ON the eve of England’s first game of the World Cup, it is time to hold my hands up. The Hand of God, Gazza’s tears, Emile Heskey in general – it’s all my fault.
I’m not normally a superstitious person. True, I do tend to put my right shoe on before the left, never walk past a magpie without saluting it and have a habit of insisting my car’s temperature control is always set on an even number, but apart from that I regard any belief in supernatural influences as irrational as the next man who refuses to step on the cracks in the pavement.
However, something happens to me every two years (or every four if coaches of the calibre of Graham Taylor or Steve McLaren are put in charge) when England arrive at a major football tournament.
As soon as the plane’s wheels hit the Tarmac, I am turned into a quivering mass of nervous tics and strange rituals, each one a key component in the over-arching aim of keeping England’s footballers in the trophy hunt.
And never before has this been more vital than with this World Cup, where the strength of Group D and my suspicions as to the shortcomings of the Brazilian postal system raise the very real prospect of Roy Hodgson’s squad being home before their postcards.
It dates back to the first World Cup I can remember with any great clarity – Mexico ’86. A Gary Lineker-inspired England were in the quarter finals and holding their own against the might of Maradona’s Argentina.
At half-time, Gary himself popped on to our screens to tell us to keep watching ITV (ironic given the eye-watering sums he pockets from the Beeb these days) and it was as if a lightbulb had been switched on in my head. The reason England were doing well, I realised, was because I had decided to watch the game on ITV rather than the BBC, who were also showing it live. If I just kept it on this channel, we would not only beat Argentina but probably win the whole thing. My mum, however, had other ideas.
“Can we put it on BBC1 please?” she asked when she walked in, just as Gary made way for an Angel Delight advert.
“Er, but Gary Lineker said...”
“BBC1 please,” she insisted, her curious aversion to all things ITV leaving no room for negotiation. And we all know what happened next.
By the time of Italia ‘90, I was lucky enough to have a small portable television in my bedroom. Though England laboured against Ireland in their opening game, I persisted with it and was rewarded with much improved, Gazza-inspired performances which saw England progress to the semi-finals. However, this was when my good luck ritual was fatally undermined. By having to appear in a school play on the night of the Germany game, leading directly to the agony of that penalty shoot-out.
Six years later (the less said the better about Euro ’92 and our dismal failure to qualify for USA ’94), I watched England on another portable, this one owned by my rather eccentric housemate at university. It was famous in our halls of residence for being the only television that had ITV tuned to channel 1. The “1”, he insisted, was in fact an “I” for ITV.
Given Gascoigne’s wonder goal against the Scots, the blitzing of Holland by the Sheringham-Shearer axis and the sort of thoroughly undeserved victory against Spain that our opponents usually enjoyed against us, I, for one, was not complaining.
But then I found myself on holiday with my family, forced to watch the semi-final in a hotel room in Cornwall on a TV with the ITV tuned to channel 3. It was always going to end badly and I duly watched the match with an air of anguished resignation.
When Gareth Southgate tamely trickled his penalty at the goalkeeper and Andreas Moller strutted around Wembley after netting the winning spot kick, I merely nodded. Cornwall had done this.
For France ’98, I ate fish, chips and curry sauce on the eve of England’s first group game against Tunisia – and it worked well enough to persist with. Then the local chippy ran out of curry sauce for the Argentina match. Michael Owen’s wonder goal gave me hope it wasn’t a factor, but in my heart of hearts I knew it was.
Since then I haven’t really had a routine to speak of, which is even worse than breaking a routine that’s working.
So I’d just like to say sorry. Sorry for Beckham’s sending off, sorry for all those penalty shoot-out misses and sorry, most of all, for the last World Cup in its entirety.
This time the plan is stay at home, eating fish, chips and curry sauce, while watching the game on ITV on a television with that channel tuned to channel 1.
If England fail dismally again, you’ll know something has gone wrong and it’s not Wayne, Steven or Roy who’s to blame, but me. After all, that’s surely the only rational explanation for the woeful inability of England’s footballers to secure any meaningful silverware in the last half-century.