Thursday, 12 June 2014

The difficulty in supporting England

The World Cup is here. The four yearly jamboree of FIFA freeloading, in your face sponsorship from companies that show little interest in football for the other eleven months of the year and rampant patriotism demonstrated with St George's flags on houses, faces and over priced tat that wouldn't ordinarily be bought. 

In the midst of all the nonsense, bandwagon jumping and blather there is a football tournament. A colourful, exciting and fascinating one at that. And one that I love to watch. From my earliest memories of the wonderful free flowing football of Brazil, Tardelli's goal celebration and the Scumacher foul on Battiston in Spain 1982. 

Via the Hand of God, the free flying boot of Massing as it scythed down Cannigia, one fateful night in Turin, Houghton versus Italy, the French excelling on home soil in 98, Seaman lobbed by Ronaldinho over a pub breakfast, the colourful emergence of Africa, the cynicism of Suarez. World Cups bookmark my life and instil permanent memories of places, people and times. 

Alongside that is the archive footage, seen initially in programmes like 100 Great Sporting Moments, showing footage as thrilling as that of Brazil in 1970, as shocking as the Battle of Santiago and as bewildering as the Zaire wall in 1974. Then there were the official films - I remember seeing G'ole! in the Gaumont Cinema in Sheffield. 

All knowledge enhanced by absorbing myself in Ladybird books, Panini albums and any books or magazine previews/reviews I could afford. The stadia, the cities and more importantly a World of players, at one time largely unknown, now recognisable and in one place.

In all bar one of these tournaments I have watched England have played a part. Sometimes major, sometimes minor. Watching the World Cup for me is about much more than national fervour, it is a feast of football styles to be savoured and absorbed, and over time my support of our national team has been on the wane.

I used to enjoy supporting my country. There used to be something special about watching England. That has been diluted by hangers on and the new football experts, that fill the pub with badly masked ignorance of the game and wider society. Supporting a country, not a team. Supporting a country, the football a by product. An excuse to be angry. An excuse for a fight.

At one time England were accessible to the fans. Matches taken around the country whilst the inaccessible, soulless bowl of Wembley was rebuilt to be filled with day tripping fans and a tuneless band creating artificial "atmosphere" and widespread annoyance. Matches are now played on Tuesday and Friday nights, for fans within the M25, unless you can afford the time off, the petrol, the tickets and the exorbitant Wembley experience. England South if you like.

Watching England as they toured the North and Midlands was largely a pleasurable experience. The joy I felt in the Old Trafford stands as Beckham struck home the perfect free kick in the last minute versus Greece is up there with my favourite moments in a football ground. But at times it was also an uncomfortable experience. 

Watching England put four past a poor Paraguay with my knees tucked under my chin at Anfield. Discomfort of a different kind as a large number of England supporters around me belted out "I'd rather be a Paki than a Turk" as we beat, not Turkey, but Liechtenstein at Old Trafford. Discomfort and disgust. I didn't want part of this "support". 

Alongside a racist undercurrent in the stands, the players became dislikable, fuelled by greed, ego and misplaced self belief. This led to behaviours and attitudes that I couldn't abide, never mind connect with. For some players, self-promotion was a bigger priority than their team's performance. All about the brand and image.

Then there was the Premier League, put in place to improve the quality of the national side, but only detrimental. Without a care. Eager not to dilute the brand, but "eager to help" by helping themselves through initiatives like the Elite Player Performance Plan. A mask of doing it for the national good barely hiding the dirty truth. 

A national team representing a Football Association, who have become - and who would have thought this possible - an even more spineless and out of touch body. Killing off, by long term euthanasia, their prestige cup competition. Inconsistent in their treatment of clubs and misdemeanours. Impotent against the monster they've created. Proposing a League Three to incorporate Premier League B teams that no fan I know wants or believes necessary.

This wasn't my England. This isn't a team whose organisers do right by me or my club.

This year it feels slightly different. England have a coach who I like, a coach who I want to succeed, one who isn't an overseas mercenary pepping up a retirement plan. I want him to succeed if only to stick two fingers up at critics who have a downer on him since day one, suggesting he was an uninspiring and under qualified selection. Boring. Yet they would prefer Harry Redknapp - a personality manager but with a relatively empty trophy cabinet whose only successes have come from financial excesses that could have killed clubs and very nearly did.

England's chances are being played down by a media that seem to have slipped unconsciously into recognising the reality, rather than their usual dream world of expectation and hype. 

The players are different, only Gerrard and Lampard remain of a seemingly untouchable, undroppable generation, who failed time and again on an international stage. A major finals without Ferdinand and Terry is a welcome change for me. 

In Phil Jagielka there is a player I saw develop over 6/7 years at my club. A player who we said would play for England, not quite knowing where or when as he played, centre back, right back, central midfield, right midfield and even pulled on the goalkeeper's gloves whilst a Blade. A player I can associate with. A player with grounding, without ego.
Alongside him another player who I have seen pull on my club's shirt, albeit for just a loan spell, in Gary Cahill - a local lad from Dronfield. If Kyle Walker had been fit there would have been one more.

There are the players who would have struggled to establish themselves with previous coaches, but show how players can still develop outside the Premier League - Ricky Lambert for example. And the exciting young talent picked on form and game changing capability - Sterling, Barkley, Oxlade Chamberlain.

Success for England partially vindicates the current system of player development, with many starting out at teams outside the Premier League and several others having benefited from loan spells in the Championship and League One. Alongside recent success at the Under 17 European Championships, there would be compelling arguments forming against recent FA proposals. 

I will support England of course, they are more "my England" than any national team of recent years. But alongside it I will enjoy watching Belgium - at a first major finals since the days of Scifo, Vercauteren et al. I will be fascinated by the performance of the "lesser" South American teams in conditions that will help, whilst enjoying the scything front play from Sabella's Argentina.

A United View may be a little quiet for the next month or so. It will be ensconced in Brazil 2014. If anything happens at Bramall Lane I will be on it. But with a few posts drafted I will be back with an avalanche of thoughts and opinion in July. Enjoy the World Cup; I will. Oh, and come on Roy's Boys. 

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