Watching England play international football is like competing badly in the Commonwealth Games – you know you’re there purely to make up the numbers. In the same way that being able to walk in a straight line without falling in a ditch gets you a place in the St Kitts & Nevis athletics squad, England always perform just well enough to make it to big tournaments. It’s a bit of a let-down, really. After all, we have the Premier League, a glitzy, orgiastic bonfire of money and talent, a rum illumination of what petulant twenty-something millionaires do at the pinnacle of club soccer. Then, come dark autumnal evenings, we are left to watch the dregs of Norwich City’s second XI poke a nervy singular goal beyond a despairing Macedonian goalkeeper, while a weather-hardened manager looks on in despair, ageing at fourteen times the natural rate.
The build up to big England games is a blood-letting, size 52 font, Capital Letter howl of demented anguish asking “WHY?” Why are we not good enough to compete against the likes of Brazil, Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina? Why can’t we string three passes together, let alone employ tiki-taka? Why is it that we created the game, codified it, professionalised it, took it round the world, only for street kids in Africa to end up beating us into submission while pasty-faced Liverpudlians conform to the school of football which dictates you run after the ball willy-nilly and tactical nous is a dirty concept? Why is it that we put so much pressure on our lads to perform when it matters, so that instead of playing with verve and dynamism, they play like a pub side on the piss? Why is it that we moan about this pressure, while also getting really bloody angry when things go even slightly awry, enacting a witch hunt to hound every player and manager that fails to meet the ludicrous expectations of fans who are wider than they are tall?
I’d like to think I’m a realistic England fan, which puts me in a select group of patriots that could easily fit inside a lift. I hear people – let’s not mince our words, morons – regularly regurgitate the roll-call of dishonour of recent tournaments. “Quarter-finals, lost on penalties, Last 16, Quarter-final, Semi-final, lost on penalties” they whine on, spitting in your face as they do so, while actually not understanding that getting to the quarter-final of a World Cup indicates that you are among the finest eight teams in the world. And are we any better than that, really? There are two-hundred nations on this planet. Fair enough, some of them are just a few trees and a confused looking primate. Some have been changed so often that a once vast geographical region (and damn tricky football side) like Yugoslavia is now separated into dozens of enclaves and sub-countries, due to a civil war or an argument about the correct way to make goulash.
But an unceremonial quarter-final dumping still puts us in the top 5% of footballing nations on the planet which isn’t bad going. I watch highlights of teams like Holland and Germany, who just bulldoze opponents with nary a thought for the opposition’s feelings or confidence. Sometimes I think the England squad have been pulled to one side and told in hushed tones that the other team have just been given some very bad news, so they should try and spare their feelings. There’s a supreme arrogance when the Dutch are lining up to sing their national anthem, proud and comfortable, as opposed to the English choirboys who look on the verge of vomiting.
For the first time since the 2012 European Championships I watched an England game last week. It was a crucial tie against Montenegro, and a defeat would condemn the Three Lions to a play-off spot. I chanced my arm (and most of my body parts) by watching the game at The King & Queen in Brighton, one of those watering holes with screens the size of planets and a mob of drunken men clutching Carlsberg, yelling at the telly. The sound you could hear more than any other, above the din of chatter and the twinkle of glasses, was the well-worn subdued moans of disappointment. Every time England gave the ball away – you rarely have to wait longer than a few seconds – the gathered supporters will emit a “gnahr” sound, sometimes accompanied by the thrashing of arms and spotty cries of “Oh for fuck sake Gerrard”.
Then there’s the people who shout advice at the telly, as if Roy Hodgson is likely to say at his next press conference: “I was going to play James Milner on the right but when Bobby, the fulminating pisshead in The Thumb & Forefinger, suggested he was the worst player to ever don the sacred kit, I recalibrated my formation to include the ‘hungry youngsters’ he babbles on about because talented youth players who can step up on an international stage grow on fucking trees. I chose to ignore Bobby’s assertion that I was a useless female body part and an embarrassment to the managerial profession. Despite what he says, his Nan, who’s apparently dead, could not do a better job”.
In recent years there has been a marked shift in the clothing choices of England’s fans. Where once the heaving masses would sport a good old-fashioned Umbro kit from the 90s (and this was before retro became cool), now people attend the pub in comfortable knitwear and Converse. I peered around The King & Queen and not a single Gazza-crying-into-his-shirt doppelgänger could be seen. I remember having a few England tops in my time but in 2013, I cannot envisage a time when wearing one would improve anything. When I see two-year-olds in prams wearing their first diddy England shirt, I don’t inwardly smile and think “how cute”. I think “you’ve got decades of misery to come, sonny. All of the disappointments and tragedies to come in your life will mean nothing compared to seeing the country you love lose on penalties. Your heart may be broken by some vuluptuous temptress, you might not get everything you want. It may be hard to make your way in the world but the England football team will always be there to clasp its grimy paws around your shoulder and deliver crushing lows like you’ve never experienced. They won’t win anything in your lifetime, let alone mine”.
Happily, England beat Montenegro 4-1 and turned in the kind of performance which, if it didn’t fill me with hope, at least avoided filling me with despair. Andros Townsend capped a great debut with a superb goal. Time will tell if he lives up to the hype and vacates the list of one-time star performers, but every dog has its day. This week, Poland were beaten to book our ticket to Brazil 2014. It was a standard nerve-shredder and as I listened to the remnants of the match on the radio with us 1-0 ahead, I could hear the “gnahr”s of the Wembley crowd and I was thankful that I didn’t have the visual accompaniment, or I’d be reduced to throwing my arms around and pulling my eyes down, as only an England fan knows how.
When the World Cup comes around, I’ll be excited. Some may even think it’s our year because we thrash a bunch of Tajikistani farmers in a friendly. But when you sign up to watch England, you know you’re on a rollercoaster ride – the uncomfortable lurches, the overwhelming nausea, the feeling you’re falling, falling, falling. It brings us back to sup from the bottomless well of hope.