Regularly on Saturday or Sunday evenings, I’ll get a WhatsApp message from my mum. The last one, on November 10, read simply: ‘Mmmm, yet another lovely hattrick xx’. It needs no introduction or explanation, because I know who she’s referring to. She’s talking about Lionel Messi.
We’re not quite at the stage where I’m being sent YouTube links, but the obsession is real. My mum has a Premier Sports subscription and a BT Sport subscription. She had an Eleven Sports package too, so she could watch those Barcelona matches on the tablet. When the vagaries of broadcasting rights deals meant that she had to search ITV4 listings, I’d know when Barcelona were live on that channel too. If they don’t make it easy, she’s prepared to work at it.
My mum was the person who introduced me to football and all its wonder; there was nobody else. She and my dad got their first Nottingham Forest season ticket in 1980 immediately after the club had won consecutive European Cups. They had visions of following them around Europe in place of a summer holiday. Forest promptly lost in the first round to CSKA Sofia and have never been back in the competition since. But that was that. My grandad, whose principles matched those north-east giants of the game – Bobby Robson, Bobby Mitchell, Len Shackleton, Bob Stokoe and Brian Clough – had made it clear: if she lived in Nottingham, she had to support Clough.
By the time I was five, my parents had divorced. I have a memory of already adoring football at that age, and remember her going to the 1991 FA Cup final without me. Three months later, we had our first season tickets together. For the next decade, we went to every home game.
In fact that’s a slightly false memory, romanticised by consciousness as so often happens with childhood. Rather than me urging her to go to the football, quite the opposite. My mum wanted to go to matches, and leaving me at home would have required a babysitter. This was a way of a working single mum spending time with her young son. I soon got hooked, but there was no great awakening on my part.
It is telling how few of our early memories of football revolve around what happened on the pitch. The only goal I can clearly picture from my first season was scored by Matthew Le Tissier for Southampton. But I can clearly recall the lady who sat next to me, who moaned constantly and for a few months sang ‘I Will Always Love You‘ out of tune when it was in the charts and regularly played before the game. And my mum calling me David Coleman because I wouldn’t stop talking. And the small plastic bag of midget gems that a supporter two seats down occasionally shared. And desperately trying not to fall asleep in the car after midweek matches. And Stuart Pearce running with his arms outstretched before kick-off, like a famous Roman gladiator receiving his due adoration. So often with the things we love deeply, all five senses become a sponge to enable rapid enlightenment.
Life accelerates at a pace we struggle to manage. Through my teenage years, playing football or school sport meant that we missed more Forest matches than either of us would like, the years when parents become taxi services and you forever lacked the self-awareness to be grateful enough for it. At 17 I got a season ticket with some friends, and then by university I’d be going to more away matches than home games.
In hindsight, two things hit home. The first is that throughout those years my mum and I were going to the football for entirely different reasons. I was desperate for my team to win and to be successful, to be proud of their victories and my heroes. But for her, football was a means of connection. She didn’t care too much whether Forest won or lost, merely that her and I talked excitedly about what was to come on the way to the match and talked excitedly about what had just been on the way home from it. For all the noise and hoopla, promotion and relegation and 25,000 other people, this was me and her, her and me.
The other realisation – a direct result of the first – is that my mum hasn’t attended a single Forest match since we stopped going. That makes me feel incredibly guilty, and I’ve told her so. She just stopped. Without that deep mother-son connection, Forest and football suddenly had less meaning. I am happy to gorge on football in any form as long as energy and life allows, but for her that’s not true. It’s like when a relationship ends abruptly, and grim circumstance dictates that someone you never envisioned not seeing every day you might suddenly never see again.
We still discuss Forest’s inevitable heartache now, as two old people might sit on a bench and put the modern world to rights through the prism of their outdated expectations. But it’s more of a one-way conversation. Rather than living football and Forest, she was getting her information by postcard.
And then she started watching Messi play.
I – and she – don’t recall when it started. Just like my own experience, it would be easy to sell it as a moment of football epiphany. One drop of the shoulder, one free-kick, one defender left sat on the turf by a twist and turn, one second that provokes a flash of realisation that watching football will never be the same again. But life happens in fits and spurts and gradual increments rather than momentary revolution. All we do know is that there was a time before she started watching Messi play, and a time after.
Of course my mum adores Messi because he’s brilliant; who doesn’t? We should consider ourselves fortunate to watch and write about football during his era of majesty, and the true realisation of that may only come when he has retired and left the game far worse for his absence. But what she really appreciates is the way in which watching him reduces football for her to its purest elements and his humble persona. Probably the greatest player of the modern era is also something of an anachronism: small, comparatively wiry frame, all touch and control and beautiful movement. Around all of the noise – sponsorship deals, superclub, vast wages, the interminable Messi vs Ronaldo debate, he’s just a boy and his ball.
There is an irony here. Following an individual player is an offset of modern fan culture, Twitter users with handles like @Modricholic and @Busquetista arguing about which of their favourite players is better until one of them calls the other a Nazi. My mum isn’t interested in watching Premier League football and usually won’t watch Barcelona if Messi isn’t playing.
But it’s the opposite for her. In the same way as with Forest in the 1990s, she loves watching Messi not just because of how good he is, or because she is desperate for him to win the Ballon d’Or or one more European Cup, but because of how watching him makes her feel. For the first time since my childhood, she is excited by football again. It used to be me and her. Now it’s her and Messi (and that’s probably the only comparison between the two of us that stands up to close inspection).
Or all three of us. In December 2017, my mum and I went to watch Barcelona twice in four days at an ice-cold Nou Camp. Neither game was particularly memorable, but midway through the first half of the first match Messi picked up the ball deep, dribbled forward, exchanged a pass and continued his run into the area. A ball from Paulinho found him 12 yards from goal and in enough space to arrow the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs and end his drought of five games.
My mum was moved to tears. “He scored,” was all she said. I’d wager she ranks that moment higher than anything she ever watched at the City Ground. I might remember little from my first seasons watching football, but I’ll always remember that.
I’ll forever be grateful to my mum for getting me into football, and for her patience with the over-excited kid who wouldn’t shut up and kept nagging her to watch Forest videos on repeat and record Match of the Day when she was trying to work in an evening. And I’ll always be grateful to Lionel Messi for getting her back into football, and for my excited Sunday night WhatsApp messages.
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