As any fule who reads this blog kno, Mrs d is English. I feel a rather hubristic pride that despite the differences between our respective nations we do so well together – and please note that any one who says that there are no differences is a fule. Having being brought together by a shared affection for Liverpool and her mostly willing acquiescence in being brainwashed about hurling, it would be fair to say that sport plays a large part in the relationship. For the first seven years though I did not join her in cheering for England. Hoping England would crash-and-burn for all those years was not a function of 800 years of oppression. Okay, it was a little bit about that. But mostly it was because England are the Nelson Muntz of the Irish and British playground. Taking a savage delight in Goliath coming crashing down was the natural position to take and Mrs d took this with her usual good grace. Although it would fair to say that when I told her that my reaction to this . . .
. . . was one of unrestrained euphoria, a shadow crossed her face. It hurt. It still hurts.
Over time I stopped taking pleasure in England’s seeming never-ending ability to screw up. It wasn’t until I went with her to see England play Andorra in June of 2009 that I realised that this England thing really means a lot to her. The English soccer team is at the very heart of what it means to her to be English. It’s probably because the Irish soccer team doesn’t resonate with me with quite the same passion that I missed that in her. To see her beaming with such joy by just being present at an England game was a thing of unalloyed beauty. If seeing once again even a fraction of that joy means hoping that England win, then so be it.
In case that wasn’t explicit enough, I hope England win. Only in soccer, mind, the rugby team can get stuffed. But it still represents quite the volte face from the days of Euro ’96.
So it was that I toddled along to Wembley with Mrs d to see England play Switzerland on Saturday, thinking I was being ticking all the irony boxes by donning a Waterford shirt for the occasion. Briefly I had toyed with wearing a classic Republic of Ireland shirt, which had the double benefit of being oh-so-ironic while making it easy to pick us out on the television later on. In the end I decided that it might draw a bit too much attention to myself so I settled on a Waterford shirt which would leave anyone who say it guessing but wouldn’t make me stick out like a sore thumb. And no sooner were we at the first Tube station on the route than the wisdom of such circumspection became clear as a group of England fans, obviously on the sauce since early in the morning, came into our vicinity with repeated exhortations that there would no surrender to the IRA. It didn’t seem probable that they’d present much of a threat, filled as they were with a lot of piss and wind. But it was uncomfortable. The GAA often gets accused of letting sport and politics mix but after the visit of HRH we’re all meant to be friends now, right? These boyos clearly hadn’t been copied into that memo.
We got to Wembley with not a lot of time to spare, clownish scheduling on the Bakerloo line meaning we had to get off and wait at Queen’s Park for a train coming behind us. I’ve long railed against the cult of sports grounds whether it be the Nou Camp or even Croke Park, and our experience on the Tube would have echoes when we got to Wembley. Wembley is a thing of beauty, but no amount of architectural and stylistic grandeur can compensate when it’s a pain in the arse to get to your seat and so it proved for the thousands of people trying to access the ground via gate P as the automatically operated turnstiles failed leaving the queue in the photo above with only fifteen minutes to kick-off. One can only assume that the armchair SAS officers were not in that queue because it’s a minor miracle that a riot didn’t break out as we sailed serenely through gate N. Although maybe they were in that queue and it was bad karma. One can only hope.
We didn’t get to sample much of the atmosphere before the match and the opening minutes were insipid. The crowd were pretty good humoured, partly due to a very boisterous Swiss contingent (more on them later) but at the time I felt it was because the England fans were very relaxed. England are well positioned in the group having beaten Switzerland away from and while the debacle at the World Cup in South Africa has dented confidence there had been nothing up to this point to suggest that the problems they occasionally experience in qualifying were going to rear their ugly head. Then Joe Hart completely lost the plot and before we knew it England were 2-0 down.
In fairness to Hart, the first goal was one of those things that happens with regularity, that of a free eluding everyone and going in at the far post. You could argue that he was slow getting across but if he anticipates such an eventuality and someone gets a nick on it back across the goal then he would look even more foolish.
The second goal was just terrible on every level for England. Filled as he would have been with brio from the first goal, it should have entered English heads that the marvellously-monikered Tranquillo Barnetto was going to have a stab from that range. Instead we had Hart leaving a gap that Fat Frank Lampard could have walked through at the near post and James Milner peeling off the defensive wall to protect against, well, nothing in particular. It was shocking. Having marvelled at the recent Tipperary – Cork match and the manner in which a hurling match can ebb and flow, we saw the opposite end of the excitement spectrum as a team found themselves with a potentially insurmountable gap in the length of time it would take you to make some toast. Which is what England looked like now.
Given this post is about the feeling of being at Wembley for the match rather than the match itself, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. Aprés the clowns on the Tube there was a section of the crowd who turned ugly, booing everything that England tried and being especially vituperative at half-time. But for the most part the reaction was one of appalled resignation. The World Cup has really knocked the stuffing out of England fans, both in the manner of the defeat and the team who did it. Anyone who contemplates chanting ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ is likely to be told that for you, Fritz, ze singing is over. It was hard to see how England were going to turn this around so it was fortunate for them that Switzerland gifted them a way back into the game via Fat Frank Lampard’s none-too-inspiring penalty. As stated earlier there was some jeering at half-time but not a lot of it. It was as if the fans were too filled with ennui to get angry about it all. Thankfully the introduction of Ashley Young was sufficiently dislocating for the Swiss to allow England a quick equaliser but even at the time it didn’t feel like England were going to push on and Mrs d didn’t disagree with me when I expressed the opinion that at least disaster had been averted.
This assumed England wouldn’t throw it away like they did against Croatia three-and-a-half years ago when they had drawn level after being 2-0 and while Switzerland were no Croatia they kept their shape well and constantly menaced the England defence, even if it rarely translated into a decent goalscoring opportunity. Contrast this with England who couldn’t put together a coherent passage of play yet got behind the Swiss defence on several occasions. It was on one such moment that the pessimism of the England support was justified, the Swiss goalkeeper spilled a straightforward effort from distance and Darren Bent, perhaps surprised at the force with which the ball pinged off the goalie, managed to spoon the ball over the bar with the goal sitting empty about twelve yards in front of him. Even after this there was little in the way of proper rage from the stands. The sense of fatalism was overwhelming. We could have been watching Waterford.
The comparison with the effervescent visitors was stark. When Saturday Comes had a photo album after the 2002 World Cup entitled something like ‘Well Organised Madness’, a tribute to the choreographed-yet-deranged way the South Koreans celebrated the progress of their team. At frequent intervals a tremendous roar would come from their ranks which at the time I thought was ‘La Suisse!’ but discovered later on in the evening from a couple of Swiss fans that it was ‘Hop Schweiz!’ It was an awesome sight, reminiscent of the performance of the Basel fans at Anfield back in 2002 with their booming chants and collective bobbing up and down. With about ten minutes to go and the match delicately poised they started a Mexican wave, usually the sign of a match that is dying on its feet. When the England fans didn’t respond the Swiss booed which finally spurred the majority of the ground into life, leading to the weird feeling of trying to keep an eye on the action to our right on the pitch and the wave coming from our left down the stands. The Switzerland fans were having a party, the England fans were having a wake.
Thinking about it while I write it, things were perhaps not as bleak as I’ve made out. To come from 2-0 down is always pleasant and the fans were happy enough at the end to have avoided humiliation. There was certainly no rancour on Olympic Way as 85,000 people traipsed away from the ground, the smiling bobby on horseback much in evidence. But the shadow of the World Cup casts itself over everything they do. It stripped away any illusion that the talent is there for England and all they need is a break or five penalty-takers to win a championship. On a day when Robbie Keane passed Bobby Charlton on the list of all-time international goalscorers, there’s a lot to be said for our reduced expectations from our international team. You’d think England could expect a little more expectation than this though.