The last week or so has said a lot about England, the state of the country, its sporting culture and the team that is supposed to represent it on the stage of international football. Apathy levels with the national team, however, are growing to the point at which it may become pertinent to ask the question of what the England national football team is actually for. Here’s Mike Bayly, on how he felt out of love with the England team.
Logan Mountstuart, the chief protagonist in William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, offered the view that human beings are a series of ever evolving characters occupying an ever evolving body. When you reach a certain age – or perhaps, more accurately, a certain jadedness – you realise that time nourishes reflection. I sometimes look back at the child I was, with all my youthful follies, and wonder how I got where I am today: weatherworn, cynical, yet embracing of a deeper wisdom; a wisdom that only emerges when you step back from the abyss and understand the mechanisms that first led you there. I am a stranger to my past life now. And that includes my love for something I thought was unbreakable: the England football team.
My first genuine recollections of watching England were Mexico 86, albeit in bewildered awe at Diego Maradona singularly dismantling the entire team. The first time I recall a more fanatical interest came in more incongruous circumstances. In 1988, England were playing Scotland in the Rous Cup, a tournament that by modern day standards would be the equivalent of screening live terrestrial action from the Combined Counties League. For reasons best known to the sport’s governing bodies, I was at Ludlow swimming baths collecting bricks off the bottom of the pool as part of my ‘silver award’ (at least that’s what history would recall; it is altogether possible I simply had an inventive and sadistic instructor). Around ten minutes into the match, Peter Beardsley scored. One of the dads sat in the gallery armed with a pocket radio and an otherwise bored expression leapt out of his seat, punching the air, with a grimace that suggested a particularly sharp drawing pin lodged in his foot. A crowd of excitable dripping children gathered round: “get in, 1-0. Is Robson playing? Who crossed the ball? I bet it was Barnes”. It was a shared moment of euphoria, albeit at a tender age where euphoria could be found in the simplest of pleasures.
Maybe it was the scarcity of televised football or the kind of innocent idolisation only a child can enjoy, but this was the England team of my childhood elevated to the pantheon of immortality: Barnes, Waddle, Hoddle, Lineker, Gascoigne – not only a side flushed with individual brilliance, but one that seemed genuinely likeable. More importantly, they seemed to like each other. Two years later, Italia 90 came along. World In Motion – the best football song ever written – sent a nation into a shell suited frenzy. Players lolled round Mediterranean pools in porn star shorts behaving like they were on a club 18-30; the whole nation shared Gazza’s 23rd birthday courtesy of Chris Waddle smashing an oversized chocolate cake into his face. It evoked the sort of pub league camaraderie that every fan could empathise with. These weren’t just footballers; these were English lads pissing about on holiday. And we loved them for it.
Somewhere along the line this all changed horribly. A well read friend of mine opined that the last truly likeable England side was the school of Euro 96, which – the 5-1 win in Germany aside – was the last time England seemed to represent the country at a personal rather than superficial level. Since then, there appears to have been a ghastly transmogrification into a bland soulless commercial interpretation of what a national side should represent, beset by a sanitised public relations doctrine aimed at creating a team that satisfies corporate rather than supporter interest. In short, “club England” had become a microcosm of football’s unhealthy obsession with money and celebrity.
There is of course, a wider context to all this. Simply using the “football has become too corporate” platitude is overly simplistic. It is always worth noting one’s own reasons for embracing a certain culture and ultimately rejecting it, even if those reason’s offer painful insight. For many years I have suspected that supporting the England team has become unhealthily intertwined with jingoism, to the point where the two entities have become almost inseparable. English support – more than most countries – defines itself largely by how much it dislikes other nations, particularly Germany. Ask someone to define English culture and it will often reduce to military imagery or nationalistic bravado. In a past life, I have been guilty of the most loutish of behaviour; stood in an English bar on foreign soil, swigging out of a bottle of Carlsberg with a face like a smacked arse singing “ten German bombers”. I’m not proud of it, but it happened.
When this is stripped away, there is only so much of the carcass left to feed on. Simply supporting England because I am English no longer cuts in. A few years ago, all it would take is a shot of sambuca and a union jack daubed with a provincial town to get the pulse racing, but now I need more than that. A tubthumping hyperbolic press with their ridiculous predilection for trivia and malevolence turns me cold. The players – a vastly wealthy, insular, diamond studded collective – don’t represent me or anything I hold dear about the game. It is unfair to say I don’t like the current England squad because I don’t know them. It is fair to say I couldn’t care less about them.
Some might argue that these are fickle observations born from a lack of success. But England has never been successful in my lifetime. Suggesting my stance might change if the Three Lions win Euro 2012 is like saying a Lesbian can be won round by a good six pack. I grew up supporting a lower league club so football was never about success. It was about the intangible emotion of being part of something that represented the values you held, the place you lived or the people around you. I liked the idea that the bloke you sung about on the terraces could be laying your patio the next day. The joy was in the little victories; the moments of pleasure that punctuate an otherwise monotonous existence. Personally, I couldn’t imagine supporting a side whose trophy cabinet buckled under the weight of its success. To follow a side that wins everything is to compromise life’s karma. How you can experience euphoria if you have never tasted the bitter pill of failure?
The recent histrionics surrounding the England team followed by Shaun Custis’ latest muck racking article about Stuart Pearce in today’s Sun only further serves to crystallise my stance. Seeing Fabio Capello – one of the world’s most successful and dignified managers – hounded out of his job to the backdrop of Barry Fry banging on the SKY Sports news desk like a daffodil selling Enoch Powell left me utterly disillusioned. Frankly I don’t care who the next England manager is. Whoever takes charge of England it won’t have a happy ending. As Tim from The Office said: “I don’t know what a happy ending is. Life is not about endings. It’s a series of moments.” Sadly these moments for England are cyclic and predictable. Stories surrounding the manager, captain, player spats or whatever else consumes the sports pages rather than the football itself are nothing more than a fait accompli.
I’ll still watch Euro 2012. I’ll probably cheer if England score. But my heart won’t be in it. When it’s all over I’ll go home and like a wistful lover, get maudlin over old footage of an affair that has run its course. It’s a sad indictment of the modern game that I get more pleasure watching England bow out of Italia 90 than I ever could seeing the modern generation celebrate victory. Where’s a hyperactive Geordie with a pair of plastic tits when you need him?