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In 1982, an army of 17,000 was mobilized over the mist-clad Pennine mountains to be deployed in Anfield, home of the mighty Liverpool Football Club. The fans of Barnsley FC were rewarded with a gutsy 0-0 draw.

Fifteen years later, Barnsley had reached the top level of English football for the first time in their history. The home and away games with Liverpool that season were both momentous occasions for the South Yorkshire side, who had caught the nation’s affections as they did weekly battle with the big guns of the English soccer aristocracy.

Astonishingly, Barnsley caused a major upset by beating Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield, despite remaining under siege for much of the match. The game at Oakwell early in 1998 was an altogether different affair.

After languishing at the foot of the table for several months, Barnsley staged a revival in February and March of 1998.

Fans began to believe that their team’s  samba-style football and their shamelessly optimistic theme song “It’s just like watching Brazil” (to the tune of “Blue Moon”) might just be enough to ensure survival for one more season.

They had not bargained for the home game with Liverpool and match referee Gary Willard.

Much has been written about this game. For Barnsley fans, it is difficult to discuss the afternoon’s events without foaming at the mouth.

Needless to say, Barnsley lost the game. At 1-1, the referee sent off two Barnsley players. Liverpool went ahead 2-1. Unbelievably, the nine men levelled the scores at 2-2. Mr. Willard then sent off a third Barnsley player.

In the last minute, Liverpool grabbed the winner. A darker mood was never witnessed at Oakwell. Mr. Willard required a police escort from the pitch. The team’s league form never recovered from this game, and they were relegated before the end of the season.

Barnsley’s tilt at the Premiership is documented by Mark Hodkinson in the book ‘Life at the Top’. He is not a Barnsley fan, and therefore offers a more balanced view of that afternoon’s events. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Willard chose precisely the wrong place to stage his three-card trick. Barnsley does not suffer fools and it has a historical mistrust of authority. While, like most clubs, Barnsley has undergone what sociologists call “embourgoisement” – you know, serviettes supplied with the pies, toilets that flush, fans that applaud David Seaman because he is the England goalkeeper, etc… – there remains a mass of support based on fierce parochialism. They are ex-miners, and sons of ex-miners, once the aristocracy of the working class, now left with too much time on their hands to ponder Barnsley’s next match.

Back in the 1970s, they saw through the smoke and mirrors and detected that the National Coal Board had a secret agenda. They were patronised, told that too much time underground had made them over-fond of baseless conspiracy theories. In the 1980s the pits duly closed and their frustration was played out against lines of policemen.

The resentment, institutionalised now, still exists in Barnsley. The football club has become a focus for regional pride and naked passion; a two-fingered wave back to a country that they believe has consigned them to afternoon television and twice-weekly trips to the job club. Their nemesis arrived last weekend in the shape of a divorced father-of-two civil servant with a Saturday job as a football referee. There are “honest” fouls in football – a clip of the heel, a shift of weight to slow up an opponent’s run – and there are dishonest ones, too. Willard permitted the cynical, the puerile and the snide but gleefully punished the trivial.

After this injustice had been reinforced beyond the point of tolerance, ill-feeling spread through Oakwell like a malignant Mexican wave.

For a longer excerpt, see here.

Tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. GMT, the FA Cup fifth round match between Liverpool and Barnsley will kick off at Anfield.

Barnsley are now a mid-table Championship club. Getting a result at Premiership Liverpool tomorrow would be touted as a giant-killing. Realistically, the best most of us hope for is a draw or a hard-fought defeat with predictably sympathetic “Battling Barnsley” headlines.

But tonight, hope remains. At 10:00 in the morning, with five feet snow banks lining our driveway, our family will settle on the sofa to watch the game live on Fox Sports World Canada. Ritualistically, my sons and I will don our replica Barnsley shirts and, as the game kicks off, let optimism soar.

I will ask them to scan the hordes of Barnsley fans. And try to spot Grandad.

The distance between home and abroad, past and present, hope and reality, their childhood and mine, will shrink.

By half-time, the game may well be as good as over.

And, should Barnsley lose, they will handle the pain of defeat less well than me. And part of me will feel guilty for having subjected them to this. Even though they can’t wait to watch.

But I also know that they will always remember this game.

And that’s important as well.

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Addendum: Guess what. Score level with 30 seconds to go, then this happens.

Brian Howard’s glory strike in Arabic.

Or in French:

Cue household delirium.

They will definitely remember this game.

Full match report here.

And this is how the shocked pundits saw it unfold:

Match of the Day highlights:

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 In most marriages and long-term cohabitations, each partner’s approach to domestication can cause friction.

Typically, flashpoints will include the build-up of dryer lint, toast crumb accumulation, misuse of shower curtain, or failure to replenish fresh cat litter.

Over time, reactions to these domestic flashpoints can develop in a number of ways. In fact, the continued success of the relationship may depend upon the nature of this development. Here are three possible scenarios:

In scenario one, the flashpoints assume nuclear proportions. As a result, other areas of irritation can mushroom at an alarming rate. New flashpoints may involve flagrant margarine melting, sock clutter, and a cavalier approach to toothpaste caps. Relationship meltdown can rapidly ensue.

Scenario two is far more idyllic. Idiosyncratic domestic habits become warm and familiar reminders of your uniquely adorable partner. Just strolling around the house witnessing the spray of evidence becomes pure pleasure.  

“Ah bless, the bathroom floor is dripping through to the lounge ceiling again.”

“Aw look, see how the light of my life leaves eighteen pairs of shoes tossed about the hallway.”

“My sweet love has once again left last week’s pool of cat vomit in the basement, despite promising to clean it up – mmm.”

 Idyllic, yes, but there’s something unnerving about this mental shift.

Scenario three is, I suspect, the most typical. Yes, it’s that sigh of acceptance. It’s those raised eyebrows of resignation, the bowed back of domestic martyrdom. The years ahead can look like a long and dusty road.

As usual, nature has provided the perfect solution. At least for many.

The solution is mind-blowingly simple.

Pay the natural offspring. Just pay the kids to mop up after the aberrant habits. Just give each kid a list of five chores. The solution assumes an average of two kids per couple.

In the solution, each partner is allowed to choose five chores which will address the annoying habit consequences of the other. Also, each partner is then allowed to carry on with their shamefully uncivilised habits.

 If there are more than five habits, you’ll simply have to make (or adopt) more children.

For the cash outlay, the North American term of “allowance” is perfect. “Pocket money” doesn’t quite cover it here.

Upshot: Both partners get to keep their worst habits, both partners are happy that they won’t have to deal with the fallout, and the kids get cold hard cash (plus happy parents). Domestic bliss ensues.

Interestingly, when we compiled our post-nuptial allowance lists, my sheet of paper listing my wife’s annoying habits remained absolutely blank. Idyllic or what?

The kids seem busy with the other list, though.

Anyone got a list to share?

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It’s Thursday evening under darkening skies. The two teams line up to face each other. Brief glances are exchanged as the players assess possible weaknesses. The referee, officiously dressed in black, signals to the opposing goalkeepers. She blows her whistle.

Another football match in the Mississauga Under 8’s division gets underway. My son’s team, in green shirts, attack down the right . The move peters out when the ball rolls over a hopeful foot and out for a throw-in.

Less than thirty seconds later, I’m having difficulty breathing. My shirt feels clammy. It’s started to rain. The rain is so heavy that the players are just moving blurs beyond swirling water curtains.

I realize that I’m sputtering water. It’s like the moments after you resurface from a dive. But the moments continue. I have to open my mouth to breathe. The oxygen supply seems depleted. I begin to wonder if you can drown in falling rain.

The players seem oblivious to the meteorological chaos. An ambitious shot almost nets us a goal. Then, our goalkeeper fingertips a free-kick over the bar. In normal circumstances, this would be an exciting game.

The crowd looks pathetic: A line of parents holding back a teeming ocean with bits of material flapping over spindly metal frames. Their umbrellas are just not up to the task. I have no umbrella. My clothes look like I’ve just crawled out of Lake Ontario.

After five minutes of water torture, the referee has had enough. She makes a cutting movement with her arms and abandons the game. The dripping rats wander off the field, struggling to recognize sodden parents.

Back in England, I played hundreds of football matches. Sometimes, games would be postponed due to a frozen pitch. Or, the ground would be so waterlogged that the ball wouldn’t roll. These were usually games that were cancelled ahead of time. Never, in the land of drizzle and scattered showers, did I see a game abandoned due to the physical intensity of rain.

Last week, the game was stopped after twenty minutes because of lightning. Again, this happens frequently in Canada, but never happened in my UK playing days.

I remember a recurring theme: My sons’ childhoods differ from mine in ways that constantly surprise me.

I like the fact that my sons are having different childhoods from mine. Not because mine was bad (it wasn’t), but I’m happy that they know they are not living through replications of my childhood. That I’m not trying to recreate something for my benefit.

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The graduation plague is spreading throughout Canada. It has now reached the kindergartens.

In this Toronto Star article, a principal defends the kindergarten graduation ceremony claiming that, “Everything your children need to know about life and living they learned in kindergarten.”

All the little scholars passed with flying colours and got to wear a mortar board.

So I guess they also learned the lesson that, in life, everyone is successful to the same degree regardless of the amount of effort.

They also learned that some adults will do the happy seal clap at any given opportunity.

They will soon learn that, for them,  graduation ceremonies are fast becoming annual events. On these occasions, everyone gets to celebrate the wonders of an education system where everyone is a success.

At least, until it really matters.

 

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Tonight is graduation night for our oldest son. At fourteen, he is finishing grade eight. Such graduation ceremonies are uncharted waters for me. I am really looking forward to it. In a slightly evil way.

He has been at his current junior high school for two years. There are no end-of-year examinations. Everyone has passed. I am not exactly sure what we are meant to be celebrating.

Recently, our son asked me if he could rent a tuxedo for the evening. He explained that the rental fees were $135. Ten minutes later when my eyes had stopped streaming and I’d sewn my buttocks back on, I remembered that I really shouldn’t mock my children’s sincere requests like that. Good parenting is very hard.

To his credit, he didn’t counter with an “everyone-else-will-be” riposte. Although I suspect that is because he’s heard my speech on “how can you be yourself if you look and sound exactly like all the others?” once too often. I know, I know, peer acceptance and a sense of belonging are important too.

Anyway, in the end, he chose new clothes that he’ll be able to wear again: Beige linen trousers, a white shirt with a faux faded stripe effect, and white running shoes. Taking a daring leap into cultural stereotyping, I suspect he’ll be thrown into sharp relief by the tailored dark suits favoured by his classmates of Korean and Indian extraction. But at least he had the guts to pick from his own sense of style.

Note that I did not pass comment on my son’s taste in clothing in any way. Good parenting is very very hard.

Yesterday was rehearsal day. There were no classes of an educational nature. Two hundred students sat for hours in an auditorium until it was their turn to work on their act. Then, they climbed three steps, shook a hand, mimed the acceptance of a certificate, turned to beam at an imaginary audience and trooped off stage left. 

I would have done the rehearsal in a different way. The school is concerned that students will forget to shake hands or beam appropriately. Sitting around for hours for one measly practice run is methodological suicide.

Why not take the kids outside to the school yard, have a teacher demonstrate the procedure, and get the learners EN MASSE to rehearse the manoeuvres five to ten times?The whole exercise could have been done in fifteen minutes.

For me, my one and only graduation cermony was my first degree at university. Other schools I attended had no formal leaving occasions. At sixteen we left a school that we had attended for five years. People didn’t even say goodbye. They just drifted away – on different days.

Two years later, after studying A-levels at a college in preparation for university, it was a similar story. There was an end-of-year disco, but that was seen more as a place to meet before the serious drinking began in town. The idea of a formal graduation ceremony was entirely absent and would probably not have been welcomed.

But tonight will be different. Scrubbed up parents in all their finery will sit through the lengthy presentation ceremony. Each set will pray that their offspring is not the one to initiate a collapsing domino effect on the rickety stage steps and be the infamous star of a hundred Youtube uploads first thing in the morning.

Next, the dance will begin. This kicks off with a father/daughter and mother/son routine. This nauseating interlude must be the point at which I get to network with the other enforced wallflowers.

Then, the parents are at last banished from the building and the complexities of adolescent pairing-off can finally be set in motion.

In a very oblique moralistic reference, a school newsletter explained that the dance area would be air-conditioned, so students were requested to remain in the building for the duration of the dance. Granted that teenage hormones can get a little overheated, but I think they would survive any expeditions into the night air. Actually, oblique doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Anyway, it’s almost five o’clock. Better decide what I’m going to wear. I don’t think I ever bought a tux, but there might be a suitably staid tie at the back of my raggy T-shirt drawer.

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By the way, France was, of course, just great. But more of that soon.

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Sport family

With the long winters in Canada, making sure the family gets enough exercise can be difficult.

For several years, we signed the kids up for indoor sports programs with varied success. All too often, they’d spend half the time in long line-ups waiting for their turn to kick a ball once before another five minutes of action-free tedium.

Also, with our kids six years apart, few programs allowed them to sign up together. Finally, we hit upon a solution.

Through the education board, we now rent a school gym for two hours one night a week. The kids are allowed to bring a friend or two each. There, we play soccer, basketball, dodgeball, floor hockey and generally run around the whole time.

Indoor sports

The administrative demands of the facilities rentals department were a challenging test of arcane bureaucracy. However, by sticking leech-like to a single employee, we were able to negotiate the chicanery.

Even with the mandatory insurance, it’s still a cheap way to incorporate exercise, family-time, and friends into a great evening out. The kids love it and we’re thinking about renting for two evenings a week next winter.

Wish I’d thought of this years ago.

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Are you a parent of school-aged children? If not, then you might not have noticed. Something truly evil is afoot. Childhoods are being stolen.

 

Those happy, carefree years of exploratory fun: systematically misappropriated. But, you ask, who are the culprits, the wrongdoers, the evil ones?

 

Easy. Governments, education departments, and worst of all, teachers. A smart bunch, they chose their evil method with care, knowing it can be disguised as a bonus, an incentive, a benefit, a commitment to nation building: one of those nebulous non-entities of policy we all know and love. And its name is homework.

 

Our youngest son started full-time school a couple of years ago. He entered French immersion. Throughout Grade 1, as he sought to make sense of the new language, you could virtually hear the synapses crackling.

 

The shift up from kindergarten was a shock to his system. Our five year-old left for the bus around 0820, and was not back home until 1610. Almost eight hours a day. Forty hours a week. Some presidents don’t rack up that kind of workload.

 

Naturally, after a hard day’s slog in the classroom, our son was keen to get rid of some stress by tearing around the back yard for an hour. He usually had a snack first, but couldn’t wait to chase the cat, whack badminton birdies, and launch soccer balls at reverberating back windows

 

After dinner came crunch time. I would silently extract homework books from the over-sized backpack and spread them out on the desk like instruments of torture, while my son stood cowering in the corner.

 

“Time for homework,” I’d say.

 

“Noooohhh,” would come the pitiful wail. He clearly felt he’d already earned the right to a hot bath, a decent story, and some sweet dreams.

 

Never have I felt more like a bad parent.

 

For up to an hour, we would labour over spelling lists, our son slowly forming letters on the page. At this age, just writing individual letters demands great concentration from a child. In other words, there weren’t many brain cells available to do any other learning. Especially in a confusing second language that he’d just been exposed to the whole day.

 

He’s an independent child. He resents having to resort to adults for help unless absolutely necessary. I love that. This close to bedtime, however, with heavy lids and a tired brain, he had little choice. The perfect recipe for a stressful and miserable time before sleep. The perpetrators of this crime were nowhere to be seen. In my son’s eyes, since there was no-one else there, I was clearly to blame.

 

In Grade Two, things have improved. We have developed strategies for dealing with this theft of childhood. But theft it remains. This time, there are psychological weapons at play too. The school’s official line is that homework is varied and stimulating in order to motivate the child. In practice, the homework is often a daily dose of mind-numbing predictability. Mondays: sort the list of words into alphabetical order. Tuesdays, choose five of the words and make a sentence with each one. Wednesdays, if you’re still awake, write riddles to describe the words and so on for the rest of the year.

 

Of course, we could have done homework before dinner. However, kids need exercise. Preferably not on a full stomach. And preferably in daylight. Our youngest son is very physical: doing sport is essential to his well-being. As his Dad, I just know that.

 

I’ve written notes to teachers but to little avail. I know teachers work hard. It is easier to have kids do the same type of exercise every week. Easier to plan. Easier to explain. Easier to mark.

 

When you start to tell your kid that his homework isn’t important, you know there’s something wrong with the system.

 

Next year, we’ll try a different approach. They’ve stolen enough. I’ll ask teachers to note how long they expect my son to work on an exercise. And then, at least, we’ll know the extent of the thievery. I understand that there is a case for homework for young kids. For quick consolidation of learning, it can be useful. As it stands, it’s largely detrimental. And It certainly doesn’t inspire a lifelong love of learning.

 

At some point, this policy will be revisited, but I suspect not for some time. Reducing perceived learning time is politically dangerous: serious spin would be needed. But there’s nothing to worry the electorate. It’s just a case of applying the old adages: Quality not quantity, moderation in all things, all work and no play make Jack and Jill a dull pair of politically correct brats etc. Governments love to trumpet a common sense approach.

 

In the name of common sense, there are worse places to start than giving childhoods back to their rightful owners.

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