing to think she could have a career in football. Blows my mind. She’s really focussed and determined in how she plays but not aggressive as such. Do you know what I mean? She doesn’t try to cheat.

“I don’t think I’ve seen her protest a decision. She’d absolutely never tell a ref to f*ck off. I mean, she’s not an angel, she can definitely stick up for herself, but her football culture is so different. It’s much…I don’t know…it sounds soft to our generation, but it’s much nicer. And when it’s your kids, you want it to be nicer, for them to be nicer, y’know? She’s grown up as women’s football is more often on TV. It’s her football culture and it’s moulding her as a person, not just as a footballer.

“She’s totally absorbed into women’s football culture at a really impressionable age and with that comes this…I suppose it’s a feminist culture of empowerment and awareness, isn’t it? In some ways she’s much older than 13, if you know what I mean. It is literally possible to see her becoming this more aware, almost political person through her football culture. Like, she’s properly outraged that only 63% of girls have access to playing football at school.

“Obviously, she’s still young and doesn’t always understand as much as she thinks she does, but her football is educating her, Marc’s isn’t, or at least not in a good way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad, but Marc is going down a road I really don’t like. What with all the abuse on social media that goes with football and all the gambling advertising trying to get people hooked on betting, and all the other pressures on a young lad, it feels like I’m fighting fires on all fronts on his behalf.

“It stresses me out big time. It’s like football opens him up to so many channels of wrongness. But it’s the exact opposite for Suzi.

“She’s got a massive teenage crush on Leah Williamson and gloms on everything she says and does. She’s only about 12 or 13 years older than Suzi but to her she seems impossibly mature and wise. She’s got posters of her on her wall, on her phone, screensaver, on everything. She even told me what endometriosis was because Leah has it. I didn’t even know what it was until she told me.”

Leah Williamson in action for England.

“And another thing, right, at girl’s football – and I go to all her games – there’s no competitive dad in a bloody tracksuit on the touchline telling their girl to get in the opposition’s faces or calling the referee a c*nt, but at boys games there usually is at least one or two nutjobs, always having a go. Go to WSL games and there’s no anger or someone going insane at the officials. I’ve seen fathers fighting at boys games in front of 10 or 11 year-olds. How f*cked up is that? What sort of example does it set?

“When we were kids, there was no alternative example of how to behave or play the game but now there is; it’s women’s football. I’m just hoping the fact Marc is watching the WSL on telly, what he sees there – the fair play, the basic decency, the lack of moaning and play-acting – will somehow rub off on him more than the terrible example men’s football often sets. It hasn’t yet.

“I just worry loads about him, y’know. I’m sure lots of parents worry about their boys turning into some sort of alpha male, aggressive macho twat in their teenage years, though probably not the nutters on the touchline shouting ‘smash him!’.

“Helen thinks I’m worrying too much about it and it’s just the way boys are and isn’t a bigger issue because away from the game he’s a good lad. I’m not so sure. It’s the primary influence in his life. It’s hard because men’s football is, to my mind, largely a bad influence on him, whereas I think women’s football is a 100% good influence on Suzi.

“I know that if the men’s game played football like the women do, he’d copy that. He’d be a nicer lad and that’s all I want. You get this sinking feeling in your guts when you see them being negatively influenced. Up till now we’ve been the main influence on him but now it feels like he’s being taken away from us, somehow. Does that make any sense? Like it’s all beyond your control. It’s quite upsetting is the truth.

“Other sports, like rugby and cricket, aren’t so different in their culture between the female and male versions are they? The women’s game is no less competitive or committed but you just don’t get all the pathetic, horrible behaviour. Someone gets a nark on now and then, but it’s quite rare. Everyone seems to have more perspective. It’s just football, it’s not life or death. It’s not that important, even though it matters.

“How do I get him to follow the right road? The women’s game has really cast a new light on the men’s game for me. Men’s football is so powerful and it’s everywhere, but what is its culture doing to our boys, positive and negative? That’s a question I’ve not heard anyone ask, but it should be asked. I could use some help. Maybe your readers have some answers.”

Maybe you do…