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19th Dec 2016

Mark Chapman on parenting, punditry and the time Ed Balls got upset about coverage of Norwich

Dion Fanning

There are times reading Mark Chapman’s new book, The Love of the Game: Parenthood, Sport and Me, that you find yourself asking why do we do this? Why do we give our lives over to sport when there might be so many other ways to spend our time?

Chapman has devoted huge chunks of his life to sport, not only as a presenter on Match of the Day 2 and Five Live, but also in playing it and, arguably most obsessively, watching his children play it. He has made that emotional investment familiar to many.

But there are plenty of more occasions when the book reminds you why sport matters so much, why it so worthwhile and how it provides the structure for relationships in families and the foundation for so many memories.

CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Presenter Mark Chapman looks on prior to the FA Cup with Budweiser Third Round match between Cheltenham Town and Everton at Abbey Business Stadium on January 7, 2013 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Chapman says he learned something about himself as he wrote the book. For a while, he considered that the title should be something he heard from another parent as they lugged their child’s sporting equipment outside a venue. “Why can’t you just play the bloody violin?” the parent asked and Chapman related to that as he considered the hours he and wife devoted to their children’s sporting activity.

But Chapman realised something. That was a cynical title, which implied a regret about the role of a parent and as he wrote the book, something changed.

“What I found revelatory writing it was that it really wasn’t cynical at all. I actually wasn’t begrudging them any of it. The revelation was just how much family love there has been throughout my 43 years in the sport we have done together.”

These shared moments may be what give sport its hold over us. Of course, it is just escapism, but playing sport or watching it often has significance because of who we were playing or watching it with.

Chapman’s book deals with his own childhood playing sport, but it is most profound when focussing on the sporting life of two of his three children, Ben and Jessie. Milly, his youngest, may have to wait for another volume.

Chapman is honest in the book, especially about the conflict between simply wanting your children to be happy and hoping they can achieve more. This desire for you child to be happy sometimes collides with the competitive instinct or the eagerness of a parent for a child to do better.

This was more pronounced with Ben, than Jessie, probably because Ben, a cricketer and footballer, is playing sports his father has played.

LONDON,UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 30: A view over Hackney Marshes football pitches on September 30, 2012 in London, England. Hackney Marshes in east London has been hosting Sunday league football since 1947 where the Hackney & Leyton Sunday League began. Then many other north London teams soon joined and are still competing to this day. At one point there were as many as 120 pitches lined side by side. Played on Sunday mornings throughout the season its amateur football at its best.

“Jessie is doing sports which, in the main, I know nothing about. So I watch her doing netball, which doesn’t really feature in the book because it’s happened over the last six months, I yearn for her to smile when she’s doing it and look as if she’s enjoying herself. If she misses a net, I would say, ‘Unlucky, Jess’.  Whereas if I go back to when Ben was 8 and if he missed an open goal, there’s a huge part of me, if I was completely honest, would be saying, ‘Come on, Ben, you’ve got to score that from a yard out with nobody near you’.”

In the past there was a difference in how he watched his son and how he watched his daughter. He writes about the post-match dissection of matches in the car which he came to realise were doing more than good.

“When people look at kids’ sport and pushy dads and pushy mums, those car debriefs are probably the worst part of the whole parent-child sporting relationship I think.”

Finding the balance, he says, is “nigh on impossible”, but he also learned that the behaviour we can frown up in others may harder to spot in ourselves.

Sport is seen as an escape in another sense these days, particularly football where families can see a talented kid as a potential lottery win. But, while Chapman feels some parents are driven because they believe their son or daughters offers a chance to change their lives, there are other considerations as well.

“I don’t know how you change it because there are so many factors. The perception is that some parents will see their child as a cash cow, as the route out of one life into another life of untold riches. There will be some who will think that, but there are so many other things that go into it. One is wanting your child to succeed at something they desperately want to succeed at. The second is that there is just the unconditional love you have for your child and you want them to do well at any opportunity whilst realising that they’ve got to fail or they’ll never learn. I think a lot of parents are doing it because they love their child and they want them to succeed.”

When he looks at his children, he sees nothing of the lazy Playstation generation of caricature. In fact, he considers the efforts made by families involved in sport to be pretty remarkable.

“If you’re a government which has forced local councils to slash their budgets so they then put up the cost of renting a swimming pool for a swimming club at a local leisure centre by 40 per cent and that swimming club then has to pass that onto their parents – and in these difficult times – 40 per cent is a whacking hike in anything – then it’s very easy to sit in Westminster and say our kids are lazy. But the process of getting a child to do a sporting activity takes a lot of time and a lot of money, in many cases.”

APIA, SAMOA - SEPTEMBER 07: A general view is seen of a swimmer in the training pool at the aquatic centre during the swimming competition at the Tuanaimato Sports Facility on day one of the Samoa 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games on September 7, 2015 in Apia, Samoa. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

This is one of the many things which he has taken heart from through his involvement in his children’s sport.

“Amateur sport can be criticised by so many people because of parental behaviour, because of coaches, because we’re not doing this and we’re not doing that. While the professionals actually look at it from academy and elite level, but there are actually hundreds of thousands of people in the country who are simply trying to give something back.”

The ongoing shocking revelations about abuse in football have shaken the game. Chapman has interviewed survivors and been stunned by their stories.

“One of the things I find particularly horrific is that it doesn’t feel that long ago, that’s what I find quite shocking. 1997 or 1998 doesn’t seem that long ago. I find it frightening that in what I don’t consider a different era, even though it was twenty years ago, it was treated in the way that it has been treated.”

The way sport looks after young people may have changed since then, but Chapman doesn’t believe people should be complacent.

“I think things have changed so much, but it still be in the forefront of people’s mind. I don’t think people should get lazy and just say it’s historical.

“In the course of all the sport I’ve gone through with my kids, it’s never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t trust the people who are looking after my kids in that environment. The only time those kind of issues crop up, as I say in the book, is when you are made to feel uncomfortable for having a camera or taking a photo.”

He has heard nothing about parents at the level his son plays expressing concern in recent weeks, but he believes that may be because there has been another chilling element to the stories which have been told.

“Going on the touchline at amateur level and vox popping people, I’m not sure what you really get from that. From talking to people about these cases, it was the power to destroy a dream and the career of somebody seems to be a prominent part of these cases. When you are going to the touchlines on Sunday morning football, those dreams and aspirations aren’t quite as prevalent.”

Chapman’s book is a reminder of the good that sport can do. In his work, he encounters the obsessive side too. He recalls the time when Norwich City supporter Ed Balls took issue with Danny Mills’ analysis of his side’s victory over Spurs. Balls had expected positive analysis because Norwich had won, but Mills pointed out some fundamental flaws.

“A highly intelligent man – who might not be a very good dancer – thought that because his side had won, there had to be positive analysis.”

Chapman laughs it off, as he laughs off most complaints about the show, but he wonders when people ask him, for example, “How could you let Martin Keown get away with saying that?” what he is supposed to do.

“That is the job of a pundit: to give their opinion. Much as I try to play devil’s advocate and question a lot of things people say, you can’t do it all the time or otherwise the show would go on for three hours.”

Chapman’s book lovingly details the job of a parent and how it isn’t a job. It turns out that all the lugging of equipment, the hours spent on the sideline and on the road aren’t really chores, but, in fact, acts of love.

Catch up with this week’s episode of Football Friday Live: