It’s been a rough old 25 years in England. Since Euro ’96, the last time an international football tournament came to these shores, we’ve had a lot to think about. New Labour rose, New Labour fell, Diana crashed, Basra crumbled, Cameron cut the nation to the bone, the Scots nearly bolted it and mainland Europe floated into the Med.
The old and the deluded seem to be happy with the way things are going – the England they yearn for is almost back, apparently. But amongst the young and the honest, there is a palpable feeling of alienation. A deflating election, a brutal pandemic and a bleak midwinter of state purges and civil unrest has only hardened the widely-held instinct to fuck it all off entirely; to hand in your passport and learn someone else’s national anthem. But right now you can’t even get to Calais without official permission, so the song remains the same.
At times, being English can seem like a perpetual embarrassment, a national identity akin to an old Facebook status. But football, so long the most persistent of those embarrassments, is providing some light through the trees. The Premier League has become England’s last great export; the fastest, slickest, most watched domestic competition on the planet – a less-lethal Rollerball, perfect for the social media arena.
Now, even the long-maligned national team is looking alright. Gareth Southgate, once the man who seemed to embody England’s choking inferiority complex, has emerged as the figurehead of a seriously talented young side. After a hellish year, the people of England are heading into Euro 2021 in a state of giddy uncertainty. There is a very English dichotomy at play here; we have one of the worst Covid death rates in Europe, yet the best vaccine programme. It’s a state of berserk only mirrored by a football team that benches Jadon Sancho, yet starts Jordan Pickford.
It all seems a far cry from the violent disappointments of old; when, in the aftermath of World Cup ’98, a Croydon pub hung an effigy of the red-carded David Beckham, wearing England shirt and sarong, from its scaffolding – a chilling reminder of when they used to do the same to treasonists and heretics. Such events didn’t seem remotely abnormal at the time.
Yet there are still plenty of questions to be answered around Euro 2021. Most presciently: are England actually any good? And is a massive, flag- waving victory really what this sick country needs right now? Should we put aside those archaic ideas of “uniting a nation” and just stick to Molotoving coppers in the street? Or can the “Union Jack in the bio” crew and their “Marcus Rashford for PM” nemeses unite for a wild, al fresco summer of association football? It seems we are about to find out.
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“Could the stars align, again? Surely not… Although???”
“For decades, footballing expectations were as alien to the Welsh as modern transport infrastructure and words with consonants. The 1958 World Cup remained our sole outing at a major international tournament, so for anyone born after man first visited the Moon, recollections of Wales’ endeavours amounted to a veritable best man’s speech of humiliation.
Wales have variously found themselves losing to fourth-tier Leyton Orient and training in a prison under the maverick reign of Bobby Gould, ghosted by generation after generation of our most talented players prioritising club careers, and captained by Vinnie Jones. Our hopes of qualifying would be reliably extinguished three games into any given campaign, as we played out lifeless draws with Northern Ireland and Paraguay to a virtually empty Millennium Stadium which could be otherwise easily filled by Six Nations egg-chasing and Rod Stewart.
Then Euro 2016 came along. We not only qualified for and reached the semi-finals, but deserved to. Wales eliminated tournament-favourites Belgium via then-freelance striker Hal Robson-Kanu channelling Cruyff to score the most rapturous goal ever televised. Take all your Gazza toe pokes, your Beckham flukes, your Kane penalties, look upon this worldie, ye English, and despair.
So, are we… good, now? Well, the threat of Old Wales looms large. Due to injury, our Golden Generation – Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, David Brooks, Ben Davies – have barely played at all, let alone together. Our goalkeeper, Wayne Hennessey, escaped punishment after appearing to “sieg heil” on a Crystal Palace team night out because the FA deemed him too dim to be aware of Hitler. We’ve had to draft in a caretaker for the tournament because present manager, Ryan Giggs, has been charged with assaulting two women.
Still, thoughts of 2016 return. Could the stars align, again? Surely not… Although??? We’ve got a taste of that English affliction – belief. And belief begets Years Of Hurt. It was a lot easier when we knew not to expect.”
When some countries go to an international tournament, they are lauded for their sense of fun, the “carnivalesque” atmosphere they bring, the gorgeous football they give to the world. Not so with England. “English football was a sorry, sorry business, both on and off the pitch,” says Pete Davies, author of All Played Out: The Full Story of Italia ’90, one of the great tomes on the nation’s favourite game. “If you look at it in technical terms, tactical terms – the way that we played – we were widely deemed to be an embarrassment. Unimaginative, old-fashioned. And going to play abroad, particularly in Europe, was met every time with hysteria, fear.”
But in 2021, things appear to be different. People like England these days. They have cool players and a coach who, whilst no reinventor of the wheel, seems to have a few ideas. Unlike the doomed Tommies of previous generations, sent over the top towards an ignominious fate, this is a wildly promising team, one that hails from across a divided nation, with roots in the parts of the globe it colonised centuries before. From Dean Henderson, who grew up in semi-rural Cumbria, and Marcus Rashford, raised in the urban sprawl of Wythenshawe, to Declan Rice (Kingston, Surrey) and Raheem Sterling (Kingston, Jamaica). This England team seems to unite across lines that are meant to divide.
A number of the team’s young stars cut their teeth not on the freezing, boggy pitches immortalised in 1960s kitchen sink drama Kes but in the council-erected “cages” attached to housing estates across the land. The tight, contained nature of these steel micro-stadiums breeds a native technicality and ingenuity often lost in previous generations, where the tallest and strongest rose to the fore.
Speaking to The Independent in 2019, Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho explained the influence of the cage on his game: “Nobody cared if you lost the ball because it was like freestyling sessions, everyone just doing skills against each other, trying to embarrass people, that kind of thing… You adapt the cage game into the professional world so that if three or four men are around, you can try and find a way to get out with cage skills.”
The atmosphere around the camp is also quite different. Whereas previous England teams fell into a mould of “the boozy and damned”, there is something almost innocent about Southgate’s boys. There is a lot of Fifa 21, a lot of flame emojis and a fair bit of mental-health awareness. The papers still try to paint them as harbingers of moral decline – as we saw with Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood’s lockdown-breaking date night in Reykjavik – but none of it really sticks. These are very much nice boys (although Kyle Walker and Jack Grealish have a fair bit of previous).
This is partly because they are the first generation to be born out of the modern academy culture, a vertically integrated system set up to mirror Barcelona’s La Masia facility and the German national side. Having played at a competitive level since their pre-teens, the life of a young footballer is a narrow one, with rigorous nutrition, scheduling, schooling and even media training to contend with. Tony Adams wearing a bin bag under his shirt to sweat out the beer at training, it isn’t.
Jack Pitt-Brooke, who covers Spurs and England for The Athletic, explains the impact of this new system: “I definitely think this team is reaping the benefits of what’s called the ‘Elite Player Performance Plan’ [a Premier League youth development scheme]. What that does is to give ‘category one’ academies more time with players, which makes it easier to recruit. And that’s what is behind England’s success at youth team level in the last few years. Mason Mount is the perfect example, because he’s just the ultimate academy player. He’s technically so good, so versatile, so intelligent and so smooth. English football wouldn’t really produce someone like Mount if it wasn’t for the academy system. And you can say much the same thing of Phil Foden.”
Perhaps because of this early cosseting, they don’t seem to be saddled with the old hang-ups; that hereditary sense of underachievement, the “1966 complex”. Players these days don’t commit to England because they want to shoulder the hopes of a faded empire. They do it because they are a collective of talent rivalled only by France (and possibly Germany, if you’re feeling generous).
“I think in [the World Cup in] 2018, one of Southgate’s great triumphs was removing that pressure from the players,” says Pitt-Brooke. “He talked about how they have to write their own history. He would be asked by journalists: ‘Is it like 1990?’ ‘Is it like ’96?’ And Southgate never really wants to play that game. He always wanted to free the players from the burden of those historical comparisons.”
Does Jude Bellingham go to bed dreaming of the Queen and a bandaged, bloodied Terry Butcher? Hopefully not.
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“For the first time in recent memory, it isn’t completely shite to be Scottish”
“When Scotland travel down the road to play England in North London this summer, the song most commonly sung will be 1977 disco hit Yes Sir, I Can Boogie by Spanish duo Baccara. It was adopted by the team and its supporters when the workman-like Aberdeen centre-back Andrew Considine was called up to the squad. His risqué stag-do video – which has surprisingly high production values – was soon uncovered, in which Considine performs the track dressed in full drag.
In a sense, this has always been the Scottish mindset: to not take itself too seriously, to be self-deprecating as a means of defence, to joke about how shite the national team is before someone can make the point in seriousness.
You see it in the novelty “see you Jimmy” hats and mawkish attire of the Scottish supporters, but it’s much more ingrained than that. Few have captured this prevailing mindset better than Renton’s “It’s shite being Scottish” diatribe in Trainspotting, where he bemoans that Scotland “can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by!”
In 2021, however, that attitude feels more like a learned reflex. By the time the Euros roll around, there’s a good chance Scotland will have just returned an SNP majority in the parliamentary election that’ll soon bring another independence referendum – one it might not bottle this time. It may have the feeling of an emergent, confident nation, ready to shrug off its tag as unlucky also-rans.
Because for the first time in recent memory, it isn’t completely shite to be Scottish. And the team reflects that: it’s made up of players like John McGinn (Aston Villa) and Scott McTominay (Manchester United), who comfortably hold their own in the English Premier League, and in Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson and Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney you have arguably two of the Prem’s best full-backs. Yessir, they can boogie. But Scotland can now play a bit, too.”
How the fans respond to this youthful neutrality will be interesting. Although they won’t be confined to their own homes exactly, the foaming whirlwind of lager and Aquascutum that follows England around will surely be tamer this summer. The idea of socially distant football support doesn’t thrill anyone, but the players are unlikely to have to field questions about plastic chair brawls and water canons in grand piazzas.
Of course, the seeds of change were sewn long before the pandemic. For a brief moment in 2018, it seemed as if there was a better kind of English football fandom. Even with Brexit looming, it didn’t seem that terrible to be an England fan. In fact, it was fun. The notorious Ten German Bombers chant appeared to be drowned out by the omnipresent It’s Coming Home – the refrain from The Lightning Seeds’ Three Lions repurposed as a kind of ironic paean to an ageing side set-piecing their way to the semi-finals. On Mare Street, a Hackney thoroughfare as diverse as any in the land, I remember local bus drivers honking their horns as the young fans poured out of the pubs after Eric Dier’s vibe-defying penalty. It all felt a far cry from the astonishing negativity and sour-faced jingoism many had come to expect from the national side.
“One of the most interesting subplots of the last World Cup was ‘to what extent is It’s Coming Home a joke?’” remembers Pitt-Brooke. “People outside the UK thought that it was arrogant, even [Croatia defender] Vedran Ćorluka said he thought it was. For me it was like a fun, ironic joke. But I can see how other parts of the world might have conceived it differently.”
So where did this upswing of support come from? The 2018 squad was hilariously inferior to the so-called “golden generation” of Lampard, Gerrard, Ferdinand, Terry etc, yet the attitude seemed far brighter. Certainly, fans had learned to be tongue in cheek after so many miserable misses, yet there was one notable decline in the wider culture: the tabloids.
Davies remembers their influence well: “The Mirror and The Sun were monstrous machines. In a world without internet, the circulation war between them meant there was a massive, constantly driving imperative to get stories more shocking and awful than your competitor had got. So blowing up the tiniest thing into a gigantic crisis was a daily exercise, whether it was the behaviour of the fans, or a bruised knee for a player.”
“The tabloids absolutely drove the daily agenda. And you can’t say for better or for worse, because it was universally for the worse. They were massively more important than they are now… the same mentality is still in those papers, but the fragmentation of platforms, across multiple different forms of media means that they don’t have the clout.”
“I went into the World Cup in 2018 thinking that we’re not going to get these big national rallying points anymore,” adds Pitt-Brooke. “That nothing can bring together this very disparate, disaggregated population… and yet the evidence, I think, is that the England team did manage to do that. Whether that was through social media, I don’t know exactly, but the England team managed to become a unifying presence, even in a very disaggregated media climate.”
However, a certain type of England fan will always be out there somewhere, waiting for a break in the light. In the midst of all the postmodern frivolity of 2018, a vicious viral brawl broke out between two groups of men watching the Panama game in a Bristol bar. Shitfaced, sunburnt and lacking a foreign enemy, chaos ensued. CCTV footage showed a chalkboard outside the venue being used as a club, then a missile. One man broke a leg, and 13 were given custodial sentences.
On holiday in Majorca that same summer I watched the Sweden game at one of the many “English” bars on the Balearic coast. The spirit of Mare Street couldn’t have felt any further away. The entirely white, expat crowd stood up for the national anthem, put their hands on their hearts and bellowed it into the cloudless sky. They wore their St George’s Cross tattoos with pride and screamed at any player who conceded so much as a throw-in. They sang It’s Coming Home but they also sang Rule Britannia. It became apparent that nobody there wanted to talk about John Stones’ strengths in a 3 – 4‑3 system. This was the raging, embittered England of support of old – quietly annexed out of sight.
How this innately English anger will combine with the prospect of a genuinely exciting team is anyone’s guess. The England squad certainly has the players to win a competition, and win over a nation in the process. In Mason Mount they have a ready-made poster boy, the ever present Mark Owen character your Nan might call “a very handsome young man”. In Jack Grealish they have Mount’s yin; a louche, pampered, highly-sexed maverick, a Nobu Gazza if you will. Then there are young bucks like Bellingham and Foden, already playing at the highest of levels. For the Dads there’s always Harry’s Kane and Maguire, two stalwarts carved straight from the Dunkirk mould of English masculinity.
In Marcus Rashford there is something of a national hero in the squad, albeit one who might only make the bench. Of course, there will be some for whom cheering him – or indeed any Black man – will stick in the throat. But the general sense is that the bigots have been marginalised by this new English football culture. What happens in the flat-roof pubs far away from the media glare and amongst the seething, anonymous Football Twitter boys remains to be seen.
“You could look to Euro ’96 as a model, because that was fantastic,” suggests Davies. “That was a time when there was a sense of change and hope around the place… the reclaiming of the flag of St George as a sort of cheerful, optimistic, good laugh. England having a good time without it turning into a mad, violent riot. How it will actually goes, in this environment, is very difficult to foretell.”
Yet, it would be a shame to lose too much of that old bite. Because really, England is not a “fun” football nation like Iceland or Paraguay. It’s a troubled, tribal land. And in that fraughtness, sometimes, comes a kind of beauty. In an old interview I did with Stuart Roy Clarke – the photographer who’s been documenting all levels of the British game for more than 30 years – he said something that’s always stayed with me:
“… the Sheffield Wednesday fans sing very different songs to the Sheffield United ones just a few miles away. Some of the humour and wit is lost to other people in other cities. All the clubs in this country are bumping into each other – we think of 20 miles as a big distance; we have a very intense landscape of clubs… we’re blessed with such a canvas.”
It’s these esoteric rivalries, compounded with an all-important gallows humour, that really define English football. To lose that rich, slightly bizarre culture in favour of a highly marketable, “sports entertainment” product would be a travesty. There is no immediate threat as such, but you only have to look at the American Olympic teams to see how winning can suck the fun out of it all. The national game has made great strides forward, but what happens to all those wonderful niches if we become the overdogs?
However, one scuffed penalty, one Pickford suicide dash or Maguire elbow smash, and we could be back to hanging effigies outside pubs sooner than you might think.