I was standing in a ghastly Mike Ashley-owned sports shop on the outskirts of Birmingham, watching my 10-year-old son Abe struggling on the horns of a dilemma about the England shirt. It's not that the, ahem, Dublin-born, New York-bred child had any moral objection to wearing one. No, he just couldn't figure out whether he wanted the white or the red edition. The white looked better but might get dirty too quick. The red was just classic (his words). Much to the delight of my friend Mark and his 100-per-cent proof English wife Donna, Abe eventually marched up to the counter with the red in hand and I went looking in the parenting handbook for the section marked "what to do with treasonous children".
We had come to this corner of the west Midlands on a pilgrimage of sorts. The boy's first Premier League match. His father's first in more than a decade. Aston Villa versus Manchester City offered a chance to combine an appealing fixture with the opportunity to catch up with an old college buddy. And so, last Saturday afternoon, two Corkmen and their strangely-accented English and American sons made their way to Villa Park.
It was an educational drive through the city during which my pal Mark, a schoolteacher, informed me most kids in Birmingham now follow one of the big clubs rather than either of the town's two Premier League outfits. Younger fans are so intoxicated by the glamour and hype they can't be bothered emotionally investing in their actual, local teams. Apparently, fathers all over this place plead in vain with their children to wear the claret and blue of Villa or the blue and white of Birmingham City. Then end up driving down to Old Trafford a couple of times a year instead.
Abe Hannigan fits right into this instant-gratification demographic. The proud and shameless owner of Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United shirts, he has been known to wear a different one to school on consecutive days. Last Saturday he pulled a Villa shirt over his head for the first time. He then spent the car journey cheering every time the radio announced another goal for Manchester United. Max, his Birmingham-born fellow traveller in the backseat, did likewise. What a strange generation of boys this is.
As we walked along Trinity Road towards the ground, we stopped at a vendor's stall where one of the most popular t-shirts had the words "Paul McGrath Pure Genius" styled in the manner of the Guinness logo. What else do you do when one of your greatest-ever players is an alcoholic?
My first instinct was to bore the innocent children to tears with the story of the Saturday afternoon long ago when I watched McGrath sidle up for a Villa corner against Queen's Park Rangers at Loftus Road. I wanted to tell them about how, just as he reached the penalty area, the travelling support rose in unison, made a collective "we're not worthy gesture" and sang his name to the tune of 'Kumbaya'. I thought better of waxing lyrical and just bought the boys a pair of Villa scarves.
Inside the ground, the singing was of a different timbre. "Gareth Barry, you're a w**ker, you're a w**ker! Gareth Barry, you're a w**ker!" There is swearing at American sports events too. It's just not as sustained or as well-choreographed. Whenever thousands manage to sing the same tune it's hugely impressive although I did encourage the child to only join in when they were chanting "Villa, Villa, Villa, Villa" or jeering at the City fans with "Win the league, you're 'aving a laugh". The latter did wonders for the kid's messed up faux English accent.
It was, as we hoped it would be, a magical evening. The up-close glimpse of the pageantry of the supporters and the pace of the players blew his mind. As Villa hung on in the face of an onslaught in the second half, a rearguard action hallmarked by the brilliance on the ball of young Marc Albrighton, the old ground shook with the home fans willing Brad Friedel's goal to stay intact. Through it all, I saw the 10-year-old, a veteran of NBA games at Madison Square Garden, realising he was in a totally different world now.
Twenty-four hours later, we were sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport when I noticed an old man shuffling along. The face looked kind of familiar. The face looked like Gordon Banks. Thankfully, the child's hot-house sporting education has included the 1966 and 1970 World Cups. He knows all about the save against Pele, and as an American, his celebrity alert radar immediately went off. A rolled-up programme was produced and an autograph was snagged from the wonderfully-obliging Mr Banks.
"What a way to end the trip, with an autograph from an actual English legend," said Abe, in a half-Brummie accent before declaring his intention to go to school the next day with three lions on his shirt. Three lions on his shirt and his father's heart just breaking.