COMMENT: Riots, turnips and penalty agony – how a lifetime of watching England makes a nation’s Euro semi-final joy even sweeter for me
So now we know. After all these years, after all those oh so nears - and some that were a long way away, Euro 88 and Euro 92 anyone? - we now know what it’s like to wake up to the fact the England national football team has reached a major final.
Ok, our heads might hurt a little - ok, for some they will hurt a lot - but overall it’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it? After the last 16 and a half months we’ve been forced to endure - we haven’t lived properly since March 2020, we’ve existed, and that can never be the same thing - Gareth Southgate and his players have produced an achievement to unite a fractured nation.
It might only unite us only for a few beautiful weeks, before politics and the pandemic return to dominate the news agenda and continue to divide the country. But how much better to bask in the joy of reaching a final, to wake up smiling at the events of the night before, even if we end up losing to Italy, than to remember the mornings (mournings) after semi-final losses in 1990, 1996 and 2018.
Last night’s Euro 2020 semi-final victory over Denmark was one to savour for every English patriot who loves Pele’s beautiful game. More than that, more than the 55 years of hurt, it produced an outpouring of emotion from a nation who have basically been told what they can and cannot do for over a year and a half, who have been locked down and let out, locked down and let out (briefly) and then locked down (for much longer) and let out again. We have been told who we can (and can’t) see, when we can see them, and how close we can get to them. We have been lectured like naughty schoolchildren on how to behave by people who have since brazenly broken the same rules the great unwashed were told to abide by. Millions of people have no doubt been taken, mentally speaking, to breaking point.
With all that in mind, the win against Germany at Wembley last week was their time, OUR time, your time, to celebrate being inside a football ground again, being with friends inside a pub again, and cheering on England led by a man we can be proud of, unlike the politicians who run our country. Ditto the quarter-final success against Ukraine, though on a smaller level (we have far more emotional baggage with the Germans, and emotion is key in football), and yet again last night. Yet again this Sunday.
There is nothing like sport, nothing remotely like it - not even the Morecambe & Wise Christmas special in 1977, Charles and Di’s Royal Wedding in 1981, or the Christmas Day Eastenders in 1986 - to bring our nation, emotionally wrecked after well over 120,000 Covid-19 deaths, together once more. Only sport has that power. I still can’t believe there are people out there who don’t like it!
It might have taken the rescheduling of Love Island for some people to realise there was a big game going on in north west London last night. But for most of the nation - especially those of us who have heavily invested emotionally in the fortunes of the England football team through a succession of tournament agonies - we knew. Oh, we knew alright.
The win over Denmark will mean a hell of a lot to all English football fans, whatever their age and whatever team they support. But it will mean more to those of us who remember the dismal defeats, the early tournament exits, the recriminations, the tabloid vitriol, the rotting vegetables superimposed on the head of the England manager. I remember the classic ‘Swedes 2 Turnips 1’ headline after Graham Taylor’s side had lost to Sweden at Euro 92. Darkly amusing, but summing up how many people viewed the national team boss. I don’t think we’ll be seeing ‘That’s shallot Southgate’ headlines - with the bulb imposed on the manager’s head - if we lose to the Italians, put it that way ...
Like everything in life, a little context goes a very long way. And it is true to say that you only truly appreciate success - and England reaching a major final, given our history, is very much that - if you have lived through the bitter disappointments.
I’m 53, my first memory of watching England (fail) in a major tournament was in the 1980 European Championships. As I wrote in The News last week, some of the England fans rioted during our opening match against Belgium and the Italian police responded with tear gas, forcing the game to be held up. There are pictures on the internet of the England players dousing their eyes with water to ease the pain. That was my introduction to the England football team - no ‘Sweet Caroline’, no ‘Three Lions’, no ‘Ron Greenwood you’re the one, you still turn me on’, no fun. English football came home alright, in June 1980; it came back in disgrace.
(As an aside, it is interesting to note the BBC gave the England v Belgium match just a 10-minute ‘build-up’; last night’s game against Denmark was awarded a 90-minute preview on ITV. A lot of things have changed for the better in four decades).
The hooliganism in Turin, though, would be a dismal prelude to the 1980s, a decade where England ‘supporters’ routinely rioted throughout Europe. Against a seemingly non-stop backdrop of violence, culminating (inevitably) in the Heysel Stadium tragedy in 1985, you felt like a social pariah confessing to anyone that you were an English football fan. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hated football and she hated the animals who attached themselves to the national team and ran amok in foreign city centres. No smiles, no fun, just chaos, shaven heads and bloodied noses.
In the same decade, I sat in front of a TV screen and watched England lose to Switzerland, to Norway - ‘Maggie Thatcher can you hear me, your boys have taken one HELL of a beating!’ - to Scotland, to Wales, to Denmark (failing to qualify for the 1984 Euro Championships as a result), and at Euro 88 we lost all our group games to the Republic of Ireland, Holland and the USSR.
That was the state of English football I grew up with. Riots, defeats, misery. And that’s before we had lost our first penalty shoot-out at Italia 90 (let alone the five others that followed it). To rewrite a ‘Three Lions’ lyric, I know that was then and I don’t want it again. So that is why last night’s victory means a little bit more to me than it does to anyone in their teens or 20s, or even 30s? Context, and history, is everything. Some of us have put in more years, more decades, suffered more hangovers, following the fortunes of England and therefore have a sweeter appreciation of the good times. That is not a criticism of anyone in their teens or 20s reading this, just a fact of life. If you’ve waited 55 years to see England reach their second major final - Germany have reached 12 in the same period - it will mean more than if you have waited ten years.
As the pubs and restaurants have reopened after the third national lockdown, I have often heard comments such as ‘how nice it is to see things getting back to a bit of normality.’ Gloriously, wonderfully, possibly surprisingly to many, that is not the case with the England national football team. There is nothing ‘normal’ about what England have achieved at the European Championships. ‘Normal’ would be, based on history, a quarter-final exit, and probably on penalties at that.
But you know what, this is the sort of ‘new normal’ I could very well get used to ...