Through Gritted Teeth #32: England

by Shaughan McGuigan

Growing up in a football daft Scottish family in the early 1980s meant three important messages were imparted into my youthful and impressionable mind. Firstly, Kenny Dalglish was the best striker in Europe; secondly, Charlie Nicholas could be if he trained with the same degree of enthusiasm that he seemed to put into shopping for earrings; and lastly, when it came to international football, England were the bad guys.

It may have taken me quarter of a century but I’ve come to realise that only the first two lessons I received back then were actually accurate. England aren’t actually that bad. There. I’ve said it. Through teeth that are not just gritted but clamped shut, but I believe it nonetheless.

It’s easy to see why England got such a bad reputation in the 80s and early 90s. On a seemingly biannual basis the hooligan element of their travelling support seemed obsessed with proving that white plastic chairs were indestructible, lobbing them at locals, police and each other in whichever local city was unfortunate enough to be hosting the national team during the World Cup or European Championships. Despite this, the theory trotted out by managers and pundits was that a major tournament without England just wouldn’t be the same. Of course, this was correct as it would be less violent, safer and more enjoyable for any other set of supporters who happened to be drawn in the same group as them. How could anyone not dislike this side and their hordes of chair-bothering hoodlums?

As for the players, they were just, well, too English. There is a certain type of attribute that English fans seem to demand from their players, especially their defenders. Although it’s hard to define it would seem to involve a kind of tub thumping, Three Lions On The Shirt, bulldog spirit attitude that was exemplified by the likes of Stuart Pearce, Terry Butcher and Bryan Robson. These players weren’t just expected to play for the team, they went that extra mile to sweat blood and tears for Queen and Country. Literally in Butcher’s case, who finished the infamous match in Stockholm in 1989 looking more like an extra from a Saw film than a centre half. The picture of him celebrating the 0 0 draw, drenched in blood with an almost demonic look about him, epitomised the very English sense of superiority, of triumph in adversity.

To anyone outside of England, however, this “1966 and all that” sense of dogged pride doesn’t translate well, and by the time it reaches the other countries of the UK it’s turned into a peculiar kind of arrogance, especially when it’s being rammed down our throats by the English-based media.

For me, the biggest reason I found it hard to warm to the English side was more to do with the performances of the English journalists and pundits who seemed to be unable to comment on anything without either throwing in a reference to Bobby Moore and 1966 or simply making England the centre of the footballing universe, regularly introducing England’s first match of a competition with a lines such as “now the tournament really begins”, no matter how many days into it we may be.

The print media wasn’t much better. Every time a tournament came around it seemed to turn into a hyperbolic and at times xenophobic beast, loudly proclaiming that the England players and management team weren’t just going there to enjoy it, they were going to bring the trophy “home”. To a Scotsman there seemed something hugely satisfying to watch the newspapers crucify the players despite the fact all they’d done was make the journalists look silly for the pretentious claims they’d made in the first place.

Disliking the England team was easy, in fact I enjoyed it. Like the playground bully being beaten in a fight, any exit from a tournament, brought as much jubilation to the streets of Edinburgh and Aberdeen than it did in Buenos Aires or Munich. Then in 2006 came my epiphany. As England lurched towards the exit door by the almost inevitable method of penalties against Portugal I had what an alcoholic would describe as a moment of clarity (although, as I was drunk at the time, that isn’t the best description).

I realised that whether we like it or not England and Scotland are pretty much the same, and even at a footballing level the two nations have a lot in common. Look at how we both tend to be eliminated from tournaments for starters. For Scotland (when we used to qualify) it became the norm to be associated with the wearying description of glorious failures. Time and again we’d lose out in heartbreaking fashion, either on goal difference or because we’d beaten good sides such as Sweden and the Netherlands but lost to perceived weaker nations like Costa Rica.

England have simply taken this to a new level, their exits may be a few rounds further on than Scotland’s but they’ve turned glorious failure into an art form. Defeats snatched from the jaws of victory against West Germany in 1990, then the unified nation in 1996, followed by penalty defeats to Argentina in 1998, and Portugal twice in 2004 and 2006. After the galling times I’ve had following Scotland, it was hard not to feel some sympathy towards players and fans who are put through the emotional wringer so often.

As for the oft mentioned victory in 1966, well let’s face it, if Scotland had won it that year we wouldn’t just be mentioning it to this day we’d still be celebrating it. The Daily Record would probably be trying to shoehorn the fact onto a page 11 story about cats while campaigning for all Scottish towns to erect a statue of Denis Law lifting the Jules Rimet trophy. Even the broadcasting of the tournaments are less England-centric, with most panels of experts more reflective of football as a global game. Marcel Desailly, Leonardo, Clarence Seedorf and Jürgen Klinsmann all gave a great insight into the last world cup without feeling the need to pontificate on what the England squad should be having for breakfast.

As for Butcher, Pearce and the other players whose obvious pride in pulling on the Three Lions shirt led to them being labeled Lionhearts or whatever other jingoistic nickname that the press could think of, well, Scotland indulge in that too, quite happily bestowing the term Braveheart on anyone who pulls on the dark blue and hasn’t had a hair cut recently.

English arrogance? Even that’s a bit rich considering there was an open top bus journey for Scotland’s 1978 world cup team before they left for Argentina. In an interview before that tournament Ally McLeod was asked what he planned on doing after the world cup was over, retain it he answered. A reply that looked a bit foolish after a defeat to Peru and a draw with mighty Iran ensured another first round exit. England may like to place their team on an exalted perch but it’s a crime Scotland have been just as guilty of in the past.

Even the hooliganism, for so long labeled the English disease in the 80s and 90s was just as common place amongst Scottish fans in the 1970s. Thankfully, both sets of fans are now more renowned for the vociferous but well-behaved atmosphere that they bring to matches both home and away.

Although my teeth may gnash when I say that England are by a fair margin Britain’s best, we’re not so different in many other ways when it comes to being patriotic about our national teams. I doubt I’ll cheer the next time Wayne Rooney grabs a late winner and I might even laugh if John Terry is at fault in a penalty shoot out, but whatever the result, I’m comfortable at last in saying either congratulations or hard luck.

Shaughan writes for One Nil Up In Munich and the official Raith Rovers website, and has contributed to The Away End and In Bed With Maradona. Question his patriotism: @ShaughanM.

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