TOMMY MARTIN: Should we break it to kids that football will always let them down?

Capping a glittering list of career achievements, Paul Scholes made it onto Liveline this week.

Old Trafford’s erstwhile ginger wizard was the subject of Monday’s spleen-venting session with Joe Duffy. Scholes had been due to play in a charity match last Saturday in Bray in aid of Wicklow Hospice, and his expected presence drew a crowd of 3,000 to the Carlisle Grounds, 60 more paying top dollar for a meet-and-greet afterwards.

Alas, Scholes missed his flight from Manchester, leaving the paying punters disappointed and with no option but to talk to Joe.

He was spotted at a rugby match in Oldham later that day,” said one caller, who had presumably hired a private investigator to track down the elusive star.

“Ah sure you don’t expect him to sit around the house all day after missing the flight,” replied Joe, wondering if there wasn’t a HSE scandal he could be better served stoking up with his time.

But no storm in a Liveline teacup is complete without a dose of suffer-the-little-children. One of the organisers told Joe about the sadness in the eyes of the assembled kids upon the news that Scholes, like one of his tackles of yore, had badly mistimed his travel plans.

You could see it in their faces when we said Paul was not coming,” a spokeswoman for the Hospice said. “Scholes would have been the best-known player for the younger generation there.

Footballers, bloody hell.

Still, best those kids have their dreams dashed now, rather than live on in childish ignorance. Gets it over with early.

Sorry my little cherubs, your heroes — footballers, rock and roll stars, Antipodean cartoonists/novelty songsters (why Rolf, why?!) — will let you down eventually. Though not all will prefer to spend the afternoon watching rugby league in Oldham.

Now, your correspondent has been busy with his other job this week broadcasting the opening exchanges of Europe’s top club competition. I know Uefa Champions League Group Stage Matchday One is a special time in every house around Europe (it says here in the broadcasters’ manual) but this one is especially significant in our house as it marks the first since The Great Awakening.

This summer’s World Cup saw my seven-year-old fall for the beautiful game in the way we all did: Hook, line, and wallchart. He’s at that stage which is like the bit in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves starts to see his world in programmed binary code, except in this case he has league tables, fixtures lists, and scoring stats bleeping and whirring in front of his eyes.

Since the summer our conversation has consisted of an incessant stream of random questions about football.

Big issues like “Who’s better, Danny Ings or Neymar?” or “Who’d win if Ireland played Real Madrid?” or “Are Pickford and De Gea sworn enemies?”

There’s an ongoing and valiant attempt to say Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s name properly and an insistence on pronouncing James Milner’s surname ‘Mjolnir’, like Thor’s hammer. And there’s a tentative liking for Tottenham, mainly thanks to Harry Kane, who’s on the front of Match! magazine most weeks with headlines like ‘England Legend Stats Special!’ (was it for this…etc, etc?). 

Looking at the game through his eyes and through the pages of Match! or Kick! (sadly Shoot!, progenitor of the exclamatory genre, is no more) is to see players as knockabout cartoon characters rather than the greedy, overvalued chattel of sporting corporations wearily familiar to the adult world.

‘Prem Stars’ lark about on social media, indistinguishable from their Fifa video game avatars. Paul Pogba is the King of the Dab, Antoine Griezmann’s got his ace Fortnite celebration, and Ronaldo is simply a superhero.

But while all this is lovely, and there’s a reflected nostalgia in seeing it all happen, there is nothing in any of these magazines about the disappointment, the pain, the let-downs. 

And being the helicopter generation of parents, you can’t help wonder if you shouldn’t spare them from it all.

How do you explain to them that these are not cartoons with happy endings?

How do tell them that they can’t just switch to another team because Tottenham lost to Inter?

What do you say when he asks if Hugo Lloris is going to jail when it comes on the radio about his drink-driving?

How do you explain financial doping by Middle East oil states to someone who still
believes in the tooth fairy?

The answer is, of course, that you don’t.

Psychologists will say that there’s some important developmental stage going on here, a tentative stripping away of childish innocence, cautious steps out of the imaginary world of the early years; that the mild sting of football’s reality checks are a gentle introduction to life’s greater disappointments.

And more importantly, perhaps they will realise that even if their favourite player or team lets them down, that it’s the eejit trying to answer all those questions that he can really rely on.

I mean who else would help him figure out crucial things like which is Ireland’s best James, McCarthy or McClean? Or which is bigger, Croke Park or the Luzhniki? Or frantically search online for someone for him to swap his last few Panini stickers with?

Incidentally, there was actually a happy ending to Paul Scholes’ Liveline cameo. As the spokeswoman for Wicklow Hospice was on air with Joe she got a message from the agency that gathers up football legends for charity matches. Scholes had texted them to say “Sorry mate, will come over soon for no fee.”

Scholes, as ever, timing his late run perfectly, and maybe those poor kids will be spared life’s inevitable disappointment for a little while longer.

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