The summer of 1996. Manchester. I am 26 and in love. The city is buzzing. The country is buzzing.
The country is abuzz – and I don’t mean by that a means of public transport in Birmingham – because it’s hosting Euro ’96, the European championship football tournament. What’s more, England have just beaten Spain in the quarter-finals on penalties after goalkeeping heroics by the big, burly Arsenal keeper, David Seaman – and winning on penalties is something England never do. What’s even Bobby Moore, they’ve beaten “the old enemy” Scotland at Wembley with a magical Paul Gascoigne goal – one of the best ever seen by an Englishman in an England shirt. Then unbelievably to those of us witnessing it mouths agape, the “three lions” have dismantled the highly rated Dutch team 4-1 in a dazzling display of flowing, attacking football.
Manchester is buzzing, because it’s Manchester and it’s never one to miss out on a “paaaaarrteh!” It’s also one of the host cities with nearby Salford’s Old Trafford the venue for a number of games in the tournament. The easy-going, beer-loving Czechs have come to town and made many friends among the Manc massive. They’ve pretty much taken over a pokey little boozer on Oldham Street in the City Centre and made it their own. The boozer, more accustomed to serving old fellas halves of light mild and bags of scratchings, is struggling to keep up with the roaring trade as the thirsty Czechs drink the bar dry every night. A huge Czech flag has been hung on the back wall of the boozer. It’s still there to this day to my knowledge as a gift of gratitude by the Czechs for keeping them pleasantly inebriated for the duration of their time in the city.
Skinner and Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds’ Three Lions (‘Football’s coming home’) provides the feelgood soundtrack to the proceedings – St George flags are everywhere. Football has reclaimed the St George cross from the fascists and extremists and for the first time in a long time, it’s actually cool to sport an England shirt with its iconic three lions. I’d got my replica cotton 1966 red England shirt for the tournament and I wear it for tournaments and games to this day (despite making threats to burn it after dismal exits from tournaments in recent years). ‘96 became my heady, high watermark for the love of the national game and what it represents…
Me and my good ole drinking mate Angus (a Trinidadian/Scottish/Indian Man United-supporting cockney – you can’t get more English than that!) made the backroom of the Jabez Clegg bar (no idea why the weird name) in the heart of Manchester students-ville, our HQ from which to watch the England games for Euro ‘96. This was principally because, getting into the whole European vibe and, no doubt in a bid to attract the Czech punters, the bar was serving ‘steins’ of dry, crisp, highly downable Czech Budvar for the price of a standard pint. That’s a litre of quality beer – 1.76 pints for the price of one cheapie one. They also had all the England games on a big screen to the right of the bar. So, we could perch on our bar stools watching the game and turn a shoulder to order another stein ensuring the beer flowed while our viewing of the game remained uninterrupted. We were in pub/football heaven and enthusiastically/rabidly lead the cheering and the chanting for each game – and yes of course they could hear us at Wembley! We were particularly vociferous for the England Scotland game in which Gazza scored the aforementioned wonder goal. This was quite a day – the IRA had detonated a huge bomb in the Deansgate area of the city that morning. I remember thinking that the bass had really kicked in on a drum and bass track I was dancing to in my living room at the time when the bomb went off (hey it was the nineties – we danced to drum and bass in our living rooms, what can I tell you?). It was only later when I put on the TV I realised what had happened.
Thankfully, miraculously no one was hurt in the bombing, despite massive devastation caused to that part of the city including the hideous, dismal, brutalist-designed Arndale Shopping Centre. Life goes on – and football most certainly goes on and we had no cause for what happened in the city centre to impact on us watching what was to be a sensational game of football kick-starting the English assault on the cup in earnest. Several steins and a couple of celebratory whiskies later after the win, I reluctantly had to bid Angus a farewell, as I had a shift to do at my mate’s nightclub in the Gay Village area of the city. I wobbled off on my bike, eventually turned from Whitworth Street onto Princess Street to see with gleeful delight that the street was cordoned off from just in front of the sidestreet where the nightclub in which I was due to do a shift that night. “Sorry, mate – whole of the city centre’s closed off from here because of the bomb,” said the bloke in a security jacket manning the roadblock. “Don’t be sorry, mate,” I beamed. “I could kiss you!” The bloke looked at me, looked at the Gay Village, behind him, smiled and shrugged – perfectly normal thing for one bloke to say to another around there, he no doubt thought. I jumped back on my bike, sped back to the boozer where Angus was still holding court with a bunch of other mates and a big cheer went up as I burst in through the bar doors. The bar woman had a stein of Budwar waiting for me on the bar before I’d even sat down… not only had the IRA rid Manchester of the Arndale Centre – but thanks to them I could get on the piss all night and properly celebrate the glorious England win! I concede this might be something of an egocentrically skewed view.
These were halcyon days – Manchester basked in the sun and the cultural capital of the North of England felt like a truly European city for those few weeks. Supporting the England football team meant pride in English football as a whole and the way they were playing felt just reward for the years of getting pissed on in the away end at Stockport on a rainy Wednesday night, getting hoofed by police horses and ambushed by small gangs of barbarian Stoke supporters on the way to the ground, getting stuck for three hours in standstill traffic on the M6 after running down to Brum for a dismal Birmingham mid-week home game, watching Birmingham get destroyed 6-0 by ‘Citeh’ at Maine Road, the agony of losing to Liverpool in the Worthington Cup Final in Cardiff and getting kicked up the arse by a dirty Leeds fan walking to Elland Road only to be told to ‘Move on, ya Brummie git’ by a smirking copper who’d witnessed the scene – we’d served our time as football fans from the bad old days of the mid-eighties where you often took your life into your hands just to go and watch a shite game of football, to the birth pains of the Premiership and the gentrification of the game in the early 90s. Now it was the dawning of a glorious new era for football, or so it felt – and watching England completely outplay the Dutch suggested finally English football was entering a new golden age. And supporting England touched a sense of national pride in me – not of the jingoistic rule-Britannia-God-save-the-queen kind. But supporting England meant embracing Blur and Oasis, baltis, bitter beer and ska, Skinner and Baddiel, Loaded magazine, the Haçienda, five-a-side football on wet Wednesday nights, Ben Sherman and Fred Perry shirts, Nick Hornby, Benjamin Zephaniah and Simon Armitage…being English, loving football and supporting England was actually kinda, well, cool!
On account of my journalism credentials, I had been able to score a couple of tickets for the quarter final at Old Trafford between Germany and Croatia. So myself and one of my other loves, Char, went and watched the spectacle. We were mightily impressed by the Croatian fans in the opposite end from where we were sitting. The buoyant red and white contingent didn’t stop singing the entire way through the game despite going down 2-1 to the ‘Churmans’. They got particularly lively after their talismanic striker Davor Suker equalised. The whole of the end where the Croatians were was a bouncing mass of red and white checks. Our mate Bully who was a West Bromwich Albion fan had got a ticket for the game in the Croatian end and the Albion fans are affectionally known as the ‘Boingers’ for their propensity to ‘boing’ up and down in celebration at games. So, Bully was right at home with the bouncing Croats and became an adopted Croatian for the day. This is one of the things I love about football – it connects people from different cultures with different languages – as does boinging apparently!
Then inevitably – or at least how it felt afterwards – the England juggernaut careered off the road and crashed in the most agonising of circumstances – again going out on penalties to Ze Churmans – after a young Gareth Southgate miss and after Darren Anderton hit the post and Gazza was a nat’s proverbial away from scoring a golden goal in extra time as he slid in on the end of a cross – only for the ball to allude his studs. This time there was to be no goalkeeping heroics from Seaman to get us out of jail and Möller dispatched his penalty with steely efficiency – a dagger to the heart of football loving English men and women. In the pub there were screams, swearing, but above all just a horrible, crushing atmosphere of shock and abject despair. Like they did at Italia ’90, the Germans avenged us again in ’96 for ’66 – that’s what it felt like – personal and malicious, not just a football team winning a game – it was a national assault.
We walked out the pub, I sat on the pavement too numb to cry. Angus roared “FUUCCCCCCKKKKKK!” launched his ‘lucky’ zippo lighter into the Mancy gloom – it was like someone had just rudely yanked the plug out of summer and the beautiful dream that for once England were going to do it.
30 years of hurt…it was to be just the beginning…there were most definitely some highs that followed…but there was a horrible succession of lows, an under-delivering ‘golden generation’, farcical managers too ridiculous to be even funny, more dreadful penalty shoot-out exits, excruciating draws with the likes of USA!USA!USA! after goalkeeping howlers, perennial under-achievement followed by savage condemnation in the English press, just weeks after they had whipped up crazed expectation in the nation ahead of each tournament.
You can blame the press if you like, but they were merely mirroring the schizoid cocktail of febrile delusion followed by dark depression that characterized the nation’s psyche when it comes to its relationship with the football team. For me it had become a toxic relationship, the bile becoming bitterer and bitterer as each new rotten layer of humiliation became harder and harder to digest.
And the divorce finally came in Brazil 2014 – I’d ordered my shiny new red England shirt before the start of the tournament – it finally arrived a day after we’d been knocked out by Uruguay, the result of some very naïve defending – something we’d actually been good at in the past. Now it seemed we weren’t good at anything other than losing. I wasn’t going to bother getting up in the middle of the night to watch the dead rubber against Costa Rica – but then my youngest Jacob was up with a gastro. So, I sat there in my new England shirt on the sofa watching the three lame lions limp through the most dismal, despondent goalless bore-draw I have ever seen, while holding my son’s head as he vomited copiously into a bucket – it was the perfect metaphor for where my support of the national team had got to. I was done. It was bad enough with the years of grinding sorrows of supporting Birmingham, I didn’t need this every couple of years on top. And so now being disassociated and liberated, when the mighty Iceland, a nation of just over 330,000 people, whose football team is coached by a part-time dentist, put England out of Euro 2016, I didn’t even bat an eyelid. When confronted about it by my Aussie counterparts who could barely contain their mirth, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yep – that’s England.” They could not get their heads around my indifference and the fact that we are this football-crazed nation purportedly with one of the greatest football leagues in the world in the English Premier League with a rich domestic and national history (prior to 1970 at any rate) and yet we could lose to the likes of Iceland – yeah, tell me about it. So in 20 years, supporting England had gone from being cool to being farcical and embarrassing.
So, after that particular fiasco the coach, well-nice Woy went, and in came growling, gum-chewing Big Sam Allardyce – a specialist in keeping poor-performing football teams from being relegated by playing physical, defensive, pig-ugly route one football. He was the FA’s anointed one, supposedly the Moses for English football leading us out of the dessert of woeful underachievement. He lasted a game before being exposed in a tabloid sting for taking a bung and being relieved of his duties. More hilarity at the expense of the England football team set-up/English FA circus.
Then in came Southgate – seems like a nice bloke, I thought, of course, there was that penalty miss, he hardly inspires though, I thought, but can he be any worse than what’s gone before? I tried to remain completely emotionally removed from England in the build-up to the latest ‘edition’ of the World Cup as they call it, making it sound like some kinda glossy magazine rather than the biggest event in the world that it is. In fact, this was my prediction for England I half-jokingly emailed to my football-loving boss:
Anyway I don’t care, because England will scramble a last minute 1-1 draw against Tunisia in their opener having gone down 1-0 as a result of an appalling mix up from a back pass under no pressure whatsoever, fail to break down Panama in the second who will defend with 10 at the back – despite us having 300 guilt-edged chances, then finally kick-start into action against Belgium in their last game – getting two goals ahead – then giving away three to a spectacular Eden Hazard hat-trick in the last 20 minutes of the game to crash out in ignominy and national disgrace, after Tunisia hold Belgium 0-0 and thump Panama 6-1 doing what England could not do and take their chances – you read it here first!
You’ll note it ended up England thumping Panama 6-1 not Tunisia, and happily, my prediction was wronger than Panama’s WWF corner-defending strategy and despite my mantra of “I have no expectations, I have no expectations, I have no expectations” throughout the tournament, mine and millions of other POMs’ went through the roof and into the stratosphere when Kieron Tripper – The Bury Beckham – one of the emerging heroes of the campaign – netted with a glorious free-kick just five minutes into the ill-fated semi-final against Croatia. We were daring to dream again, what if? What if? What if? But, no, it wasn’t to be and yet, we’ve seen something remarkable in these last few weeks. There’s a sense of a completely new culture in the England set-up – a sensible and balanced manager/coach who has a realistic assessment of where we’re at as a team. A young team of likeable, seemingly down to earth, honest and relaxed footballers – our under 17s and under 21s both won their respective world cups which suggests the FA have finally got the foundations right. And for a few passages of play in the tournament, we actually played some exciting, high tempo, free-flowing football which looked really good to watch as well as being one of the most dangerous set-piece play teams in the competition.
So for those of us who’d been through it so, so many times before, the familiar, hollow disappointment was there again when the final whistle blew in Moscow calling time on our dreams again combined with a real sense of one of the best opportunities we’ll ever get to reach a world-cup final lost. But the day after a feverish sleep, we awoke to something different in the collective English football psyche…they say “I can handle the despair, it’s the hope I can’t stand.” But call me delusional, call me incurable, but I’d take that hope a thousand million times over the hopeless, pitiful dejection of pretty much every tournament England has been involved in since ’96. And maybe the song really does encapsulate what being an England fan’s all about, ‘I know that was then, but it could be again.’ Could is the operative word. And maybe it’s not about coming home with a trophy, but coming home with something much, much more precious than that…the dream, the hope and a pride in who we collectively are as a people. Despite Brexit, despite the economic gloom, despite the Middle England, Daily Mail reading, little islanders, there are still millions of us who are willing to reimagine ourselves and embrace other people and other cultures. Football when it’s at its best can embrace all of that. Football’s coming home? I’m not sure it ever left.