England: hope but not expectation

by David Bevan

Let’s get one thing straight. As many have correctly stated, you do not really choose your football team. If it is meant to be, then you will stumble across them at some point and you will know.

I liked Arsenal when I was 4 because they wore red shirts and my uncle lived in Finsbury Park. That was enough for me. I was a Gooner for life.

Except I wasn’t, because my Dad then took me to Rockingham Road for my first taste of football in the flesh. Kettering Town also wore red. They saw off Merthyr Tydfil with consummate ease. I liked the cut of their jib. So was that settled, then. The Poppies were my club.

Except they weren’t, because my Dad then took me to Filbert Street. I fell in love. I was a Junior Fox. I met Kevin Campbell. I sat on the old white wall that ran along the length of the old Main Stand. I sat there and felt sick for the entirety of a game with Port Vale but I sat there and I stayed there and I refused to budge because this was my team and I loved them.

Twenty years later, I still do. I support, worship and devote my life to Leicester City Football Club.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. As with anything, there is a slight complication. Running in parallel over the last twenty years, there has been another team I have been desperate to see win a major tournament. Still waiting. You have to be prepared to be patient when you support England.

Fittingly, given that it culminated in the eternal city, Italia ’90 will live long in the memory of England fans. That final did not include Bobby Robson’s brave boys, sent packing at the semi-final stage by the most infamous means possible, but the 1990 World Cup was nevertheless a magnificent introduction to the ups and downs of following England.

Our gallant men, heroes despite falling at the penultimate hurdle, provided iconic images by the bucketload. The first came not in Italy but in Stockholm as England secured the vital point that would send them to the finals. They wore white that day, but by the end of the game Terry Butcher had shed enough blood to turn most of his shirt as red as the one Bobby Moore pulled on in 1966.

Gazza’s tears. David Platt’s hooked volley against Belgium. Gary Lineker being manhandled by Stuart Pearce after taking the ball on his thigh and firing it into the West German net in that fateful semi-final. Sir Bobby Robson, sat on the bench helpless as Chris Waddle’s penalty sailed towards a Curva of the Stadio Olimpico.

You know all of this. You also know that we had to wait eight years until England played in another World Cup and that it was another campaign ended by a penalty shootout. What you probably don’t know is that I was unable to watch as Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England faced Brazil in the 2006 quarter-finals.

I had an English literature A-level that morning. I heard my Dad’s joyous celebration of Michael Owen’s opening goal as I left the house but, by the time I had reached school, I was hearing whispers that we were losing. I tried desperately hard to concentrate on one of the most important exams of my life, but it was incredibly difficult.

At the front of the room, there was a whiteboard on which somebody had written “Latest Score – England 1 Brazil 2″. I kept my head down, scribbling away, but all the time my mind was elsewhere.

After an hour, with two still remaining, one of the invigilators walked past my desk and stood at the front next to the whiteboard. He lifted up his marker pen and carefully wrote: “Full time”. With that, he walked away and we were out of the World Cup.

Four years later, four years ago, Sven gave it another go. But, like 2002, it ended with a quarter-final exit and, like 1990 and 1998, it ended with penalties. I watched it at a party held by friends of my parents. A woman told me it was only a game. I accidentally insulted her in front of her husband. Not my finest hour, but it seemed understandable at the time.

Personally, I appear to have lost that same passion for the English national football team in the last four years. It has gradually waned away to the point where I feel, at this precise moment with the World Cup less than 24 hours away, I would be almost as pleased if Spain’s beautiful football won the day. And only slightly less happy if Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to victory, managing to silence those final critics who unfairly say he cannot be compared to the greats until he emulates his current coach’s achievements in 1986.

Increasingly in the modern age, it seems uncool to support England. People who attach the flag of St George to their cars are derided. Any Englishman who dares to predict England as a potential winner of the World Cup is laughed at. While I cannot identify with anyone who actually does either of those things, I can sympathise.

We are still clinging onto that dream of experiencing what we came close to in 1990. Some of it would be hell and maybe an overly romantic image persists but I still want that feeling in my lifetime. That winning goal. That trophy lifted. The dancing in the streets and the national holiday.

We may not expect any more, but still we daydream.

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