We All Need To Play The Game


As many of you who follow me on Instagram will know, last weekend I encountered some of the basest, most disgusting behaviour from another human being. A trip to Billie's Saturday morning football class is one that will go down in the annals of Sims' history for all the wrong reasons. But, almost a week on, I'm starting to realise there's something good, no great, to come out of it too.I'm not going to recount the vile things that a father of one of the little boys in the class said to me. I've posted about it on instagram but suffice to say he was most put out that his three-year-old son, who was apparently destined for a career in the Premiership (regardless of whether he wanted it or not) had to 'train' (read: run around like a nutter, sometimes with a ball) with girls. More specifically 'a girl'...my Billie. The only girl in the class. There was lots of swearing, lots of threatening behaviour, intimidation and in any other situation I would have got up and walked out but Billie was there when he told me girls shouldn't play football and I just could't bring myself to prove him right. So, in the face of misogyny I stood strong and told her to go and warm up with Coach.

I think what surprised me most about the whole incident isn't that people like this exist; I'm not surprised that there are people who believe such bullshit to be true. What surprises me is that this small-minded, excuse for a man felt that it was ok to say this out loud, that he believed this was a valid opinion delivered acceptably; that he would be backed up, supported and proved to be right.

Of course, he wasn't. Not one other parent there jumped on his obnoxious bandwagon but you know what else they didn't do? They didn't stand up to him either. I was sat next to another mother who was exempt from the abuse because she had 'correctly' brought a boy to football. There were three other dads there as well who saw him spout his vitriol in my face and did nothing to stop it. The mother did say that she was really sorry this was happening to me; we chatted about how awful it was but she never said a word when he called me a 'fucking liar' when I recounted to the coach what he'd said to me.

The men, the other dads? They sat and watched it happen. I know they saw it because they were uncomfortable, shifting their gaze anywhere but at me. Do I understand their reticence? Sure, he was a bully, he was aggressive. He was unlikely to punch me in the face (misogyny has its benefits) but he was not above decking another dad on the sideline. Does that make it right? Absolutely not.

The Coach stepped in right from the start and asked him to leave but the man refused unless he was handed back his £108 he'd paid for the term right there and then and honestly, it didn't seem like the right moment to initiate a whip round. The man was clearly agitated - he kicked a ball violently across the small sports hall - and the Coach made a judgement call: remain in a stand off with a man who was volatile or diffuse the situation as best as he could and let the kids play football. I don't think, at the beginning, any of us had any idea how bad the situation was going to get. In the end, despite everything, the kids played football which, after all, was why we were there.*

By some strange twist of fate, my husband was at a football match in Scotland that day too. He doesn't play football, doesn't like it, calls goals 'feetballs' and doesn't give a shit about the offside rule. I think it's the first and only football match he's ever attended. As a boy who carried a few extra pounds, had long red curly hair and a penchant for heavy metal band t-shirts, he didn't really stand a chance with the football lads (although the girls loved him.)

As he stood in the stands, with the thought of our football experience that morning fresh in his mind, he wondered if this kind of aggressive, bullying mentality was emblematic of football and its fans in general. I know we've all got the 'football hooligan' stereotype well and truly ingrained in our minds, but there is a reason stereotypes exist and nothing that happened at that Scottish Premiership match surprised him.

His mate - a drummer, longish hair, tall, slim build - suffered the full power of the opposing teams' stand when they started chanting 'Who do you think you are? Jesus'. Ok, not exactly the worst thing you've ever heard but still pretty damn intimidating when a whole stand is shouting it at you. There were sturdy barriers and netting to stop the two groups of supporters mixing and when one supporter, who was laughed at by the oppositions' fans, went to beat his way furiously through the netting (with a view to, I don't know, punching them all in the face?) he was forcibly removed kicking and screaming with a rage and anger that I recognise from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

I'm not 'blaming' football. I love all sport but there is an argument to suggest that football attracts a laddish entourage that seem to look at their weekly trip to the ground as an opportunity to shrug off the shackles of restrictive civilisation and good manners. It's a chance for them to languish in a more base, animalistic, state that releases them from the pressure of a world in which they no longer get to punch and kick and beat their way through it.

Or maybe, in this instance, Billie and I were just really unlucky. Perhaps it was a combination of both.

Almost seven days on, with the rage weakening into anger and the fear dissipating, I'm actually pleased it happened. In our middle class, world of sisterhood, modern husbands and mindfulness, it's so easy to forget that this still exists. It's easy to get complacent; to believe that this kind of thinking and attitude is extinct along with chastity belts but it isn't and it would be remiss and irresponsible of us to forget that.

The good news is Billie was as dumbfounded as I was when this man told her she shouldn't be playing football; the bad news is, for the first time, she encountered a world where people will tell her she can't do something. While it broke my heart to see it, it's important that she knows the world isn't a pretty Instagram Valencia-coloured feed. She knows she'll have to fight this, she'll have to stand up to bullies, and hopefully, on Saturday morning I modelled, in some small way, one way to do that.

Don't let the bastards get you down my darling Billie. The world is yours for the taking whatever anyone tells you, and sometimes, you may have to fight your way through it with your brains and your smarts and your sharp, sharp wit because in the face of idiocy, small-mindedness and bullying, they are the strongest tools you'll have.

*The club have confirmed that the man will no longer be welcome at any football sessions and classes that they run.