My Father's Shadow: What's It Like to Follow a Famous Footballing Dad?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportFebruary 6, 2020


Maldini. Zidane. Hagi. Kluivert. Weah. Chiesa. Thuram. Simeone.

They are names that mean one thing to one generation of football fans but could mean something entirely different to the next generation.

As the likes of Daniel Maldini, Justin Kluivert, Ianis Hagi, Timothy Weah and the Zidane brothers embark upon their careers, hoping to honour the legacies of their famous fathers, they do so accompanied by the same sense of fascination that arises whenever a familiar surname returns to the game on the back of an unfamiliar player's shirt.

Will they emulate their fathers' achievements or fall short? Could some of them even eclipse what their dads did on the pitch? Or might they fail to make the grade as professional footballers altogether?

These are the questions that every player with a feted footballing father must put up with, and they are questions that crop up as soon as it becomes apparent that a youngster with a well-known dad displays any kind of aptitude for the game. For proof of that, you need only witness the buzz generated on social media by news of Cristiano Ronaldo Jr.'s exploits in the Juventus youth ranks or footage of the recent goal scored by Thiago Messi in the colours of Barcelona.

Should Mini Ronaldo and Mini Messi elect to pursue careers in football, they will learn that having a decorated footballer for a father can be a double-edged sword. While it may confer certain genetic advantages and serve to open doors that would remain closed to other budding players, it brings with it a level of expectation with which very, very few young footballers must contend.

As a child, Devante Cole's Saturday afternoons were not like the Saturday afternoons of other little boys his age.

Every other weekend, his mother, Shirley, would drive him to Old Trafford, where he would watch his father, Andy, strut his stuff on the pitch as a member of one of the most celebrated Manchester United teams in the club's history.

"My earliest memory is probably watching him at Old Trafford on a Saturday," Cole tells Bleacher Report. "My mum would take me to the players' lounge. She'd speak to the other wives or girlfriends, and I'd play with the other players' kids. Then we'd go out and watch him, and after the game, we'd wait for him to come in with all the players."

Cole did not develop an affection for football straight away—"probably because I was surrounded by it"—but after acquiring a taste for it at school, he began training with Manchester City at the age of seven. After progressing through City's youth ranks, he spent time on loan at Barnsley and Milton Keynes Dons before leaving the club at the age of 20. Following spells at Bradford City, Fleetwood Town and Wigan Athletic, who loaned him to Burton Albion and Motherwell, he recently joined English third-tier side Doncaster Rovers on a short-term deal.

Devante Cole while at Fleetwood
Devante Cole while at FleetwoodRobbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

The 24-year-old striker, who has been capped by England up to under-19 level, has experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of having an illustrious footballing father. Most obviously, he has benefited from his dad's advice, which has ranged from general career guidance to specific technical insights on how to improve his hold-up play.

There have also been the inevitable downsides—the constant comparisons in the media, the taunts from hostile supporters—but as his career has progressed, he has come to realise that if people want to endlessly hark back to what his old man achieved as a player, that is their problem and not his.

"If I'm honest, I think other people are more bothered about it than I am," he says. "People are almost obsessed with it. I'm always going to get it off fans, the shouts of, 'You're never going to be as good as your dad.' Whatever the rest of my career holds and wherever I get to, they can drag me up on that. But as far as I'm concerned, I'll get to where I need to get to.

"If I could stop the fact, no—I wouldn't even stop them. It's really down to people to see me in my own light and not in his."

Whereas former City team-mates such as Angelino, Jason Denayer, Olivier Ntcham and Rony Lopes have gone on to establish themselves at the highest level, Cole's experience of top-tier football is limited to the 19 Scottish Premiership appearances he made for Motherwell. But with his father having bounced back from a fruitless early-career spell at Arsenal to impose himself in the Premier League with Newcastle United in his early 20s, Cole Jr. need not look far for inspiration.

"We've sat down and had that conversation numerous times about what it takes," he says. "He was quite late to it himself, getting to the Prem. I'm 24 now, so hopefully in the next few years, that will be the aim."

Many young footballers dream of taking part in a triumphant trophy parade. Jack Barmby ticked it off his bucket list at the age of just six.

As the son of Liverpool midfielder Nick Barmby, he joined Gerard Houllier's squad as they paraded their FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup trophies on an open-top bus tour of their home city in May 2001. Some parts of the day proved more memorable than others.

Jack Barmby with his father Nick at the 2001 UEFA Cup bus parade
Jack Barmby with his father Nick at the 2001 UEFA Cup bus paradeGetty

"I remember going past some Evertonians who were throwing eggs at the bus," he tells Bleacher Report. "But by the end of it, I actually fell asleep. My dad always takes the piss: 'Took you on the bus, parading the trophies around Liverpool, half a million people, and you fell asleep.'"

Barmby Jr. exhibited a talent for football in furious back-garden kickabouts with his younger brother, George, and matches for a local junior team in Hull, the city where his father finished a distinguished playing career in which he won 23 caps for England as a goalscoring midfielder. But Barmby Sr. was in no hurry to introduce his eldest son to the dog-eat-dog world of professional football, telling him: "If you're good enough, you'll make it anyway."

Manchester United picked him up when he was 14 after he impressed at a tournament in Manchester, and he went on to play in a youth team studded with future stars, including Paul Pogba, Adnan Januzaj, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. His father's advice was simple.

"My dad didn't really know anyone at United," Barmby recalls. "He just said to me, 'Look, you've done this by yourself. Go and enjoy it, go and grasp it, and see where it takes you.' And the years at United were brilliant. It was the experience of a lifetime."

Released by United in 2014, Barmby spent time on the books at Leicester City before winding up in the United States in 2016 via a loan move to Portland Timbers, who signed him on a permanent basis the following year. He subsequently moved to San Antonio FC and is currently gearing up for his first season in the second-tier USL Championship with his new club, Phoenix Rising.

A keen golfer (like his father), Barmby is enjoying the variety of courses that he now finds on his doorstep in Arizona, not to mention the wall-to-wall sunshine. But although he has been happy to see the comparisons to his dad diminish since he left England, he fails to see why mention of his father's achievements should dismay him.

"You want to be your own man, you want to do it yourself, and I think that's one of the reasons why I came to America, to forge my own name without people saying, 'Oh, it's Nicky Barmby's son,'" he says.

"But I'm fine with it. I understand that I'm going to get that and it doesn't bother me. It's obviously a talking point for journalists. But it's not a bad thing to say that my dad had a great career. I'm obviously proud of that. And I've been very fortunate that I've lived a very good life and a lot of that is down to my family and what my dad's done. So it's not something I can get bitter about."

Sam Beasant was a month old when his father, Dave, made history by becoming the first goalkeeper to save a penalty in an FA Cup final as Wimbledon's "Crazy Gang" stunned league champions Liverpool in the Wembley sunshine in 1988.

But if being the son of an England international earned him a degree of eminence in the school playground, there were days when he would have preferred the attention to have been directed somewhere else.

"When he was at Nottingham Forest, I remember getting a lot of stick the week after he lost 8-1 to Man United [in February 1999]."United were obviously the big team then, so everyone supported them," Beasant tells Bleacher Report, adding sarcastically: "Going back to school after that was fun."

Sam Beasant
Sam BeasantClive Rose/Getty Images

Initially a striker, he surprised his dad by announcing that he wanted to follow in the paternal footsteps by playing in goal. His father responded with coaching sessions in the lounge of the family home in the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Peter, where the Beasants lived during Beasant Sr.'s four-year spell at Chelsea. "I remember him teaching me the basics in the lounge," says Beasant Jr. "Starting on your knees and learning how to fall onto your side, getting used to how you should land when you're diving."

His father's connections enabled Beasant to join the youth setup at Chelsea, where he stayed for five years. Aside from a stint in Cyprus, he has spent most of his career playing in either League Two or in non-league football. But although he has not scaled the same heights as his dad, he is grateful that he has been allowed to stand on his own two feet.

"A lot of my friends say to me, 'Can't your dad get you into this team or that team?'" says Beasant, who hit the headlines recently when footage of his comedy dive in a match for English semi-professional outfit Hemel Hempstead went viral.

"But he's never been like that because if he could use his name to get me into a team and I wasn't good enough, he'd look like a bit of a wally. It was always, 'Right, I'll put your name about and if people want you and you can do it, that's fine. I'm never going to put you into a club where you can't hack it.'"

Having once been dropped by Chelsea after making two howlers in a defeat against Norwich City in September 1992, Beasant Sr. understands the loneliness of the position better than most. It means that when Beasant Jr. has committed costly blunders of his own, such as the time the ball struck him and went in for an own goal as he was running back to get in position for a corner, his dad has been able to find the right words.

"He came up to me and said, 'Forget about the game. You know you're good enough to be playing at this level. Just go out and prove yourself in the next game,'" Beasant says.

"He didn't hammer me for making the mistake. He's been in that situation, like with the Chelsea-Norwich game, and he knows how it feels. It's great to have someone like that to look up to while you're playing."

Good genes, sound advice and advantageous connections are all well and good, but sometimes all a player needs is an arm around the shoulder. Because famous footballer or not, a dad is still a dad.


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