Comment: ‘The despair I can cope with … it’s the hope of winning that kills me’ – but after 41 years of hurt, I STILL believe football’s coming home

I met a wise man in the pub once. ‘The despair and the defeats I can cope with,’ he told me as England suffered (yet) another penalty shoot-out loss in a major tournament. ‘It’s the hope of winning that kills me.’

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 8:18 am
A generation mentally scarred by losing to Germany on penalties - Paul Gascoigne is consoled by Terry Butcher after England's semi-final loss at Italia 90. Picture: Roberto Pfeil, AP
A generation mentally scarred by losing to Germany on penalties - Paul Gascoigne is consoled by Terry Butcher after England's semi-final loss at Italia 90. Picture: Roberto Pfeil, AP

As I watched the giant TV screen, as the men with three lions on their shirts trouped dejectedly off the pitch, the hopes and dreams of a nation shattered once more, I could only nod glumly in agreement. That was back in 1998, after England had lost to Argentina on spot-kicks. All these years on, I’m still nodding now.

For those words, wrapped up in the slightly dark humour we are famous for, sum up the life of a football fan like no others I’ve ever read or heard. And I’ve read a lot.

All these years of hurt, and I’ll never stop dreaming. That’s the problem, though. It would be so much easier, where the England national football team is concerned, if I’d stopped believing years ago.

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Gareth Southgate has his penalty saved by German goalkeeper Andreas Köpke during the Euro 96 shoot-out at Wembley. Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Allsport/Getty Images.

But football supporters cannot do that. We cannot let go. It was easier to believe Father Christmas didn’t exist than to consider the fact England won’t ever win a major tournament in my lifetime. No, we are football fans and we have to hope, we have to believe. Without that, what is left?

I support Exeter City FC, about as unfashionable and unsuccessful a professional club as there is in the EFL. But I have told friends, who support other clubs, that one day ECFC will win the FA Cup. They have laughed in my face, but I have to hold on to that hope, that dream. That’s all I’ve got, really.

Same with supporting England in a major tournament; call my confidence misplaced, but I believe we’ll beat Germany tonight. With the Netherlands out and France out, and Spain, Italy and Belgium in the other half of the draw, well … it’s coming home, isn’t it? See, I cannot let it go.

I wasn’t even born when Bobby belted the ball and Nobby was dancing, and I was just one when Pele was tackled in the searing Mexican heat by Bobby Moore.

A generation mentally scarred - Gareth Southgate reacts after missing his penalty during the Euro 96 shoot-out loss to Germany at Wembley. Photo by Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images.

But I remember Lineker scoring, I remember that well. I also remember the penalty shoot-out losses in 1990, 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012, the red cards shown to Beckham and Rooney, the hand of God, three semi-final defeats …

However, despite all that – perhaps, perversely, because of all that – hope springs eternal. That this time, more than any other time – a nod there to England’s 1982 World Cup song, another ultimately doomed campaign but one with a novel twist … England exiting the tournament without having lost a game and conceding just one goal in five games – we’ll get it right.

So what if the group games against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic were, for the most part, an exercise in tedium? Is there anyone out there who REALLY believes England will win every tournament game by three or four goals, reviving memories of the 1970 Brazil team from first whistle to last as they go?

I’ve watched England in major tournaments for 41 years. Dull games have often been our currency. Hands up who can recall a dismal 1-1 group draw with the Republic of Ireland in Italia 90, or an equally poor 1-1 draw with Switzerland in the opening game of Euro 96? They are, rightly, overshadowed by memories of Gazza, David Platt’s last-minute stunner, Stuart Pearce’s cathartic post-penalty celebration against Spain and, of course, eventual semi-final agonies.

Who recalls the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when England conspired to lose their first group game to Portugal and then draw 0-0 with Morocco? Talisman Bryan Robson was injured in the second game and Ray Wilkins sent off. Yet we ended up in the quarter-final, beaten only by a combination of Maradona’s cheating and genius.

This time, we didn’t lose a group game, didn’t concede a goal in fact, and we topped our group. Germany, lest we forget, needed a late equaliser against Hungary to even qualify for the last 16.

My generation, your generation, might be forever scarred by losing to the Germans in major tournaments, but Gareth Southgate’s squad are a different generation. They’re not mentally scarred like we are. How can they be?

If I close my eyes, 1996 doesn’t seem that long ago, not really; the memories, the songs, the bands, all frozen in time - Gazza’s goal, beating Spain on penalties, Oasis, the Spice Girls, Cool Britannia. But it IS a long time ago, a quarter of a century. I still struggle to comprehend Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka are the same age as my own kids, so how can they carry the same emotional baggage I do whenever a major tournament arrives?

When Southgate missed his penalty in 1996, three England players who started against the Czech Republic weren’t even born – Saka, Jack Grealish and Declan Rice. Kalvin Phillips and Luke Shaw were still awaiting their first birthdays. Raheem Sterling was one, Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford and John Stones were two years old. Kyle Walker, the oldest of the starting XI, was just six.

I’ll be honest - for the last few days I’ve started humming ‘It’s coming home’ on my way into work, at work, and on my way home from work. I’ll tell anyone who listens that it’s coming home; I’ve told my 17-year-old daughter, who remarkably has little interest in football – ‘that’s nice dad, but Love Island’s on this week’ – and I’ve told my partner, who’s Welsh and just deadpans her reply, ‘no it’s not’. She might be right, but consider this – she might be wrong.

Prior to the current tournament starting, I rummaged around in the loft and found my first ever Panini sticker album from the 1980 European Championships in Italy. Only eight countries contested the finals then, two groups of four. To pad out the pages there were even stickers of countries not good enough to qualify (including Scotland and Wales). It brought some childhood memories flooding back.

England entered Euro 1980 with, inevitably, high hopes, only to draw the opening game with Belgium – played out in front of the Italian police responding to English hooliganism with tear gas that forced the game to be held up for a while – before losing their second to the host nation. Though we beat Spain, we didn’t qualify from the group. I was 11 years old and had been introduced to my first England tournament disappointment. Riots, tear gas, England going home early, lengthy tabloid inquests = childhood innocence shattered.

But I STILL believe. ‘I know that was then but it could be again’ - the words that Ian Brodie speaks as footage of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy appear on ‘Three Lions’, the greatest England football song of all time (yes it is, I’ve never heard anyone singing ‘World in Motion’ on the terraces or in the stands, or even in a pub).

And it COULD be again. Of course, it might not be, might never be actually, but while England remain standing there is hope. Hope that we can add Germany to the list of major footballing nations we have beaten in a knockout game in either the World Cup or the Euros in my lifetime – a list containing, er, just one name (Spain, 1996, via penalties).

And now I’ve mentioned hope, I’m back where I started ...