A Thing About Rugby

Doncaster Rovers 0-0 Millwall

Time for the second part of our look back at the best of popular STAND from 2013-14. Back at the start of the season Rovers took over the running of Doncaster Rugby League Club, or ‘The Dons’ as they’re known in these parts. In issue 69 of the fanzine Kerrang! magazine editor James McMahon put fingers to keyboard for the fanzine to write this touching piece on football, rugby league and family bonds.

A Thing About Rugby League

Of all the places to impress your father, a playing field in Dinnington – a small colliery town roughly equidistant between Rotherham and Sheffield for those of you not native to South Yorkshire/lacking a wi-fi signal and access to Wikipedia – is an unlikely location. Yet on one windswept Saturday morning, sometime in the early nineties, I succeeded in doing what Callum Best and Luke Skywalker never achieved. I made my dad proud.

I’ve always been more comfortable with pens than penalty kicks. I was born asthmatic. I’ve got flat feet. I’m colourblind. I have the eyesight of a mole and I get out of breath putting Pro-Evo into the disc drive. But I have tasted sporting glory. Roll the montage, cue up Chariots of Fire and I’ll take you back to Dinnington. Said no-one. Ever.

Forgive the sketchiness and absence of details, but I’m now 33 and only last year lost my keys in an elevator shaft. Yet, fairly clearly for someone who’s been to Glastonbury numerous times, I remember the ball coming to me and I remember running. Sport is easy, really! I remember swerving tackles and the roar of the crowd. I can see my dad smiling! And I remember the feeling of utter joy when I cross the line and all my schoolmates jump on top of me for a reason other than they want my dinner money.

I look at the ball and wish it wasn’t oval. I look at my dad and see a glint in his eye that only normally appears when my mum cooks sausages. DEEP SIGH TYPED OUT IN CAPITALS FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT. Why can’t my dad be normal and like football like other decent people?

My school viewed football with the suspicion of a young Joseph McCarthy, rounding up fans of the sport and shooting them in the back of the head (I made up the last bit of that sentence). The head of PE, in a statement completely inappropriate for a man of his standing, once declared, “football is a great game. It keeps the puffs off the streets”. He also used to make us play kabaddi, which has no relevance to such blatant homophobia, yet serves as a stark reminder as to how weird the nineties were. And my dad? Oh, he loved rugby in a way he could never love football.

The heroics of Dinnington aside, I hated rugby mainly because I hate sport – but mostly because I hated nosebleeds. But I loved football. Because as we all know, football isn’t a sport. It’s a transcendental coming together of art and culture. It’s lifeblood. And in turn, I grew to hate rugby even more because it stood between me and my dad. See, other than the time he promised then reneged on his promise to build me a go-kart, effectively ruining my childhood and influencing every bad life decision I have ever made, my dad’s lack of interest in football and love of rugby is his principal failing as a father.

If that sounds harsh, then you’ve never been the only boy on the estate who didn’t own a go-kart, thereby doomed to play ‘pit mechanic’ for the rest of your life. Yet harsh it is, because he did try. Once a decade in fact, for the last thirty years. Three visits, three extremely articulate observations about the quality of the snack bar tea, one excellent and quite inappropriate heckle of Mickey Walker. And, if my memory hasn’t completely failed me, three defeats too. To be honest, apart from the resolute sadness that we might be missing out on something crucial to the development of our father and son bond, I’m happy that he stay away.

Truth is, the absence of football in my relationship with my father has been a private obsession for years. I’m not ashamed to say there were times I was consumed with jealousy for Rovers supporting friends and their fathers and their 3pm unions. I most definitely am ashamed to say that I briefly resented my dad for his lack of interest in balls that actually looked like balls and not diseased eggs. Because I love my dad with every fiber of my being.

I am nine and I am swimming. I’m not very good at swimming because I am not really thinking about swimming and instead I am singing the Cheers theme tune under my breath and smiling. But it’s fine, because swimming club will finish soon and my dad will pick me up and buy me a hot chocolate from the vending machine. Then we’ll go home and we’ll eat fish n’ chips and watch Cheers. And I will look up at my dad and think he is the greatest man in the whole wide world. If you love someone that much, why wouldn’t you want to spend every Saturday with them?

This Christmas, after hearing quite distressing reports that rugby league was being played at The Keepmoat, and a brief moment of festive clarity that left me in no doubt that I can be an unrelenting selfish twat, I bought myself and my dad a ticket to see Doncaster Rugby League Club. I was skeptical. I was freezing. I was wondering if we could make it home to see the late kick-off on telly at fulltime. But it was brilliant! Not that I had any idea what was going on – I think it’s sort of like British Bulldog or Speedball 2 – but it was certainly better than the football I’d seen at the same venue versus Ipswich a fortnight prior. Come on The Dons!

I am thirty-three and I am watching a seventy-one year old man sliding down a plastic chair with excitement. He is sharing his flask of hot chocolate with me and I’m reciprocating with chips. We are shouting at men. We are laughing. And I look down at my dad – because men shrink when they get old don’t they – and I think this man is the greatest man in the whole wide world. Even greater than Leo Fortune-West. And he could probably ‘ave him.

James McMahon

popular stand fanzine, front cover of issue 69This article first appeared in issue 69 popular STAND fanzine.

popular STAND prints 6 issues a season, and offers independent and reasoned coverage and thought on Doncaster Rovers.

Subscriptions are now available for 2014-15.

The first 20 new subscribers will receive a free copy of issue 69 of the fanzine direct to their door.

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