Friday, 11 June 2010

My England...

...Or, not another World Cup blog!

 A nation expects...again

It seems a long time since Sven's limitations and those of the so-called "Golden Generation" were last shown up on the big stage, in Germany; probably because thanks to McLaren's even greater shortcomings we didn't have the 2008 Euros to help break the wait. 
But at long last it's here and on Saturday 12th June 2010 an England team will again carry the expectations of a nation into the world's greatest footballing competition (after the South Holderness Cup of course).
I love everything about the World Cup when England are involved.  The anticipation, the excitement, the nerves, everything...well, perhaps with the following exceptions:-
For a start I could do without the way the Press build everything up to such a crescendo before seemingly taking great delight when it all comes crashing back down.
Then there are those thousands, nay millions, of people whose only interest in the game comes around during a World Cup and who then suddenly become experts on all things football; taking their opinions  straight from the pundits sofa or the back pages they'v already lined up Fabio's perceived refusal to deviate from his preferred 4-4-2 formation as the reason for it all going wrong - as indeed it surely must - because that's what many of the pundits think.
But the biggest bane of any World Cup experience for me is the ABE ("Anyone But England") Brigade.  Popular north of the border, the most irritating members of the group are in fact English themselves.  You know the sort, those "chattering classes" types (usually of a pinko political persuasion) who think that anything  that involves wrapping oneself in the national flag is a glorification of the days of Empire and a sop to the politics of the far Right. To them the sooner this wave of "nationalism" is ended the better.  They actually take great delight in our exit (especially if it comes via penalties) and can't wait until the stage is left to the "real artisans" like Brazil, Spain, Italy et al.  Soft cocks.

 Obviously the local BNP HQ?

The first time I encountered such people was twenty years ago during Italia '90.  
Of the eight World Cups England have participated in during my lifetime, it's still the one that evokes most memories (and those of the Daily Telegraph's Jasper Rees evidently).  Pete Davies' masterpiece, All Played Out, provides a brilliant record as does the film inspired by it, One Night In Turin, which was released earlier this year.
It's all there (including, unavoidably, the crowd trouble) - Nessun Dorma, Platt's volley, those missed penalties and of course Gazza's tears - and it serves as a fine reminder of just how close Bobby Robson's side came to emulating the achievements of the Boys of '66, the year of my birth.
Too young to take-in Mexico '70 (though Jeff Dawson's excellent Back Home does a good job of making you feel you're there) I "supported" Scotland in the next two tournaments. due to England's failure to qualify.  Still not old enough to drink during Espana '82 and convalescing after an operation for Mexico '86, the 1990 competition was therefore the first I could enjoy in the company of fellow fans and, more importantly, with pint in hand!
My venue of choice, after suffering the opening draw against the Irish at home, was a flat on Hull's recently-opened Victoria Dock Development.  No.4 Plimsoll Way, just off the Myton Bridge roundabout, to be precise.
Co-owned by a couple of mates ("Men Behaving Badly") it became populated by the bulk of those with whom I spent my Saturday nights round town.  This led to some twenty of us packing into the lounge area of the two bedroomed apartment on matchday (and gave some fairly surreal sights such as Dutch fan Lee "van Lager" Freeman having his own segregated chair (with restricted view of course) for the Holland game and not being allowed to partake of the communal refreshments...while the rest of were packed in like sardines across the remainder of the lounge!).

1990 saw the "New" Silhouette Club on Park Street take over from the legendary Spiders as our club of choice for late-night drinking.  It was the year of "Madchester", baggy dancing and even baggier haircuts.  The soundtrack to the World Cup was provided by the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets; the North of England was where it was all happening.
Several local memories stand out from that tournament - the main one being the scenes on Ferensway the night Platt's last-gasp volley beat the Belgians, which were akin to those we are accustomed to seeing on the Continent; blaring horns, car-surfing, flags waving and incredible noise (matched by the crowd packed into Student night at LA's where World In Motion had the dancefloor throbbing).
And when it came to THAT night in Turin the whole country really did seem to grind to a standstill. 
Even in 1990, though, there were plenty who wanted to see the country's footballers fail.  Post-Heysel football was not the "family game" it's seen as now and the national team were held in low esteem (especially following the 1988 European Championships in West Germany where defeat on the pitch had been accompanied by the usual aggro off it).   Every bit of trouble that could be pinned on England fans was done so with particular gusto by the likes of Sports Minister Colin Moynihan and the right-wing Press.
But as the tournament progressed, gradually Robson's team won people round.  Of course, like all World Cups since '66 it ended in tears.  And not for the first  or last time, eventual defeat came at the hands of "those Germans".  As Gary Lineker (or "Line-Acre" as Mick Channon so amusingly called him during the 1986 tournament) observed, football is a game between 11 players on each side which the Germans win.

Despite the head of steam built up in Italy, when England's exit was confirmed, there were many who couldn't wait to take delight in the fact.  Like the man encountered in The Mint bar on Lowgate as we attempted to drown our considerable sorrows in the immediate wake of Waddle's ballooned penalty.  Sporting a ridiculous rotating Stars & Stripes dickie bow tie (well it was 4th July I suppose) this resident of Hull proceeded to tell us that the better team had gone through and that "we'd" been lucky to get this far.  Surprisingly he remained upright.
Thankfully, the sights and sounds around Luton Airport the following Sunday, where three of us decided to head to see Gazza and co's return, helped restore the faith.
Although passionate in my support of the national team in most sports and in spite of the fact that since 1990 there have been competitions well within reach (France & Germany providing two recent destinations) I've never really entertained the prospect of taking in a World Cup or a European Championships first-hand.  Admittedly, part of the reason has been down to the media's portrayed image of the "baggage" that comes with attending such tournaments - why have all the hassle of Marseilles and Charleroi when you can instead join England's cricketing "Barmy Army" without risk in Melbourne and Cape Town?
Indeed, seeing England's footballers in the flesh is an experience I've all too rarely felt.  A school trip to Wembley for Viv Anderson's debut (the first by a black player for England) in a 1-0 win over Czechoslovakia was my first, while my most recent came back in 2000, the final game beneath the twin towers and was accompanied by defeat - at the hands of Germany of course.
Meanwhile my only taste of an "away" game for the national side was a rather chastening one; a 1989 trip to a sodden Hampden Park from which I, along with several thousand other Englishmen, were forcibly ejected by Strathclyde Police at half-time following 45 minutes of sporadic crowd trouble in various parts of the ground.  While we struggled to find our coach (a Simon Gray-organised Connor & Graham no less!) Richard Gough headed the only goal of the game for the Jocks.  Not the sort of experience that has you rushing back for more.
So, tomorrow evening in Rustenberg SA begins another quest to justify the hype  and hopefully silence the doubters. Top the group should be achievable, quarters par for the course, the semis a bonus and reaching the final, well...
I will watch the opening game in my local, The Granby, where I will hope to sink a pint or three of Great Newsome Haymakers Tipple in accompaniment to an opening win over the USA.
It won't be easy (the game that is, not sinking a few summer ales).  Not only are we notoriously slow starters in major competitions but the Yanks looked impressive in last year's Confederations Cup wherein they beat World Cup favourites Spain.

 No, please, not again!

And as if to ensure there's no over-confidence, tonight's BBC World Cup coverage included a fascinating piece recounting the 1950 "Miracle On Grass" from Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  It's a story I've just read about in Mark Pougatch's fine Three Lions Versus The World (along with the other two books mentioned a must for any England fan).
That day a goal from a Haitian born striker proved England's downfall.  Let's just hope Jozy Altidore doesn't replicate Joe Gaetjens' feat tomorrow?
But whatever the outcome tomorrow, next Friday or some time later in the competition, there's no doubt that the World Cup is the most eagerly anticipated part of most, if not all, football supporters' calendar.  Millions will board the national bandwagon in a way that no club competition can hope to emulate.  The effect England's success has on the nation should be held up every time the boring "club v country row" resurfaces.  All rivalries can be put to one side when Rooney is wearing three lions on his shirt.
So come on England, do us proud just like these boys did...ahem...


..well, possibly not!  COME ON ENGLAND!

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