I have no idea what we will give our children for Christmas, but I know what they have given me over the years – a fascination with sport, where previously team games left me cold.
All of our children are what I’d call sporty, though possibly I’m underestimating how normal it is to enjoy a competitive activity of some kind, whether it’s netball, rowing, bouldering (climbing up artificial rock walls without ropes) or football.
I’ve been a lifelong sports refusenik. “Malco”, some of my crueller friends called me at school – “malcoordinated”. After rugby matches, in which I’d avoid contact with either my fellow players or the ball, I used to smear mud on my knees to head off sarcastic comments to “Brown” from the teacher.
In the summer term, cricket matches in my memory bring images of lying in the outfield as far as possible from the wicket chewing juicy blades of grass. Or reading an Agatha Christie paperback while waiting to bat, low down in the order.
It never occurred to me that I would one day spend virtually every weekend either watching professional football – which I now do as a season ticket holder of AFC Wimbledon, aka the Dons, the Wombles – or at the touchline in a muddy field for an under-15s Sunday league game.
Some years ago I wrote a Sunday Telegraph column on the subject of football and our then eight-year-old son William’s passion for the game – for playing as well as watching it, managing his own virtual teams and enacting virtual games through the video game FIFA.
A kind reader wrote in with recollections of how his own father had introduced him to attending matches. At about the same time, the friendly couple who live opposite us – long-time Dons supporters – had seen William kicking a football by the side of the road. Why don’t you borrow our season tickets when we can’t go, they suggested.
And so we off we went, and were rapidly swept up in the romantic Roy of the Rovers-style story of Wimbledon’s Phoenix-like revival and plucky progress up the ladder of English football from the bottom amateur league.
To explain: this glorious ascent from oblivion was sparked by a misguided decision 17 years ago by a Football Association-appointed panel to allow a consortium of businessmen to relocate Wimbledon FC, as it was known then, to Milton Keynes and rebadge them “MK Dons” – as, effectively, a naff American-style franchise.
But Wimbledon supporters were not going to let their club die, and in 2002 they set up a new team from the ashes of the old one, called AFC Wimbledon. Their story represents the triumph of the little man against big business. Football fans, it turned out, had something worth more than money: they had “social capital”. A phrase from the FA’s judgment – that it was “not in the wider interests of football” for Wimbledon to be revived – passed into club legend.
William and I soon had our own season tickets and he became a member of the Dons’ Trust, the supporters’ organisation which owns the club and makes democratic decisions about its future. In 2016 I wrote in the Herald about the thrilling League Two play-off final at Wembley Stadium when we burst heart-surgingly into League One, the old Third Division. In a delicious twist, we are at the time of writing several places in the table above MK Dons. “We are Wombles, Super-Wombles.”
There’s a long way to go until I stop resembling John Thomson’s comedy character in The Fast Show, the Johnny-come-lately fan with his wicker lunch hamper, blithely cheering for the wrong team and offering round his Pringles. I forget which player is which, and this embarrasses William, so he tests me on names, positions and the witty personalised chants belted out when one comes on, scores, or saves.
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the camaraderie of the Boxing Day game, when fellow season ticket holders are in their places, having left the warmth of home to sit outdoors in nylon scarves and beanie hats. With some of them you’ll share a hackneyed joke, others a nod.
The Boxing Day fixture used to be the second of two after a full programme on Christmas Day itself, a practice that lasted from Victorian times until the age of television wiped out old-fashioned entertainments. Watching football on Christmas Day seems appropriate – since at its best, in its lurches of emotion, it is a life-affirming experience. “Wombles till I die!”
Another pleasure of the past year has been listening to the Sunday homilies of Fr Alex McAllister, formerly provincial superior of the Salvatorian order and now parish priest at St Thomas à Becket in Wandsworth, south London. Fr Alex’s sermons are chatty, never boring or overlong, and are carefully researched, leaving the congregation with something to ponder from the readings. You can find them at alexmcallister.co.uk, but now the whole three-year cycle of the Roman Rite is collected in book form.
Canon Martin Edwards – also known for his light touch when preaching – pays generous tribute on the cover, praising Sermons for the Christian Year as “deftly crafted without being mannered or ‘preachy’ … rich food for thought served up in a pithy package”.
They are a worthy companion to a well-thumbed volume on my shelf: the Bible scholar Fr Robert Letellier’s Sunday and Feastday Sermons, a small masterpiece of spirituality reminiscent of Benedict XVI’s work in its blend of scholarship and beautiful simplicity. Happy Christmas.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph