Italy to Poland via Sky

World Cup 1990.  For me, a summer without exams.   Shilton, Butcher, Gazza and Lineker my companions for the summer.  Along with Des and Luciano, obviously.

What would eventually become the post-Sky football baby would be conceived that summer.  But before the tournament kicked off, football in England was not really regarded by the public as the beautiful game.

This was an England haunted by memories of recent tragedies – Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford.  Haunted my memories of eighties hooliganism.  Spectators were not yet consumers – they were to be tolerated, not encouraged.  It was not trendy to be an England supporter.

I remember wearing (an admittedly very ill-thought through) t-shirt to school in July 1990, emblazoned with the large slogan “England Expects”.  Which met with ridicule from most of my class-mates and teachers, not yet caught up in the drug that would become Italia 90.  A braver friend wore a t-shirt with the British Bulldog on the front.  Quite what we thought we looked like I’m not sure – probably what we were – naïve school-kids mock-pretending we wished we were out in Italy with “our boys”.

Those who look back on the tournament without rose-tinted spectacles will remember that the tournament didn’t catch alight in the group stages.  Two draws and a dull, oh so dull, 1-0 win over Egypt just about saw England through from a difficult group.  It wasn’t pretty and Gazza-mania was some way off.  Bloody hell, it was Mark Wright, a central defender (oh okay, sweeper if you insist), who scored the scruffy winner against Egypt which tells its own story. 

But then Gascoigne found Platt on the edge of the Belgian penalty area, Platt turned, volleyed and not only scored but also captured the imagination of a hitherto reluctant nation.  Then came Cameroon, the team of the tournament, the Indomitable Lions of Africa.  A game England sought to throw away before a typically English turnaround.  Think Sweden 2012 for Cameroon 1990.  By now the nation was hooked.  And then of course came Germany.  Three memories from that game – Lineker (or more accurately, Lin-e-keeeeerrrrrrrrr); tears; and penalties. 

Not only was the nation hooked, the nation’s emotion was drained and we all empathised with the players and the previously scorned manager, Bobby Robson.  Suddenly my t-shirt didn’t look quite so stupid and was not the subject of so much ridicule.

A new breed of football fan was almost born, the birth process complete when Nick Hornby penned his excellent Fever Pitch.  A book which combined the backstreets of North London with an education at Cambridge.  Hornby’s message was simple – it was okay to be educated, middle class and a genuine football fan.

Italia 90 and Hornby eventually led to the Sky-ification of football.  The consumerisation of the national sport for better (for the most part), for worse (for a significant part).  We all became England fans.  Car stickers, flags in the window, replica shirts, sparkly face-painted mini-St Georges and so on.  It was not just okay to support England, it was the thing to do.  The traditional core English support must have wondered where all these new fans had come from.

We all hated Graham Taylor for failing to allow us to enjoy the magic of Italia 90 again in 1994.  We all sang Three Lions with Skinner and Baddiel.  We all went through the pain of the golden generation failing to deliver in the noughties.

Until somehow we realised we were rubbish.  Steve Mcclaren helped with that as did an eventual inability of the general public to empathise any longer with an over-paid, over-arrogant, under-delivering golden generation. 

We didn’t even get Our Arry to take us to Poland.  We had to make do with the man the tabloid press tastefully called Woy (© The Sun).  We realised we were rubbish.  No car stickers, flags, face paint for this tournament.  Only the hard core support, a few thousand making it out to eastern Europe, the core fan-base that were out there on the beaches before David Platt made it possible for the above transformation to take place.  Not much discussion at work, on the train, amongst friends.  Euro 2012 was not the water cooler conversation tournament.

Until now.  Until against some expectations we have performed slightly better than expected.  Got out of the group.  And you know what, apparently Italy and Spain don’t even look all that this time round.  We’re organised, Carroll can put it about a bit, Rooney is up for it, a bit of St Georges flag, 4-4-2, up and at them, God Save The Queen, bring home the trophy, here come the Olympics, this used to be an Empire you know.

So it’s okay to support England again.  Cast aside the pre-tournament cynicsm.  Dust-off your jubilee bunting.  Knock-out football is on the way this weekend.  Get ready for over-inflated expectation raising, too much hyperbole and a BIG MATCH.  More importantly get ready for the usual script – we know how it goes.  A twist, a turn, but the same outcome, whether this weekend or later on.  But it doesn’t matter.  We’re all England fans again.  And it is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Come on Ingerland.


A postscript: a small confession,  I wrote most of this before the England v Ukraine match on the train home from work.  I’m glad my prediction came to pass as that would have been 30 minutes of my life I’d never have got back.  Still, it beats looking out of the window.