The next European Championships will be held in France in 2016, exactly 20 years after the last time every English man, woman and child supported the 3 lions. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people still do follow and support England. It’s just for one beautiful halcyon summer, we all did.
What wasn’t there to love about it? The sun was out every day, Blur and Oasis topped the charts, Danny Boyle’s opus Trainspotting ushered in the bold new face of “Cool Britannia”, this blogger had his first brush with female infatuation whilst on holiday in Rhyl and, most importantly, there was a major football tournament happening in our back yard for the first time since Bobby Moore lifted aloft that shining Jules Rimet trophy 30 years earlier. We believed in Psycho, Gazza, Teddy, Super Al and Dave Seaman. To borrow a phrase from the kids of the time 1996 was “all that and a bag of chips”.
When I think back to Euro 96, I long for those days when supporting the national team wasn’t a chore or something to be ashamed of. The honest football fan in me started seeing the national team in a different light around 2002, its blindingly true light. The harsh realities of its travelling fan base, the Charleroi’s and Marseille’s and the vile (mainly racist) chanting created feelings for football I had never previously known from the wide eyed innocence of a child witnessing his first World Cup in 1994. I remember specifically the moment I fell out of love with England for good.
April 2nd 2003, England were on “tour” taking the national team to the people in a commendable exercise by the FA, as Wembley had closed its doors for a multi million pound refurbishment that would go on for what seemed like 1000 years. Sunderland was its next stop for the potential powder-keg of a clash against group 7 rivals Turkey. I was working in a pub (well, I use the term pub loosely as it was actually a Wetherspoons) nearby that day and we were warned to expect a LOT of England fans. The pub was decked out in St George’s flags, the staff all in 3 Lions shirts, with myself in the rather fetching 2002 away shirt (think Beckham, Argentina, Sapporo Dome). The ‘clientele’ that day contained some of the worst human beings I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. No one seemed arsed about the game of football, they were more bothered about far right political dick swinging chants and fighting rival gangs of football ‘fans’. The local BNP morons coincidently decided today was a good day to march in support of a man who had stabbed an Iranian man in a racially motivated attack a few weeks before. After about the 75 th chant of “no surrender to the IRA” and “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk” I decided I didn’t want to wear the shirt any longer. My manager asked why I’d taken it off, I simply told her it felt uncomfortable.
After I’d finished my shift I went to my mate’s house for a smoke and a beer. As I watched England win convincingly 2-0 with a young Scouse lad called Wayne in a starring role, I realised I’d fallen out of love with it all. It was like a girl I’d been enamoured with for years had suddenly grown massive hairy balls, got a facial tattoo and started listening to Nickelback. I hated her, and everything to do with her.
I spent the next 4 tournaments laughing at England, praying for their downfall. I enjoyed Euro 2008 without that lot there. I laughed during the World Cup in South Africa. I must’ve been the only one who enjoyed that Algeria game, drinking beer through a Vuvuzela and shouting “Heskey!” through it like a loudspeaker to annoy mates who were devastated by the team performance. I tuned into TalkShite that night to listen to Stan Collymore’s phone in show just to hear the irate fans in an act of pure schadenfreude. I was revelling in it. I loved the media furore, the anger, the bile, the ‘wally with a brolly’, the Swede, the turnip, the “Bo Selecta faced” Italian, the Gerrard/Lampard conundrum, the abject failure, everything! Why? Because I hated the people associated with England.
Euro 2012 is here in the next few days, I can’t wait to enjoy the “football” as a fan of “football” in this festival of “football”, not being another little Englander who stops caring when their team is out. My boss, knowing I’m a football fan surprised me by telling me I had the France and Sweden games off. I was delighted, I couldn’t wait to watch every player fall flat on their faces and condemn those idiot fans with their little flags with tiny towns no-one’s ever heard of daubed on to further dismay.
But today, my mind was cast back to that beautiful summer of ’96. The dentist’s chair, Shearer’s goal scoring drought ending, Pearce’s screaming reconciliation with penalties against Spain and Germany, the 4-1 defeat of Holland, the nation coming together under the mantra of “football’s coming home”, those long idyllic summer days practising Gazza’s genius flick over Colin Hendry’s head with my mates in the park. Where did that youthful exuberance go? Could I ever find it again? I hadn’t realised it till recently but I’ve actually missed it. I’ve been feeling like a bitter old spurned lover watching England over the last few years. Maybe it’s something I should put to bed, support the team a bit. Try and rediscover that spark. I’d love to see some performances this year that would get the country unified in these less than ideal times. I’d like to see pride in the national team again, the spirit of ’96!
Before that tournament England had a friendly with Greece that had an attendance of 23,000. Before that tournament they were being vilified, insulted, being told they didn’t stand a chance by a media and fans who had been burned by failure to qualify for USA ‘94. England fans had bought tickets the quarter final at Anfield due to their lack of faith in England topping their group (instead they got to watch a young, precocious talent called Zinedine Zidane, so swings and roundabouts eh?).
England find themselves with even less hope heading into Euro 2012. The squad decimated by injuries, the first choice centre halves have an awkward conversation to have next time they meet, the star player banned for the first 2 games, a quarter of the squad are mid table under achievers who couldn’t string 3 passes together last season for Liverpool and the coach is a head banging, face rubbing mentalist who loves an archaic 4-4-2 like your Nan loves Werthers Originals and Lonnie Donegan.
Still, that 14 year old kid with the spliffy jeans and the Umbro bench jacket inside me holds hope, and maybe so we all should too, for and for old times’ sake.