The ball rolled towards the last defender. Matt roared at his son Jamie to chase and pressure him, and his son obliged, running straight at his opponent who, since he was only eight years old, took his eye off the ball and let it run past him, as did Jamie. He raced towards the goal, controlling the ball as any eight-year old would, by kicking it five feet in front of him, chasing it and kicking it five feet forward again.
The team were roaring him on, the other parents were roaring him on, yet Matt, though he knew he was roaring too, could barely hear them.
It was the team’s first season in the league, and they weren’t exactly challenging for the title. The league had started in September, it was now February, and they hadn’t yet won a game.
They hadn’t scored their first goal until November.
They had let in eight goals in matches, nine, sometimes double-figures. They had lost a game fifteen-nil and their goalkeeper had won Man of the Match, making a string of saves to keep the score under thirty.
Every week they would nod their solemn little faces when asked had they enjoyed the game, every week they would turn up yet again for training, every week they would get thumped again.
Or not. The scale of the defeats grew smaller. They would lose by just four goals, then by just three. In an astonishing game in which they almost never left their own half they were beaten by a single goal, thanks to some heroic defending and some amazing misses by the other team.
And now, in the crisp early-morning February sunshine, Jamie was racing towards the other team’s goal. It seemed to take forever for him to get near enough to shoot, then a longer forever for the ball to reach the goal and cross the line.
Matt let out a yell so visceral that his very lungs felt raw. The other parents, the wonderful people who he had come to know over the past months as they endured heartbreak after heartbreak together, yelled and jumped about too. The team were in front, for the very first time.
There were still four minutes to go, four minutes that passed like four hours, four weeks, four decades. Every time the team kicked the ball away from the goal the parents cheered wildly, every time it was kicked back towards it they clapped both hands to their mouths.
With just seconds to go their goalkeeper, the young hero of game after game, including this one, dropped the ball right in front of an opponent, just two yards from goal. Oh, the poor kid, thought Matt, after all he’s done for us, he’s blown it.
The opponent kicked the ball wide.
The final whistle went. Dads hugged Dads, Mums hugged Mums, Dads hugged Mums, anyone’s Mum, everyone’s Mum, they’d all been in this together. The team came off the field to huge cheers, and finally with smiles on those beloved solemn little faces.
They say sport hurts. It doesn’t always.