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Something about football

I think there’s something to do with football happening today, so I thought I would write about my relationship with the game.

Growing up in Stroud, I’m not from a football part of the world. We have Forest Green Rovers now – and did then – but I was barely even aware of them until they got to the FA Trophy final at Wembley in 1999. I planned to go to the final but would end up being in Northern Ireland visiting family at the time.

Anyway, the location is important here – also note the past tense for the next several paragraphs – because although I’m not from a football part of the world, I grew up loving the sport.

I collected cards at primary school and also stickers for my Merlin Premier League album, which I very nearly completed in 1995 – albeit having to use Warren Barton twice and also a picture of Michael Jackson, years before his statue appeared at Fulham. I even tried Panini for the 1994 World Cup, but it didn’t feel right. And it’s much easier to fill up a sticker album over a whole season, as opposed to a month-long tournament.

And my club was Manchester United, predictably as a 90s child. West Ham were my second team after my dad’s aunt gave me an old kit from the 1960s that once belonged to her son. My support was that easy to gain.

But it was always England that got me the most excited, possibly as they didn’t play every week and it felt like more of an occasion. There was something special about watching them playing at the old Wembley. The white shirts with the dark blue shorts and white socks, plus a strange-looking big badge. I couldn’t quite work out what was on it, but it certainly didn’t look like lions to me.

Tournaments were my favourite part, before the inevitable exit. As a six-year-old, I remember crying when Italia 90 finished. Not when England went out, just when the coverage ended. I didn’t enjoy Euro 92 so much, other than getting bought an England home shirt pyjamas set. Still, Euro 92 failed to diminish my excitement for England, even after the failure to qualify for USA 94 – that possibly remains my favourite World Cup as it was the first one I properly remember.

Things went up another notch with Euro 96. After a lacklustre start, England suddenly became really good. The game against The Netherlands was my highlight. I remember running around the living room and jumping onto and off the chairs and sofa. England were really good.

They won the penalty shoot-out against Spain. Although quite how much they owe to Uri Gellar, we will never truly know. At the time, I was down in North Devon at a farm park called The Milky Way, where I milked a goat – thus living up to the hype. The penalty shoot-out was on in one of the rooms there and I kept running to watch it and would then run back to tell my dad what was happening.

Then came the ill-fated semi-final against Germany and it really felt like England could do it, especially when they scored first. I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch it the whole of extra time and the infamous penalty kick, but saw it on GMTV the next morning. I often wonder what became of the poor man who had his kick saved. Anyway, it made me so upset that I defaced my German exercise book with swastikas. Yeah. That’ll teach them. Looking back on it, I was quite nationalistic for much of my pre-teens and teens – and football was almost solely responsible – mainly as I didn’t know any better and lacked vital life experience.

I may have even thought Brexit was a good idea when I was 12 years old. As much as I love the song, there is even an argument that the essence of the anthem Three Lions laid the foundations for that horrendous political event 20 years later. i.e. “We used to be good. Now we’re not, but we might be good again based on historical events we had nothing to do with.” MEGA, anyone? The Leave campaign even recorded an appalling cover. It is abysmal and you’re better off not watching it.

Anyway, the excitement (and nationalism) continued at France 98, with a new generation of England players that included Michael Owen, who I thought I looked a bit like if I ran fast enough and people squinted. Inevitably, England went out on penalties to Argentina after Beckham got sent off. But I was convinced that the real reason they lost was that I sat on the wrong side of the bus to school on the day after I sat on the other side for previous victories. The next day at home, I printed out something I made on Word with a picture of the World Cup and the words “English and proud” on it, or something similar. As it was on A4 and my upstairs bedroom window, I doubt anyone would have actually been to read it outside.

After Glenn Hoddle lost the England job for saying some horrendous things about disabled people, it was the turn of Kevin Keegan and the end of my fanaticism would soon come crashing down. It wasn’t immediate, I continued to closely follow all things England throughout 1999 and into 2000.

Then came Euro 2000. I was perhaps more hyped than any other tournament, as it was the summer I was doing my GCSEs and I had more time to follow the coverage – mainly as I wasn’t doing any work. I even sent my tactical suggestions through to Teletext. My suggestion was 4-4-2 but with a diamond midfield with Nick Barmby on the left and Gareth Barry at left-back for balance, as he was that formerly rare beast of a left-footed Englishman.

Anyway, Kevin Keegan clearly can’t have been reading Teletext for ideas on tactics – or arguably from anywhere else, for that matter. And England went out to at the group stages after Phil Neville gave away a late penalty against Romania.

I was genuinely distraught and spent the following couple of hours with my head in my hands. Then I realised that I’d had enough of the torment and severed my emotional ties with football. I didn’t think it was worth it as England will always let you down.

Not being from a football part of the world, this detachment was actually pretty easy. There are some cities and towns where you step out of your door and there’s a flow of people walking to the stadium on match day. I didn’t have that. And there are some families where football is a big event that everyone goes to together. I also didn’t have that.

Rugby was now officially my only sport, where I had also achieved more success on the pitch at school. And by “more success”, I mean that I was a permanent starter in the school team for a few years. We didn’t win that often, but it far exceeded my record in the school football team of being a substitute twice and only getting on the pitch on one of those occasions. Still, I did get a medal for a final I didn’t play in. The very early 2000s was also around that magical time in rugby when England were well on their way to becoming the best team in the world, something that seemed forever out of reach in football.

That’s not to say I stopped watching football entirely. When England were on, I pretended I wasn’t really watching and didn’t really care. But somehow, the games always seemed to be on in my house by some strange coincidence.

Sven Goran Eriksson’s era started off brightly enough before that sense of entitlement from the underachieving “Golden Generation” kicked in. They became a petulant bunch who grew more unlikeable with each year that passed – and didn’t seem to like each other very much either. Then there was playing Fifa at uni, which became an integral part of everyday life.

I continued to follow the team on the sly throughout the brief Steve McClaren tenure, and into Capello’s, but still didn’t like a lot of the players. Along with a lack of likeability, underachievement was the other recurring theme. I followed it a bit when Roy Hodgson was in charge, but not that intently.

And then 2018 happened. There were no expectations, which is always the best way. And somehow, the team managed to get through to the World Cup semi-finals, which I had never witnessed before as in 1990, I was six years old and asleep at the time. I got into it and my heart was beating fast during that game. To alleviate this, I had to go out and buy a bottle of red wine from the Co-op on Burton Road and proceeded to drink it all. I even managed to fit into the England shirt I got for my 14th birthday, which was the same colour as my wine.

But the team didn’t seem arrogant and entitled like the previous bunch. In fact, a lot of this may well be down to the current team having to go through the lower leagues. A few were also released from clubs when they were teenagers and had to find their own way, away from the security of an academy. The 2018 campaign was built on set pieces and they looked shaky at the back. But that’s all changed in 2021. They look much better prepared and can now even score in open play.

I hope England win tonight. If anyone has earned his success, it’s Gareth Southgate. Regardless of what happens tonight, he’s certainly put some of those penalty demons from 1996 to rest and England are in a major tournament final for the first time in 55 long years.

I also hope England win tonight for the 12-year-old me, whose hopes and expectations won’t end up being for nothing permanently. But he has a long wait ahead of him and will first have to get over his nationalism. And if they don’t, then it won’t break my heart this time. One way or another, life will go on.

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