There is usually no moral dilemma for a fan of “anyone but England” (ABE) approaching a major international football tournament – or, for that matter, any England game. And the pathological ABEs will never have such a dilemma. As “Britain’s best sporting comic” Andy Zaltzman noted in an Independent newspaper World Cup preview which I will never tire of nicking quotes from citing (“A Neutral’s guide to the World Cup”), there are few nations “with no long-standing historic grudge against the English relating to history, empire, being located on the same land mass, some iffy refereeing decisions in battles that were fought hundreds of years ago, or a combination of all of the above.”
For devout ABEs, all attempts at revisionism, such as a determined effort by Irish Post newspaper journalist Niall O’Sullivan on June 11th (“Irish fans backing ‘anyone but England’ need to get over themselves”) are to be dismissed like dust off a cuff. O’Sullivan described ABEs – or, as I call them, “us” – as “a motley crew of killjoys,” “pathetic,” “tragic,” “bound by a shared hatred of all things English,” “trapped in the past” and “insecure of their Irishness.” But the irony of O’Sullivan accusing ABEs of “a malignant hatred” in an article calling Uruguay’s Luis Suarez “the avowed cheater who single-handedly (no pun intended) ruined the 2010 tournament” will not be lost on those ABEs (and of COURSE he intended the bloody pun).
A week later, the Post published a more reasoned, better-researched piece (i.e. researched at all) by Garry Doyle (“Ireland’s love-hate relationship with English football”), Doyle suggested that many Ireland fans still “watch England play so we can see them lose.” But he added that “it wasn’t always this way …Irish support for England was prevalent in the 1960s.” And he quoted Dr. Brian Hanley, “the pre-eminent sporting historian working in Ireland today,” who claimed that Irish fans had wanted England to win the 1966 World Cup because: “they supported their players at club level and it made sense to support them against countries whose players they never heard of.” This support, Doyle wrote, only “dwindled away in the 1970s (when) the football pundit was born — which brought us Jimmy Hill. Full of self-importance and nationalistic bombast, (Hill) would dominate the airwaves for two decades.” And Hanley added: “The way Hill and other commentators talked up England before every tournament had a negative effect with Irish people.”
Yet this time it was supposed to be different. Indeed, up to quite an advanced point it was different. England manager Roy Hodgson is a modest man with less to be modest about than his less-modest predecessors. For instance, his brief forays into punditry for the BBC at the 2010 World Cup were perceptive but so low-key that dogs couldn’t hear them. And he studiously avoided reading too much into England’s routine qualification for Brazil from the easiest of groups. This was in marked, pleasant contrast to predecessors such as Kevin Keegan, who believed there was no reason why they could not win Euro 2000, despite only qualifying after a scruffy, fortunate play-off win over Scotland.
The media largely took their lead from Hodgson’s attitude and England’s bitty performances in post-qualification friendlies, which included a two-nil humbling by fellow qualifiers Chile at Wembley last November, a team no-one was – then anyway – suggesting “could win it, you know.” In April, the Post’s sports editor Ronan Early based much of his article “Why I’m supporting England in the World Cup” on this new attitude. “Nobody of fair mind,” Early ventured, “could revel in an English crash-and-burn now. The England team and fans are modest and almost wholly inoffensive. You almost wish they’d revert to their old mad selves just for the spectacle. But they won’t and I wish them well.”
However, as the tournament approached there was a subtle, faint “return to their old mad selves.” There were suggestions that the very downplaying of England’s chances would alleviate the pressure on them and thereby return their prospects to “could win it, you know” heights. Thankfully, this view didn’t take root – I kept hearing it in Alan Shearer’s voice, thus divesting it of all credibility. England fans’ behaviour at all finals for which the team has qualified has had virtually no negative impact since 2000. And there was much to admire in their gallows humour in the face of elimination against Germany in 2010 and during the Costa Rica game this week.
Those with the desire to sing to the world that they weren’t surrendering to the IRA have been marginalised by the positive, celebratory national pride which decorated the Olympics and which England fans have gradually taken on board since the darkest days of the 1980s. And English fans seem to have embraced the party attitude so often portrayed at such events. Properly too, i.e. up to and most DEFINITELY NOT INCLUDING the Mexican wave. My boss at the time took pride in England fans’ refusal to join in with the wave at Euro 88, which he attended. But that was a general surly “no-one likes us, we don’t care” superiority, rather than a mature rejection of collective inanity.
Finally, the players themselves. Divested of the tub-thumping tub-headedness so wholly personified by John Terry, Hodgson’s England squad had a fresher attitude…on and off the pitch. Players such as Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana are young and vibrant. Ricky Lambert’s enthusiastic astonishment at being involved at all was heart-warming (let’s leave aside anyone else’s astonishment at his involvement at all). And while Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere wear their patriotic heart a little too aggressively on their sleeve (and head and shoulders), they are the exceptions.
A combination of all of the above has led to ABEs being labelled outdated relics. The second-generation Irish, for example, who still bang on about “800 years and all that” (the oft-quoted but historically disputable length of the “occupation” of Ireland by “England”), have been urged to join what O’Sullivan called “Asian and African families proudly cheering on their country of residence… in pubs around England.”
And those with genuine reasons to dislike the England football team and all that went with it – a category in which I would place myself – have come under pressure to revise that attitude entirely. Given Ireland’s absence from Brazil, should I not support the land of my birth, schooling and income and other taxing?
For my answer I look, possibly ironically, to a well-known quote attributed to the manager of England’s greatest (OK, only) international triumph, Sir Alf Ramsey, when he was once welcomed to Scotland – “You must be fucking joking.” Because despite all of the above, the same old mistakes still creep through, alongside some very 21st-century ones. Of all the TV pundits to express the old attitudes, the least expected was the BBC’s Danny Murphy, who has been a refreshing counterbalance to the lazy inanities of Lawrenson and other old-school pundits. “It’s so frustrating, because we could have been playing Greece,” claimed Murphy. Gary Lineker, having his best World Cup since 1986, had to remind him how far England were from winning their group and that second place would have paired England with Colombia, who were far more impressive in the group stages. 1986 was the zenith/nadir of such misplaced superiority. The afore-mentioned Hill (you remember him…chin, ran the line at Arsenal once) said there was “nothing to frighten England” in the opening games in Mexican heat. There was, it quickly transpired, even less to frighten Portugal and Morocco, who beat and drew with Bobby Robson’s team in especially-hot Monterrey.
Those days are as distant as ITV’s Huw Johns apologising for sounding “a bit Irish” during commentary in Mexico in 1970 (although Clive Tyldesley’s recent suggestion that Iran’s players had their Christian names on their shirts had a similar power to offend). But Murphy made an evidence-free assumption about England’s place in world football – that playing Greece would be a passage to the quarter-finals. And the assumption remains that England would be good enough if it wasn’t for a lack of… something at the FA. Hence (Welshman) Robbie Savage’s suggestion that the FA take a level of control over English players’ development which dismissed the influence and attitude of the “greatest league in the world” to such a transfer of responsibilities and power in the “English” game.
My support of ABE came from personal experiences of England matches at Wembley in the mid-to-late 1980s. As noted by wiser men than me, the hardcore of England’s support back then had considerable superiority and xenophobic tendencies, which were more noticeable in crowds occasionally as low as 20,000 for the less attractive friendlies (e.g. East Germany in 1984). The media coverage aped those tendencies, while not condoning the violence and racism that accompanied them – e.g. some fans celebrating a 1-0 England win over Brazil in the Maracana in 1984 because John Barnes scored the second goal. And even in 2010, Steven Gerrard’s image appeared in the Daily Express newspaper, surrounded by the banner headline “See you in the final,” six days before England drew 0-0 with Algeria.
So I cannot yet shake off my ABE tendencies and be at all neutral about England (don’t even think about suggesting I ever out-and-out support them). Claudio Marchisio, Mario Balotelli and, yes, even Luis “bites yer shoulder” Suarez had me tapping my workstation table in delight, while my Chelsea and Eng-er-land-loving neighbour growled “fackin’ ‘ell” at top volume. And it will take more than one modest manager, one bright zestful squad and one jug-eared state TV presenter with a welcome line in perspective to change that.
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