Until recently, I hadn't thought about football in the slightest. At school it was something that had to be endured, if rarely enjoyed, and I've hardly played a game since. But all of a sudden, as the father of a seven-year-old boy discovering it for the first time, football has become something of a thorny issue.
The Hodgkinsons hold a proud tradition of being completely useless at football. Add to this the fact that my wife is so inured against all forms of sport that she handles balls with the kind of disdain most people give to dead rats and it should be no surprise that our son has proved himself to be less than a fleet foot on the football pitch. And yet it did come as a surprise - and, to my shame, it bothered me.
Last autumn, Otto suggested he join his school football club. All his friends were doing it and he was enjoying the kick arounds we were having in the back garden, so it seemed like a good idea. My own childhood is filled with painful memories of being one of the last to be picked for the football team - and if there was any way Otto could avoid this kind of humiliation it had to be a good thing.
Football, more than any other sport in Britain, is the glue that binds the fabric of fraternity together. Being good at football in childhood goes hand in hand with being popular and one of the team. In adulthood, an interest in football is a shortcut to everyday male acceptance: talking about how "we" did in the premiership allows you to hold your own in pub or barbershop banter. I've long since got used to not knowing what the hell my fellow men are on about, but shouldn't my son be given a chance to join this world?
At first, it looked like football club was going to work for Otto. "How did it go?" we asked him after his first session. "Fine," he replied, which is shorthand for "nothing happened that's worth moaning about". But the following week, he complained about all the parents who came to watch. "I don't like people looking at me when I'm playing football," he said. I picked him up after the third session and watched in dismay as he employed the Hodgkinson approach to ball control. There were other boys on the team who played football with their dads every weekend and were better players than Otto. His confidence took an instant battering. "I don't want to do football any more," he said with a disconsolate pout as we drove home.
Further attempts to encourage Otto to give football another chance were fruitless. His mind was made up: he would rather stay indoors reading comics and drawing manga monsters than face humiliation on the pitch.
This bothered me. But I hated football. Why put my son through it? My initial feeling was that if he could be encouraged to practise the game and enjoy it, his school days would be easier than mine had been. But I have since realised that my reasons for wishing him to succeed at football had deeper psychological reasons.
While not the kind of parent likely to run along the side of the pitch and shout over the referee every time their child has the ball, I was making the classic mistake of living through my son. My reaction to his undeveloped hand-eye coordination and subsequent lack of confidence was really a product of my own feelings of physical inadequacy. I didn't come to this conclusion myself - my wife pointed it out - but it brought up an important parental dilemma: should you encourage your child to be good at something you don't have any interest in, or aptitude for?
Given that my own solution to the football situation - that Otto punches the air each morning, shouting "You're a WINNER!" to the mirror while wearing a Millwall strip - hasn't reaped dividends, it's time to speak to the experts. Dr Richard Cox is one of the UK's top sports psychologists - it is his job to make Scotland's national rugby players feel confident before each match.
"He has suffered a dent to his self-esteem," says Cox, when I tell him of Otto's newly developed aversion to football. "Before he joined the club, he probably thought he would be a natural and now he has discovered his limitations. Look to yourselves - do you and your wife play sports?"
Until Scrabble gets the Olympic status it deserves, the answer is no.
"You're his role models. If he saw you playing a game of badminton in the garden, for example, he would take an interest in it. It's rather like parents sending their children off for swimming lessons without ever going swimming themselves. Turning up to classes isn't enough - you have to actually do the activity yourself."
While being an advocate of the importance of sport and physical exercise to a child's wellbeing, Cox does not suggest pushing any child towards an activity that makes them feel bad, in the hope that sooner or later they will get good enough at it for the balance to tip so it makes them feel good. "The only reason he's not as good at football as his friends is because his hand-eye coordination isn't as developed as theirs yet," says Cox. "Why not encourage him to take up a sport that doesn't involve such concentrated coordination, such as judo or karate? The discipline those sports involve is of a high order, and it will give him status in the eyes of his peers."
A child's physicality, in other words, can be developed in ways that don't involve the pain of watching a ball go straight between your feet and into the goal. "I don't think it's important whether a child is good at football or not - it actually requires quite a specific neurology that most of us haven't got - but I would recommend sport as a whole, as a way of developing physicality and building confidence."
Is Otto's lack of a football role model contributing to a lack of interest in the game? One of his best friends is an excellent footballer, but his father is a professional coach. Another friend, Primo, still attends the after-school football club Otto went to, along with his five-year-old brother, Joseph. I give their mother, a film-maker called Claudia Lee, a call.
"My husband couldn't care less about football, but my brothers are massively into it," says Claudia. "For them, it's about camaraderie as much as anything. My kids look up to my brothers as slightly glamorous role models, and I think they are playing football for their uncles' approval as much as anything."
Are they any good? "Primo is quite good, but I think Joseph would be much happier indoors drawing. For him, it's about fitting in: he's playing football because he sees Primo doing it and assumes it's the right thing to do."
Speaking to another friend with young sons, I discover that my unresolved feelings about whether or not to encourage Otto in football are fairly common. "My boys don't like all the usual things such as football and soldiers," says Richard Armstrong, the father of two sons aged five and seven. "As a result, they struggle in their social group, which worries me. On the other hand, I've found in adult life that all the most interesting people are the ones that didn't fit in."
Anne and Alex Amos's nine-year-old son, Louis, is similar to Otto: creative, iconoclastic and not a natural team player. "Louis is quite introverted, and when I took him to a Saturday football club he was intimidated by the kids he hadn't met before," says Alex. "I was looking for ways of helping him to overcome shyness, but I felt I was forcing him to do something he didn't like."
How do you encourage teamwork in a child who doesn't like being part of a team? "We all need to learn the life skill of working in a team," says Alex, "but if you're looking at sport as a tool of personal and physical development, tennis players aren't in teams, neither are skiers. When I became a parent, I decided not to force my kids into anything they weren't happy about. I was and it didn't do me any good."
I have reached the same conclusion. My initial dismay at Otto's football struggles has dissipated into a kind of pride - he is very much his own person and I love him for that. The physical activities he enjoys most are the ones he can do on his own, such as cycling, climbing and exploring. Otto's great skill is drawing and he can spend hours lost in the joy of creating worlds with a pencil and paper. What good would it do to pull him out of his world of the imagination and into the one that involves muddy pitches, stubbed boots and whistling referees?
As for being bad at football, he is simply maintaining a family tradition. And he has already discovered a passion for a sport that I loved when I was his age: tree climbing. This may not ensure acceptance by his peers, and being brilliant at it can never lead to a multi-million pound career, but it's fun. And that's what childhood should be about.