The boy who never learned to bend it like Rivelino

Baseball, the American novelist Michael Chabon once declared, is the gift fathers give their sons. In Britain, that gift is usually football.

My dad died a year ago. One of the smaller consequences of his death was that it ended an intermittent dialogue between us about football that had lasted most of my life.

Our conversation started in the 1960s. Dad fervently admired Don Revie’s mighty Leeds United and, even though as an eight-year-old I had to admit they could knock the ball around a bit, I couldn’t bring myself to like them.

I never quite understood why. Sheer pig-headedness? Pre-adolescent rebellion? Perhaps.

Decades later, when I was watching Seinfeld, I found another likely explanation. When a friend of Jerry’s told him he would like a potential acquaintance, he replied: “Why would I like them? I don’t like anybody.”

Like Seinfeld – and like most journalists I know – I couldn’t stand someone else telling me something was good.

So whenever Leeds blew it – against Chelsea in the 1970 FA Cup final, Wolves to lose the league title in 1972 and Sunderland in the 1973 FA Cup final – I cheered, a gleefully gratuitous reaction which dad took in good part.

Chopper, Ossie and friends put a smile on the face of a young Paul Simpson

As I couldn’t support Leeds, I turned to Jimmy Bloomfield’s stylish Leicester City side, 16 miles from home in Nuneaton. A cousin and uncle were regulars at Filbert Street and within weeks my throat was raw as I joined in the Len Glover roar – a foot-stamping, ear-splitting, larynx-bursting noise that greeted the sight of Glover, on the wing. with the ball at his feet.

Coventry City were nearer but there were no family ties and, under Noel Cantwell’s management, they were one of the most sterile football teams in Europe. Dad often quoted Michael Parkinson’s appalled descriptions of the Sky Blues in which machine-gun-like Ernie Machin was forever mowing down anything that moved.

But Brazil, not Leeds, provoked the family’s first real football-related clash of generations. Although we are officially obliged to pretend, looking back, that we all supported that beautiful Brazil team in 1970, I didn’t. I supported England, wept after the tragedy of Leon and cheered on the Italians in the final because they had beaten the team who had beaten us and done so in a match so enthralling I can still recall particular scenes – Beckenbauer patrolling midfield with his arm in a sling, Riva stabbing home Italy’s third – as vividly as if I was watching it live today.

Luckily, dad was a shrewder judge and, after the final, decided it was time I, being nearly nine, learned to bend it like Rivelino.

Until then, my football practice in the back garden had been a kick and rush affair – five touches for me, playing as Team A, to get from one end of the lawn to the other and then I, as Team B, had five touches to get back to where I started.

This wasn’t, dad rightly concluded, the best way to train a footballer who aspired to play in the school team (ambitions that began and ended with one inconclusive substitute appearance, out of position, at left-back) and so, for much of that summer, he put the ball on a particular spot on the lawn and invited me to try and curl the ball over an imaginary wall.

I tried to curl it with every part of both feet – the outside, the inside, and the instep – and striking every area of the ball. But after four weeks, I began to lose heart. If the ball was curving, I couldn’t see it. So one night – after ten free-kicks went either infuriatingly straight or veered into the rhubarb – I rebelled, saying I wanted to revert to my old five-touch game.

Rivelino's set-pieces would hardly ever disturb rhubarb...

It was, in all fairness, a poor reward for his weeks of patient counsel. Looking at me with horror, dad complained: “You’re just like all the other Europeans, you just want to play kick and rush.”

Chastened, yet relieved, I ran down the other end of the lawn with the ball. I felt more at ease pretending to be Riva than Rivelino and dreamed of having a shot so powerful I could break a spectator’s arm, just like Riva, as my International Football Book Of The Year No13 informed me.

Yet for months, when dad wasn’t looking, I’d sneakily put the ball on that same spot, try a different method of kicking it and study the ball’s trajectory intensely, determined to calculate whether I had managed to make the ball deviate slightly from its normal path. I was never convinced.

When Revie left Leeds, I realised that dad belonged to that much-derided breed whose passion for the game was defined not by a particular club but by a commitment to, as he put it, “teams who play good football”. West Ham were always in favour – later I discovered his affection might owe something to family history: his dad, my grandfather, had enjoyed living in the East End in the 1920s when the Hammers had been in their pomp.

Apart from Revie’s Leeds and the Hammers, he admired Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. If their game wasn’t exactly Brazilian in its adventurousness, Forest did recognise that football is best played on the ground. And Clough, in the Midlands in the 1970s, was a plain-talking, maverick deity.

After I left home, our talks about football were more intermittent, often consisting largely of a prolonged post-mortem on England’s latest failure during – or on the brink of – a major tournament. (I had learned the lessons of Leon in 1970 well and never wept again: West Germany 1972, Poland 1973, Argentina 1986, Netherlands 1993, Brazil 2002 and Germany 2010 were greeted stoically with resigned despair). He mercifully missed the debacle in Bloemfontein – he was in Cyprus at the time – but rang next day to ask: “How bad were they?”

Dad was ahead of his time in the sense that he never seemed to expect too much from – or even particularly enjoy – watching England. He was much more ecstatic when Denmark beat Germany at Euro 1992 than I ever saw him after an England game.

Denmark celebrate Euro 92 glory (Simpson Sr. not pictured)

Whenever I was back in Nuneaton for the weekend, we would watch Match Of The Day. Dad’s mode of viewing was to pour himself a large glass of red wine, settle in his favourite armchair, shake his head occasionally and tut a lot. The only Premier League side he could bear to watch, he once announced, was Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.

When I asked once why he didn’t watch much football, he said: “I can’t stand all the mistakes”. At the time, I took this for the curmudgeonliness of age but, a year later, accidentally catching a dire bottom of the table clash one not-so-Super Sunday, I started counting the errors. After nine consecutive changes of possession, I had to stop because continuing to watch this serial ineptitude had begun to seem like an act of idiocy.

In the 1960s, dad had entranced me with heroic tales of the Nuneaton Borough v Bedworth United derbies of his youth. In his enthusiastic telling, these legendary games were spectacular, gladiatorial contests played out before an enraptured throng.

In the derbies I’d seen, this great local rivalry manifested itself in some shamefully crude tackles and a 90-minute debate over which set of supporters were less likely to have a job. The highlight of ‘my’ derbies was a half-time pitch invasion I staged with a mate in a valiant, albeit hopelessly misguided, attempt to fill up our autograph books.

Nearly 50 years after those indifferent derbies, three generations of the family – my dad, brother-in-law, son and nephew – miraculously went to watch Boro. Not a derby, but Boro were still at home. It was the first time we had all been to watch the Boro – or Town as they had been renamed as punishment for some mysterious financial irregularities – and the match became even more of a family do when attacking full-back Eddie Nisevic, a cousin’s son, came on in the second half as Boro chased the game.

Like those coaches who watch from the stands, Dad had by then retired to the back row where he delighted in pointing out, with all the authority of a retired midfield general, which unit of the team wasn’t moving forward or back in unison and supporting the play as they were supposed to.

That was the last game we watched together but this week, in dad’s memory, I will venture into the back garden, put our deflated UEFA Champions League matchball in the middle of the lawn, and try, with little hope and even less expectation, to bend it like Rivelino.

Topics