October 1993 and I’m rolling around in the playground fighting another school kid, Jonathan Caterer. Despite the fact that neither of us has yet managed to throw a proper punch, my jacket sleeves are pulled up over my fists so I don’t risk damaging my precious squash hands. For the group of kids huddled round us, cheering us on, it’s a pretty pathetic sight. I’ve got Jonathan in a headlock and we’re both writhing around in the mud. To this day, it’s still the only fight I’ve ever had.
It all started courtesy of my old man, Hedley. He was the PE teacher at my secondary school in Sheffield, High Storrs, and the previous day he’d handed out a detention to Jonathan Caterer. Rightly miffed, Jonathan was now taking it out on the teacher’s son. Knowing me, I’d probably gloated over his misfortune and deserved a bit of a slapping. Just as long as my squash hands were protected.
It’s not easy having your dad working as a teacher at your school. You become defined by it. More often than not I was referred to as “Mr. Matthew’s son”. Fortunately my dad was a PE teacher so most kids enjoyed his lessons. God help me if his subject had been maths or chemistry.
Nevertheless, I got a fair bit of stick. He could be quite strict when he needed to be, hence Caterer’s detention. Turn up for PE without your sports kit and, yes, you would be doing it in your underpants. Fail to put in the effort on a cross-country run and you’d definitely be in for some press-ups as punishment. It’s normal, I suppose, for maligned kids to take out their grievances on the teacher’s son. I’d probably have done the same.
So imagine what the other kids thought of me when my dad appointed me captain of both my school year’s cricket and football teams. Accusations of nepotism were flying around the pitch like errant shots on goal. Actually, when it came to the cricket, I probably was the best man for the job… even if I say so myself. I was a decent all-rounder and at one stage I had batting trials for Sheffield boys.
Thanks to my squash training and endless hours of watching sport on TV, I had a very analytical sports brain, and I was good at working out batting and bowling orders, and setting the fields. But as skipper of football there was definitely a bit of nepotism going on. I was a good central midfielder, a good workhorse, and I ran my socks off but there were kids in the second 11 who were more skillful than me. And they were constantly reminding me of this fact. As a result I had to prove myself, justify my position as captain and demonstrate that what I lacked in skill I possessed in leadership.
It seemed to work since I ended up captaining our school all the way to Sheffield champions in my first two years at secondary school. Maybe my dad had been testing me. Maybe he knew that if he promoted me above my station it would teach me to work hard at excelling in sport.