Geoffrey Beattie: 'My fearless girl has learnt lot from being fan: how to stand up for herself, how to battle sexism... she has made me so proud'
Anxiety made psychologist Geoffrey Beattie avoid football until worries he was letting his children down took over. He's particularly impressed how game has shaped Sheffield Wednesday mad daughter Zoe
I live in the shadow of Old Trafford. And every other weekend for most of the year I can sit alone in my small patch of garden by the water in Salford Quays and listen to the roar of the crowd, the whoosh of relief, the indecipherable echoing chants, the sharp cheers, louder for one side than the other, trying to work out the score in that theatre of dreams, now glowing a deep red in the dark.
They come over in their hundreds and thousands from Northern Ireland for every home match and every taxi driver, hearing my Belfast accent, asks me whether I am one of the migrant supporters.
"But, you've seen me before," I say to the familiar-looking Asian face. "You know me."
"I've seen you all before, you're all regulars," he says.
But my garden is as close as I dare get. My daughter Zoe sees to that.
"You're a Sheffield Wednesday supporter. Or have you forgotten? You can only support one team; you need to remember that."
She polices my social and cultural identity when it comes to sport. "You don't choose your football team; it chooses you."
I try to explain to her about "Georgy, Georgy, the Belfast boy". Or what Alex Ferguson once said to me about the level of fanatical support for 'Man U' in Northern Ireland (when I was interviewing him as a psychologist). Or, indeed, that it's quite legitimate to support Man U if you're from Northern Ireland; it's not like coming up from London, or from the Far East (my daughter is clearly very keen on football legitimacy). But to no avail.
I lived in Sheffield for many years, my children were all born there, and Hillsborough was the first ground that I ever went to. My young children were Sheffield Wednesday fans from the start and a friend, or neighbour, someone who I've repressed in my memory because of the personal shame, took my sons Ben and Sam to their first match. My daughter Zoe felt left out; I felt painfully embarrassed by my failings as a father. It was a big day for both of us.
The problem is that I have always had a complex about football matches. I was never taken as a young child and my father died when I was a boy. But a friend said that I could go with him and his father to watch Cliftonville. All I had to do was get to the ground and his dad would "lift me over". But I didn't know what this meant.
Over what? Over the wall? Over his shoulder? Over a seat? I couldn't find them outside the ground, so I stood there self-conscious and embarrassed, watching the fans trail in and, eventually, I went home as the first whistle blew.
"Did you get in?" my friend asked later. "Did somebody else lift you over?" "Yeah," I said. "I was lifted over. But Cliftonville were s***. I wish I hadn't bothered."
For years I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't know what you had to do to actually get into a football ground. It sounds slightly odd, I know. One of childhood's little neuroses. Would I have to lift my own children over? Over what? Over the walls around Hillsborough? They were very big walls, I knew that.
This was a spreading sort of anxiety that made me avoid football, until a competing fear, the fear of failing as a father, made me overcome it.
So, I started taking my children to Hillsborough. Zoe, as a 12-year-old, no doubt driven by her sense of exclusion and injustice, became the fanatical Owl. She would take her younger brother Ben to Elland Road (I never ventured beyond Hillsborough). "The Leeds fans spat at us, I told them to p*** off home," she told me.
Zoe learned a lot from football matches. How to stand up for yourself, how to wear the shirt with pride, how to counter sexism. We sat in a German bar in Spain on holidays in 2001, watching the World Cup qualifying game. Zoe was wearing her Wednesday shirt, as always.
When England put five goals in against them she jumped up and cheered every single goal, with all these blond, mop-haired German men scowling at her. Fearless, I thought. Later she chatted away to them, impressing them with her encyclopaedic knowledge of football and her German.
So, on Saturday, Wednesday made the play-off finals. One game away from the Premiership, the big time, a game worth £170m to the club, after 16 years in the lower divisions. Zoe organised the minibus, plenty of beer and a small bottle of sauvignon blanc for me.
She brought a signed Wednesday shirt for me to wear. "So you'll fit in," she said. "You'll have to learn the names, in case anyone asks. I'll go through them with you."
The M1 at that time of the morning was full of coaches and minibuses heading south. The Wednesday fans - white, working-class and local - were in an exuberant mood.
I asked Zoe whether all Wednesday fans were actually from Sheffield. "We do have some from further afield, from Barnsley and Rotherham and the like, but from south Yorkshire, mainly." Every match at Hillsborough persuaded me that this was no Man U, or Arsenal.
I knew what this meant to Zoe and all the rest of them and I could feel my anxiety growing. We pulled into a lot of service stations, not so much to relieve ourselves, but to feel the camaraderie and sense of belonging. This sea of blue and white and those smiles and pats on the back. The Hull fans were vastly outnumbered.
"We're on our way ..." The song went on and on. Repeated like a mantra, or a superstitious chant.
As we neared London the windows were opened and the Owls' CD boomed out. "We love you Wednesday, we do ... We love you Wednesday ... We are the Owls of Sheffield Wednesday". Louder and louder and louder. Members of the public stared at us, passing Wednesday supporters banged on the sides of our minibus. I started to wave back.
We made our way to the Green Man pub near the ground, the Wednesday fans' pub for the day. Hardcore, not for the faint-hearted, the chanting was deafening. Zoe pushed her way to the bar, she was in heaven. Standing in the urinals, with fans banging thunderously on the walls, I thought that I might go deaf.
"WAWAW," it said on the back of her shirt. We're all Wednesday, aren't we?
The game itself was a blur. We lost by a single goal. Steve Bruce, the manager of Hull, said the Wednesday fans had been amazing. There were many empty Hull seats, but the Wednesday end was sold out, the fans chanting, jumping up and down, trying to lift the team. "Sheffield, Sheffield", that great, proud city desecrated by the Tories.
Zoe was in tears. "If a match was judged on fans, we would have won," she said. "The team didn't turn up today, basically, but I'm still so proud of what they've achieved this season."
We stopped for a kebab and ate it in silence on the minibus.
The services were quieter on the way back, much, much more subdued. But as we started heading back into Sheffield, suddenly something very odd happened. The singing started again suddenly from the back of the bus, quietly at first, and then louder and louder, defiantly so. The song was familiar, but different. The words had been adapted spontaneously and reactively.
"We're on our way... but not today... don't know where, don't know when..."
They were already starting to think about next season. Zoe wants me to go to the first home match. She wants me to rejoin the tribe and to know what belonging means.
Later that night I had one single thought. If I hadn't gone off to England for university, Zoe would have been born a Belfast girl (her mother and I are both working-class from Belfast) and her sense of loyalty would no doubt have had a very different focus, but it would have been no less daunting.
And that makes me no less proud of this fearless girl.
- Protestant Boy by Geoffrey Beattie is published by Granta