Pride. Apt that the Three Lions have filled me with so much of it. So why am I left with such a sense of disappointment? Hopefully, I’ll be able to unpack that for you here, and possibly some of it will resonate with you.
Starting with on the pitch, because at the end of the day that is nominally what football is about. England got to a final of a major tournament for the first time in my lifetime. Albeit, I’m not exactly a grizzled old man (as the fact I have the facial hair of an extra from Dunkirk indicates), I imagine it is the same for most of you. Using a group of young, exuberant, and enigmatic youngsters, England slew so many demons of tournaments past; Germany, Croatia, winning the opening game of the Euros, all put behind us. Players emerged onto the national stage, and proved what fans of their clubs have been talking about for years, showing they were more than worthy of putting on the England shirt. Kalvin Phillips put in one of the best midfield tournament performances I can remember against Croatia, only for Declan Rice to demonstrate exceptional composure, timing, and energy in the final. Luke Shaw, who perhaps many thought hadn’t filled his potential, built on the back of an excellent season and put any debate about his ability to rest. Bukayo Saka. Anyone following me on Twitter will know my unabashed love for him. I could ramble on about his character, prowess on the ball, composure under pressure, and technical excellence. But I won’t. I can only hope you got to see a glimpse of why I am so fond of him. Raheem Sterling proved countless millions wrong, undoubtedly some of those are reading this, by not only earning his spot in the side, but making himself irreplaceable through his outstanding performances. Not to get all ‘proper football man’ about it, but the shift he put in against Denmark will stay with me for a while. Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, Jordan Pickford, Kieran Trippier all had doubters for different reasons, and all can leave with their heads held high because they stepped up when they were needed. I could list out every player of the squad to be honest, and echo similarly effusive praise. And that is why I am proud of them on the pitch. Not a single one of them should leave with regrets.
Off the pitch, well I think we all know. If I had a tenth of the moral fibre, character, generosity, and compassion of the players and manager, I’d be twice the man I am. If you look into their backstories, each and every one of them has demonstrated strength in the face of adversity, sympathy and empathy when turning a blind eye would’ve been easy, and stood up to authority when they saw rampant injustice. Some of them do this in the face of continual racist abuse, and vicious attacks from dog-whistling corridors of power who tell them to “stick to football”. Not only revealing the rotten-hearted nature of those organisations, but the underlying fear that if allowed to continue the public will be exposed to the true incompetence and nefarious actors that lay at the core of those institutions. Booed by the very people they are playing for. Let that sink in, truly let it sink in. Playing 90 minutes after having your personal beliefs so publicly jeered, despite all the lengths you have gone to explain that all you are doing is standing up for equality. They opened themselves up, whether via their own social media channels or through increased media availability, and this is how a section, however small, repay this gesture. If that was all they did, they’d deserve all the acclaim we can offer. Add to that with what they have done on the pitch, and they have given me a month of football, and a connection to an English national team I never dreamed was possible. This is where the lack of pride comes in. Connecting to the English flag (for many
reasons but I’ll try and stick to football here) has always been difficult for me. This group of players got me to a position where, as trite as this will sound, I wore an England shirt and didn’t feel like I should cover it under a jacket. For me, it represented those players. What they stand for. What they believe in. The scenes on Sunday outside, and regrettably flooding inside, the stadium made me feel quite ill. In fact, thinking about the fact that this is the image a lot of people will be left with when they think of the English supporters at this tournament, and how completely it contrasts with the English players and how they conduct themselves … it still makes me feel ill. Regardless of the fact that this is a minority, this group have left an indelible, unedifying, disgraceful mark on this tournament, and regrettably England’s participation in it. I can only imagine how let down the players and staff will feel when they see these images of violence and destruction of property. Not that the perpetrators of those acts will care. Seeing the horrendous racial abuse Sancho, Saka and Rashford received the morning after further compounds the acrid taste left in my mouth. Sadly, this is all too common place, and for many neutrals this will be what they think of England fans at this tournament, and this will remain until it is proven otherwise.
So, back to the original question – why am I feeling disappointed? Is it because England came within touching distance of glory? Yes, I can’t hide that. It is made worse by the fact that the final penalty taker was Saka, a player I have nothing but love for. Football was within touching distance of boarding the flight home but, unlike the hordes of Neanderthal-like morons storming Wembley on Sunday, it didn’t make it through security. The crushing part of it is this – we didn’t deserve it. The players who represent England do not, sadly, represent the England we saw on Sunday and in the aftermath. Sadder still is that an England victory would only have served to paper over the cracks that defeat only brings a greater spotlight upon. Domestic violence, racist abuse, destruction of property – all are endemic in certain sections of football fandom, as they are in wider society. Harry Kane holding the trophy aloft would’ve been glorious, GOD wouldn’t it have been amazing. But those problems would still exist, and all it would take would be the next tournament exit, or the next time a black player is deemed to have made a mistake, for the vitriol and hate to boil over once more.
I am proud of the English national team who I will continue to support, on and off the pitch. They deserved to win the Euros, and all the glory and adulation that comes with it. I’m not sure whether England deserves it though.