Our columnist Laura Lawrence will forever cherish the memory of introducing the youngest members of her family to the delights of football — and hopes all supporters are given the opportunity to do likewise.
At the weekend, we took our kids to their first football match. My husband has three children from a previous marriage and we have a six-year-old together. Each have their own level of interest in football, from the 8-year-old girl who plays weekly and has the tenacity of Roy Keane in midfield to the 11-year-old boy who would rather be on gaming apps.
We chose their first match carefully. Our six-year-old has sensory issues and autistic traits and we were concerned about how he would react to the noise and expanse of the Select Car Leasing Stadium. We chose the Reading v Manchester United WSL match because we knew we could guarantee a family-friendly atmosphere. There was also the consideration that if we needed to leave because of a potential meltdown then we wouldn’t have wasted extortionate amounts of money. It cost us £39 for all six of us including the parking. An absolute bargain.
With snacks and drinks in hand we made our way up into the stand. They weren’t as awed as I thought they might be. Thinking back to my own first game, the image of walking up into the stand and looking down onto the pitch is something I can’t forget.
We sat among the mixed supporters, which was a new experience for me too at a football match. We happened to be surrounded by a vocal crowd of Manchester United fans. It was then I discovered I’d forgotten to bring our son’s ear defenders. He crept to my knee and confessed that it was too loud. His anxiety grew as the chants went on and play got underway. Despite his discomfort he wanted to know which team were Reading so he knew who to cheer for. When Man Utd went one nil up after five minutes he said: “I don’t like Manchester”, it was then I knew that we’d make a football fan out of him.
The goal increased the noise and his tolerance levels became fragile. I knew I needed to move him away from the crowd. I took him to the top of the stand where it was just us. It’s amazing how changing an individual’s environment can alter their enjoyment of an occasion. It’s why football clubs should invest in sensory rooms and facilities for supporters with additional needs. There’s no reason why, with a few modifications, the experience can’t be fulfilling for all.
Our son stims – a repetitive action that can manifest in different ways for different people. He jumps when he’s anxious but also when he’s excited. Some people wouldn’t know the difference but as I watched him jump and shout and engage with the players it was obvious he was enjoying the match.
Sitting there at the top of the stand, answering his questions and explaining what a referee does and why the goalkeeper can use their hands, I couldn’t help but smile. This was the most I’ve enjoyed football in a long, long time. It reminded me why I love the game, the fundamental basics and pure joy. To talk about something I love to someone I love was a beautiful experience and something I will cherish forever.
Follow Laura on Twitter @YICETOR