On the train to Sunday’s European Championship final at Wembley, I pre-prepared a piece about why England’s win was so uplifting, sweeter for the tough times over too many of the last 55 years, and particularly the matchday atmospheres after a year of sterile, behind-closed-doors football.
It has been an honour to bear witness to a great tournament, but the morning after the feeling was embarrassment.
Not at the football.
England did not just lose, they lost on penalties having not given the best account of themselves on the field. On Saturday manager Gareth Southgate said finals were not about raising your game, more reaching the level set getting there, and despite a thrilling start his team could not.
Much of the excitement about how good England were overlooked the fact Italy were pretty handy too. They were worthy winners. Defeats happen, you learn from them and they make the good times that much better.
The embarrassment was around those people – none of the words I want to use for them can be printed in a family newspaper – who attached themselves to the team. England’s fans do not deserve them. Writing that is lumping millions of decent, football-loving people with a bunch of absolute morons but they reflect on all of us, even those who detest football.
Arriving at 1pm on matchday, London had a slightly desperate feel. Yearning for England’s first major trophy since 1966 was understandable, but there seemed as big a craving to make up for 15 months of lost partying in one day.
Too many people became a stumbling advert for the damage alcohol can do to brain cells.
This was Euro 2020, so all rules were off. It was too dangerous for 1,200 mainly doubled-vaccinated people to sit in the sea air watching cricket at Scarborough that afternoon, but 66,000 at Wembley? Fine. And there was a lot more than 66,000 there. As we know, Covid-19 does not transmit at G7 summits or high-profile global events with lucrative sponsors.
On the underground hours before kick-off, the one-metre-plus rule became one-centimetre-minus. It was what you expect on public transport closer to kick-off at a big sports event, just with the added jeopardy of a global pandemic. We signed up for it but locals trying to get about before the game approached had not.
Mask-wearing was probably about 50-50 and one man was told to take his off – not aggressively – by a group clearly tripled-vaccinated against the commonsense we are apparently going to rely on from next week. Good luck everyone.
We stress at times like this these are minorities, but it was a big minority.
For the first time in the tournament I made it to Wembley for an England game without hearing “Ten German bombers”. The lyrical laureates ingeniously changed them to Italian bombers. There was still no surrendering to the IRA.
I did not see the worst excesses, instead watching the bottles thrown around Leicester Square and ticketless fans rushing the stadium on the internet. The ticketless came from all over – one the worse for wear, oblivious to where his tube was heading, was from Leeds. To be fair, a friendly group of anti-mask Londoners were happy to help. My experience was mainly head down crunching across Wembley Way’s carpet of broken glass and jagged can edges about three-and-a-half hours before kick-off, trying to dodge airborne beer whilst weaving through the masses.
This trend for throwing beer when goals are scored, one even humoured by sensible Southgate, must be one more reason to put Muslims off supporting their England team. Of more concern was for the safety of children. Many were hoisted onto shoulders, away from the shards but exposed to the odd flying can.
Perhaps the ticketless fans were the bigger problem because inside the ground, whilst there were boos when the Italian national anthem was announced, there were few as it played.
What it was like at full-time as thousands crammed down Wembley Way to queue for a ride home, I could not tell you, sheltered inside listening to press conferences and writing copy, but it did not sound pretty.
England had been fined that week for three separate semi-final incidents of crowd misbehaviour before, it appears, horror stories from Danish fans have been properly looked into. We complain about the hosting of major tournaments passing such a passionate footballing-loving country by – perhaps this is why.
Depressingly predictable was the bile towards the three England players who failed to score in the shoot-out.
Abusing your own players for missing penalties is reprehensible. Abusing a young man in Marcus Rashford who has fought tirelessly for the under-privileged and who, like Jadon Sancho, barely had time to kick the ball after coming on as a substitute, defied belief. Abusing 19-year-old Bukayo Saka, who played so well in this tournament, was disgusting. Bringing skin colour or religion into it was unacceptable – not just from the scum who did it but the companies that allowed them without the checks so many have demanded for so long. That England’s were players and a manager who have shown so much dignity and social responsibility in a difficult 15 months – Rashford is the standard-bearer, not the odd one out – made it so much harder.
This was a brilliant England team, on a footballing and human level, lifting spirits at a wonderful tournament of fantastic atmospheres.
It really would have been preferable to write more about that and not an all-too big a group of individuals with IQs to match their shoe size.