He was known in Chesterfield as the kid that plays for Man City. All of a sudden he’s the kid playing grassroots football. There were snide remarks towards him. He found it difficult.’ Here is a story of a parent who trusted in his son’s ability like all of us do but admits he might have overplayed his role.
A YouTube clip of him as an 8-year-old in a red England kit, demonstrating his ball skills, was used against him. An ill-advised caption read: ‘Remember his name. This boy is going to be a star.’ Innocence acts as incitement on what should really be termed anti-social media; commentaries were crass, callous and barely literate:
‘All I go on, as a football dad, is, oh, Aston Villa is bigger than Sheffield United. So, of course, we’re going to give that a go. Then Rachel, my wife took a call from Man United, and rang me at my mum’s. They wanted Zak, my son to go up there. We were all United fans at the time, so we couldn’t knock that back. When I consider it now, I think, what was I doing? I’m ashamed, to be honest.
Does your child getting selected or dropped, scoring the winning goal or missing an open net, getting man of the match or getting subbed at half time, represent your parenting? Or does a child who is a decent, polite, respectful, humble, hard-working teammate actually reflect the kind of parent you are?
Which boy carries his bag to training, instead of delegating the duty to his dad? What is the player’s mood, especially if he comes from a broken home? How does he relate to the parent who ferried him to the session? Does the parent stay, and take an interest in his progress? Who has furthest to travel? Is anyone having problems at school? What are the underlying reasons for a lack of concentration and commitment?
‘During Zak’s younger years I had a lot of fury at him. He generally played up an age group and did well. But on this day, at The Cliff, he was not on it. We were coming down the motorway and I completely lost it. I’m screaming and shouting at him. He has a vacancy across his face, which just makes me angrier.
‘I’m going, “Don’t you realize? Christiano and Pogba played on that pitch. Do you know what I mean?” Of course he had no concept of what I was going on about. He was just six. Rachel had a word with me when we got home. She said,
“It’s not him that needs to change. It’s you.”’
He realized his relationship with his son had become dangerously constricted, since it depended on whether Zak had reached perceived standards of excellence. His immediate response, to enrol on a sports psychology course at the Open University in an attempt to gain a deeper insight into the power of the mind, did not alter the priority: choosing the club at which Zak would take an academy place.
Zak, an academically bright child, enrolled at a local junior school and excelled in his first six months at the Villa academy. A pivotal problem arose when he set up a goal with a look-away pass during a training match. The coach stopped the session, criticized the extravagance of the gesture, and alienated the child.
‘Zak, being a nine-year-old, took that as a personal jibe. It wasn’t, because we saw other kids get the same treatment, but they were looking for conventional play. Pick up, pass, look to receive. I didn’t think there were too many better than him at running with the ball, and being tricky, so I worried they would take away what was good about him. ‘Was he going to be another statistic, and fall away? I realize, even as I say that, I was lost in the process of how he was going to get through. Zak started to feel his coaches were on at him. I was instructing him another way, saying,
“Don’t let your skills go. It’s about bums on seats in this game.”
On invitation to Manchester City Academy, they were welcoming. Zak was invited to meet Roberto Mancini in the dugout before a league game, ironically against Villa. He met Joe Hart and was presented with David Silva’s signed shirt. Yet his form in his first season, in the under-11s, was lukewarm. His problems during the second season were compacted by the disintegration of his father’s relationship with a coordinating coach for the under-12s and -13s. A confrontation, triggered by disputed accusations of favoritism and a perceived lack of game time, marked a point of no return. Glen admits he sent City an anonymous letter of complaint, which was not acted upon. He was left to pick up the pieces when the club acceded to his request that Zak should be released.
It was about time to try a new venture, Spain was the next destination, Athletic Madrid to be specific. His father failed to find work, and filled the time between academy sessions by studying for a long-distance psychology degree. It took more than six months before the artlessness of the exercise became apparent. The club called Glen into a meeting at the Vicente Calderon Stadium. They had bad news to impart. FIFA had noted the absence of an answer in the section of the registration form devoted to the father’s employment. Glen had left it blank, since he had none, without grasping the reality that this would make Zak ineligible to play.
Despite an attempt to argue he intended to use his qualifications to set up a sports psychology practice, FIFA ruled he had moved to Spain for football related, rather than work-related, reasons.
This was a breach of Article 19 of FIFA’s regulations, set up to tackle child trafficking. In essence, no player under 18 can be transferred internationally unless the family are relocating for employment purposes. A statute drawn up for the most honorable of reasons, to protect minors being enslaved by unscrupulous agents or unprincipled clubs, was being used against him.
On failing to settle at Athletic Madrid, now in a local team he played alongside the son of Guti, the former Real Madrid player, who, ignorant of the broader picture, offered to arrange a trial at his old club. Like Zak’s previous Spanish coaches, Guti recognized the boy’s long-term potential as a number ten; in the more literally minded English system, Zak’s skill had seen him pigeonholed as a winger.
The irony of another unsustainable opportunity arising in such random circumstances was characteristically cruel. The family was offered the chance of taking their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, but could not afford the legal fees. They were forced, in Glen’s words, to ‘come home with our tails between our legs’.
‘I had a sort of inner arrogance, because Zak was showing a certain level of promise, but I am not an arrogant person. I thought, we need to look for Premier League. He’s better than Chesterfield, Sheffield United, Rotherham, whoever. Maybe if I had not taken that path Zak’s path might have been different. He may just have gone to Derby at an early age and loved it. The grass isn’t always greener. Don’t let pride get in the way. Bigger clubs don’t treat players any better. The coaching is not necessarily any better.
‘Some parents are in football for the right reasons, but others are doing it because essentially they live through their son. They see a pension plan and all sorts. They get caught up in it. It goes through me, some of the things I hear parents do and say …’
Extract From No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin