When I was a kid I used to get really excited about England, so much so that when Geoff Hurst got our equalizer against Germany in the World Cup Final I hurtled out of the tent where we were staying for our summer holiday and raced round the outside, only to trip over a guy-rope and bite the dust very rapidly. Maybe that bang on the head knocked all my enthusiasm out of me because in contrast, a couple of Wednesday evenings ago I was vaguely looking forward to listening to the Croatia match on Radio 5 but when I switched it on at 7.45 I discovered that I’d got the time wrong and only heard the final dreary minute or so. I laughed and when I heard the score I didn’t really feel anything. That sums up my feelings, or the virtual lack of them, towards our national team. While I identify very strongly with Sunderland A.F.C., I can take or leave the national side. If they win, I experience a bit of an inner glow but if they lose, I don’t care.
When I was in my later teens it was probably because England played at Wembley, and London seemed a long way away, that the side didn’t make much of a connection with me. Now, even though I’ve lived in London for most of my life, that feeling has never gone away. Wembley is less than an hour away from where I’m typing this now but the place means little to me, apart of course from my memories of 5th May 1973. I’ve been to several internationals there and it was always an okay night-out but there wasn’t much atmosphere and it didn’t do much for me. I also saw Bowie’s ‘Glass Spider’ tour there, which put me off stadium gigs for life.
I think the major reason for my disinterest has been the almost total lack of Sunderland players in the England side in the forty-odd years that I’ve been following football. Phillips, McCann and Gray had a smattering of appearances between them at the beginning of Sven’s regime, when everybody and his cat was having a run-out, but apart from that we have to go back to the Seventies/early Eighties when members of our cup-winning team, Dennis Tueart (6 caps) and Dave Watson (65), were capped, though all of Tueart’s and the majority of Watson’s didn’t come till after they’d left Sunderland.
It may well be due to geography again, but in fact I’ve always been a bit partial to Scotland – ever since I saw a photo of Jim Baxter sending Gordon Banks the wrong way with a penalty at Wembley in 1963. When Slim Jim became a Sunderland player two years later this feeling was strengthened. I used to enjoy socializing with the Tartan Army when they came down to London for the biennial match with England and even when they were hammered 5-1 in 1975 the crowd I was with were in high spirits as we stood on the tables in a bierkeller singing our heads off. Now that they’re finally emerging from a long period of underachievement I’m finding my liking for them rekindling. The Scottish side always had at least one nippy little winger who made the game come alive every time he got the ball and Ross Wallace is very much in that mould. I could always take or leave Wales but I’ve taken an interest in Ireland, especially since a number of Sunderland players began to get regular run-outs in the side and we’ve morphed into Sundireland.
In the summer I watched all the England World Cup matches crowded London pubs and it felt a bit strange to be surrounded by so many flag-draped enthusiastic fans while I wasn’t feeling very involved myself. Sure I wanted us to win but it was more with my head than with my heart. The best game for me was the one against Trinidad because my mate and I enjoyed giving our team a good slagging. I was chatting to an American guy in a bar near Carnaby Street as we watched England’s exit against Portugal and I thought we got as far as we deserved to go. There are undoubtedly some great players in the England side, Joe Cole especially impressed, but I thought we were weak up front and the only time we looked good was in the Sweden game, and that was intermittently. I know Crouch has scored a lot of goals recently but I can’t see him scoring many against decent teams, such as Croatia. All the pre-tournament hype suggesting that we were serious contenders to win the World Cup was ridiculous and only set up the credulous for a painful fall.
I feel sorry for Steve McLaren or any other English manager of the England team as they’re in a virtually no-win situation. The press are out to crucify him already. Sven can bugger off to another lucrative contract abroad with pockets full of swag and leave it all behind him but Steve can’t do that. I wish him well but I don’t have any high hopes of success in the near future as many other sides have better skills and are tactically superior. In the World Cup I loved the way teams like France and Brazil strolled around with the ball and didn’t feel the urge to get rid of it as soon as possible like we usually do. Anyway, despite all the recent ballyhoo, Croatia are a good team and it’s no big disgrace to lose a match to them. The Macedonia game was another matter though.
Maybe if Ben Alnwick shapes up he’ll get a chance at the England goalkeeper’s slot but apart from him I can’t see any of our current squad getting a senior cap in a hurry. I’d like to become an England fan but till now at any rate I remain unconvinced.
Happy Diwali. Happy Eid.