A father’s fancy footwork

At a meeting of fans who supported a large football club, a man in his forties once stood up to speak. “This is our club,” he said. “Let’s face it, nothing matters quite as much as this – wife, family, whatever. For me, the club always comes first.” There were mutters of agreement, a smattering of applause.

That level of engagement is visible on the faces of members of the crowd in many televised football matches, but this weekend it was one of the TV pundits who provided a perfect example of putting sporting loyalty first. The former England player John Barnes was part of the TV team covering the match between Liverpool and Chelsea. It was a great afternoon for Barnesy. His team, Liverpool, thumped the league leaders Chelsea, with the moody Spanish striker Fernando Torres hitting form for the first time this season.

There was good news off the pitch, too. During the first half, perhaps at the very moment the baby-faced Spaniard was finding the net, Barnesy’s wife Andrea was giving birth in hospital. News of the arrival in the world of little Alexander Barnes was mentioned at half-time, briefly interrupting Barnesy’s analysis of the game.

He looked delighted by the news, but then he had looked delighted by Liverpool’s lead over the champions. Asked by the presenter whether he would like to go to the hospital, he showed not a moment’s hesitation. He would be staying for the second half, he said.

There was a time when such an attitude would have caused no more reaction from viewers than a cursory nod of agreement, and perhaps mild surprise that something as important as a top Premier League game should be interrupted by the news of the birth of a child. In the past, it was not unusual at a football match to hear a member of the crowd being congratulated over the intercom on having just become father.

There was a feeling then that giving birth was women’s business. A dad could do little to help. As a spectacle, a good match had the edge on anything in a delivery room. Watching one’s team, there was the illusion that one could affect the result by chanting, screaming, punching the air and abusing officials, none of which tends to be appreciated in a hospital.

Those days are gone. Family life is no longer a faded backdrop to the brightly-coloured achievements of the outside world. It is seen, quite rightly, to be part of who we are. There is an assumption that a man who is not prepared to put his wife and unborn child first at a time of pain, danger, exhaustion and joy, is probably not going to be the best bet as a husband or a father.

It is, admittedly, not easy being a father in the delivery room. Programmed to be active and manly at a time of crisis, he is now utterly useless, standing on the sidelines muttering words of encouragement which are either irritatingly wimpish or inappropriately hearty. He has not been trained for this.

Barnesy, no stranger to the delivery room having already had six children, may have thought he had paid his dues paternity-wise and deserved a break. It was a bad decision, domestically and professionally. Andrea Barnes will need to be a saint not to remind her husband at regular intervals that he put Fernando Torres before Alexander Barnes on the day of his birth.

The public, too, is unforgiving towards the bad dad. We are better parents than previous generations were, but that improvement has brought with it a sort of domestic exhibitionism. It is why the Prime Minister is happy to have family photographs in the public domain, why Nick Clegg burbled on so eagerly about his family on Desert Island Discs.

Ed Miliband has done the correct, normal thing this week, while Barnesy now represents the bad old days. It is going to take some of the fancy footwork for which he was once famous to redeem himself.

Independent, Tuesday, 9 November 2010