To watch England play football is to worry about England fans.
You learn that at a young age here. You might love football. You might have a great deal of affection for England itself. But there are England Fans with a capital F, and there is you. And you learn that faster if you’re not white or male or straight. You learn that to be real Fan is to accept violence as a legitimate expression of passion. Growing up in the late 80s/early 90s (in a borough that housed the headquarters of the British National Party) that was the story that played out to me on the streets. The first man to racially abuse me had a patch of St George’s Cross sitting as comfortably on his arm as “paki” was on his lips.
It was the story that played out to me on the screen. Every summer, newscasters brought tales of foreign furniture flung gracelessly across European plazas. Bare chests. Brass bands. Broken bottles. Bloody noses. “Who was it for?” I would think. Surely not the England team? Surely, somewhere, David Platt was shaking his head.
To watch England play football is to worry about England players.
Players that you fear enabled, ennobled and embodied the worst instincts of the Fans, which for me is most vividly demonstrated by the Hooligan Prince, Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne. An incredible talent who thrilled with the uncertainty of his virtuosity. What will he do next? But that giddy unease played both ways and there was always a sense that this ‘on the edge’ persona found different manifestations elsewhere, most sickeningly in domestic abuse. (The last game of eleven-a-side I ever played I remember not for the game but for an opposition player protesting his innocence after a foul by saying: “Ref, if I wanted to hit someone, I’d go home and hit my wife.” Perhaps it’s reaching to see a through-line here but it doesn’t feel that hard to grasp.)
While undoubtedly a troubled and – in some respects – sympathetic figure, Gascoigne’s uglier, brutal acts are willingly dissipated by a classical narrative of tragedy where both past and fate inescapably drive actions and – not coincidentally – allowed journalists to write beautifully about him, to literally thank him for being him. Gascoigne was Greatness. Gascoigne was our story.
Gascoigne was England.
A place where any pain and horror is refracted and resolved through an innate brilliance. One cannot exist without the other and so a silent deal is struck in which the bad is structurally forgiven. Because it is necessary. Because it is fated. Because that is the price to pay for flawed genius. It’s a logic that permeates us.
“He’s tender when he’s sober.”
“But we gave them the railways.”
“Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming.”
And so often it doesn’t feel a price being paid at all.
To love football in England is love the flaw as well as the genius.
The beauty and the brutality, the latter of which becomes its own type of genius. We cheer the last-ditch, hard tackle along with the thirty-yard screamer. The raised fists and bloodied head of Terry Butcher arguably just as iconic as Gazza’s tears. And it’s in this aspect of the English footballing psyche that I unexpectedly found a small place for myself.
You see, I am not what you would call a naturally gifted footballer. But, God, do I get stuck in.
I was often told by PE teachers that South Asians are too slight to make it in football, but when it came to a hefty challenge I was the quintessential player. A primary school nickname of “Vinnie Jones” (The Hooligan King to Gazza’s prince) was both a bad play on my name and a tiny connection to the upper echelons of a game I adored. It would be wonderful to tell you that I got more refined as I aged but as I write this, my left arm is bandaged up after a tumbling encounter with a strong player and a sandy pitch, taken at speed.
There is so much joy and meaning for me in playing football, and it’s this that’s powered my love of watching it. And in particular I have always cherished the experience of watching England – in a spiritual sense, definitely not in an aesthetic sense. International tournament football is built to draw the casual viewer through its ease of identification and short-term investment. Every time someone I don’t expect gets really into a tournament, I’m quietly thrilled to be able to share that moment with them. It’s so easy to date where you were in your life to shared experiences in tournaments and so these games give me such a sharp sense of nostalgia. For when I ran around the playground at primary school, hand in hand with my mates, belting out Three Lions – the quintessential anthem for knowing you’re a bit shit but hoping that you won’t be some day soon. For when I wrote a lament in music class aged twelve, to the tune of – what else – When The Saints Go Marching In. (Though if I recall correctly, in terms of penalty misses I had more ire for David Batty’s 1998 effort than Southgate’s). Even for when I suffered through England vs Algeria in 2010, possibly the worst game of football I have ever ever ever ever seen.
As much as I love to watch England, I’ve never really felt like England loved me in return. I have never seen a face that looks like mine in that squad. I don’t expect to any time soon. The conduct of players may have improved since I was a kid but the replacement of guts and glory with glam was just as alienating to me because 1) Displays of financial excess repel me and 2) I am a massive nerd who will never be cool. And those Fans haunt me. They squeeze the affection out of my heart and fill it with a deep shame to the extent that I have always worn my team shirt with a jacket over it until I got to wherever I was going.
And so we come to now. The eve of the Euro 2020 finals. England vs Italy.
You’ve heard and seen a lot about it by now I’m sure, even if you haven’t been wanting to. The first final that the men’s team has reached since 1966. And you’ve also probably heard a lot about the team that made it happen. Jordan Pickford’s goalkeeping record. Jordan Henderson’s charity. Jack Grealish’s nice calves and wolfish smile. Mum’s new favourite Tyrone Mings and his classy deputisation. Raheem Sterling’s facing down of abusive tabloids. Marcus Rashford’s raising up hungry children. The taking of the knee. The hype of a young team that play with purpose. With politics. With humility. With each other (never a given in an England team).
They can also win! And (sometimes) play beautifully! It’s a squad of outrageously talented players who grew up clearly just as influenced by the skilful, fluid dominance of tiki-taka Spain or regal poise and precision of the Italian greats as their English forbearers. All of it framed within the unnecessary redemption of nice guy Gareth Southgate and his very necessary essay in which he denounced the worst elements and instincts of England Fans.
I’m not sorry to say that I am a total sucker for it.
The team, the manager, those ideals. The lot. I might not be represented physically, but something of who I would like to be as a person is which is…just really bloody weird to find in the England team? And honestly, I don’t quite know what to do with that. Which is why I’m not here to tell you that this is some new dawn. There will be no Truth & Reconciliation for ageing Spanish patio furniture, wronged by some Ruddy Faced Wonder a quarter of a century back. Dickheads will continue to dickhead. They will continue to spray their aggression like unneuteured tomcats claiming territory. I watched people gleefully singing songs harking back to World War 2 during the match against Germany – a team so many England fans seem to feel we have an almost moral right to beat, a feeling that Southgate just today unhelpful gave succour to having previously been so sensible.
So I have no dismissiveness towards the reticence of others who eye this moment – and who it might embolden – with concern. It’s not even nine years ago that the England captain was stripped of his armband and found guilty of racism towards a black player. If you’re reading articles about this wonderful new progressive England team you are right to feel some whiplash within the right-wing backlash. It’s not cynical to think this is just the 2012 Olympics all over again. But this is different in one important way.
While I’ve enormous affection for that Olympic summer, it was so clearly built to be a big tent – to a fault. It was billed as a humble spectacle of togetherness for austerity times that, aside from flickers in the opening ceremony, swerved hard from politics. It sought to be for everyone by alienating no-one. This England team and their manager don’t mind alienating people. They understand that meaningful unity is gained from mutual respect not total compliance. They gain absolutely nothing from taking up the positions that they have and they do it anyway. I cannot imagine what that must be like to see as a kid. I’m a bit jealous but more glad that they have that. And I’m so proud of that team. It feels like mine. I want to enjoy that I can type all of this (while sober) and feel that it’s real. Even for a second.
Because there are for sure unhappier moments ahead. Playing professional football at the highest levels is to always await the fall. The depression of injury. The mental strain of expectation. The temptations of money. The slow fade out of a career. The sensationalism of virulent tabloids looking to pull down public figures whose politics disrupt their own. (My tiny hope is that there will be some inoculation for the players through the sheer affection they’ve garnered from casual viewers – so yes your mum’s newfound love of Tyrone Mings is more significant than you think.)
There are blockbuster, record-breaking contracts ahead for all of these players and a few of them will no doubt take the sheen off whatever image they’re making here with their actions. And while Southgate has overseen some useful structural change within the England set up, this team will not fundamentally change the issues endemic in this country. No serious person would expect that, in the same way we wouldn’t expect that from any single piece of art. The seeds planted here will likely take another generation at least to take a firmer root. The long scar on my leg from a childhood friend who turned racist and ran his studs down my leg during a game is never going to fade.
Yet even if all good vibes and intentions gets washed away in the spilled beer of the post-final result, this feels like a team that belongs to me and I will always love them for giving me this month in which I can embrace a simple truth.
I too am an England fan, and I always have been.