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You'll never walk alone

When Gareth Southgate turned his back on the German goalkeeper who ended England's run in Euro 96, few could have predicted a compassionate response from a grief-stricken nation. Reva Klein's son was one of the many young supporters who grew up overnight.

Dear Gareth,

I want you to know that I really respect you, even though you probably feel really down at the moment.

Even though I am an Arsenal fan and live in London, you are one of my biggest idols because you're a really good player and later on in life I think you're going to be really successful. I really respect your bravery facing the cameras after you probably felt like going into a corner and never talking to anyone again.

I hope this letter cheers you up because my friend and I really felt sorry for you.

Yours sorrowly,

Max Abrahams

with help from Neal Storan (We are both 11 years of age)

I am the proud mum of Max Abrahams, who wrote this letter with his good friend Neal the morning after "our" sad exit from the European championship. Really. These boys are not what you'd call phlegmatic about football in general, let alone the semi-final of Euro 96 in particular.

Max had been counting down the minutes towards the match for days. When I came in to wake him up on the fateful morning, he'd uttered not "good morning Mummy" but in that wonderfully precise way that boys have about certain things, "Only 11 and a half hours till kick-off."

Two days before, he'd happily squandered Pounds 30 of his birthday money to buy the execrable grey nylon England shirt, blissfully impervious to the fact that he looked for all the world like a diminutive bank manager. Indigo indeed.

Like tens of thousands of football-loving boys around the country, Max had an acute sense of occasion about this match. He knew that there was a lot more at stake than just winning a game. If ever there was a justification for using that clapped-out cliche "feel-good factor," winning the semi-final against Germany would have been it.

But he also knew that Germany wasn't just any other European country. He was aware of the spleen thinly disguised as pro-England support being blared out by the tabloids. With a grandfather who was a Jewish resistance fighter inNazi-occupied Poland, he knows more than many kids his age about the war and about its legacies 50 years on.

So at breakfast and supper we talked about xenophobic hysteria and about the dangers of hanging on to past conflicts and hatreds.We even talked about the European Union - how could we call ourselves partners and still feel that the Germans were inherently bad?

That bit, the talking, was easy. Then came the game and the heart overtook the mind. But something unexpected happened. When Southgate's unbearable mistake lost us the game, the moans and groans of the previous 90-plus minutes gave way to dignity and compassion. Suddenly, the spotlight was on this young player's personal pain. And the nation, along with my son Max and his friend Neal, reached out to him.

I admit I was surprised by Max's generosity of spirit when, within seconds of The End, after hastily regaining his composure, he solemnly declared "I'm going to write to him tomorrow." I wondered where that maturity had come from when, a few minutes earlier, he'd asked me to sit close to him, declaring that "this is scarier than The X Files."

Then I realised. This young boy knew what it was like, in his own way. He too had had fervent hopes pinned on his little pins, whether in his incarnations as captain of his school's football team, as a member of a junior league team or just playing "friendlies" with mates up on the Common. This was empathy, pure and simple.

And somehow, being able to identify with Gareth Southgate in his misery and buck him up, made him feel better, too. His comforting words worked as a balm to his own bruised hopes and dreams. "Tomorrow," as Scarlett O'Hara remarked after the North beat the South in a different championship a while back, "is another day".

The same day that Max and Neal sat at my computer composing their letter to "poor Southgate", David Trent's Year 6 class at Drayton Park School in Islington, north London - a header's distance from the Arsenal stadium - were doing the same thing. "I wanted to get them out of the depression that seemed to be hanging in the air everywhere that morning and make something positive out of it," says Trent.

Each child wrote his or her own letters, generally along the lines of "don't worry" and "tell your mum and dad to be proud of you." Then all the letters were read out in assembly and everyone cheered and the whole school sang "Football's Coming Home" along with the tape. "Even the teachers were cheered up at the end of it," according to David Trent.

The moral of this story? Maybe it's that children are far more ready to cut through the cynicism and negativity around them than we give them credit for. Given the right conditions and encouragement, boys like mine are more than willing to express their nobler instincts, even when that involves revealing a softness that is not usually allowed to surface.

Does adversity, in the end, build character? Maybe. But more importantly, empathy (as any teacher of history will tell you) breeds understanding.

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