It’s almost 7pm and I’m about to watch the first of the World Cup Semi-Finals in Russia 2018. Usually, England are long gone from the tournament by this stage. But this time, unbelievably, we’re still there. Dare we dream?
OK, I know this blog is usually about transgender matters – but it’s my blog, my rules, and if you don’t like it, tough titty, go and do something else instead. Have a wank, put the bins out. I don’t care what. This page is about FOOTBALL!
So, somehow, Gareth Southgate Badger’s brave boys have made the semi-finals. We play Croatia tomorrow night, and I’m feeling like an excited kid. Every time I wake up on match day, it feels like Christmas Day for grown-ups – fewer selection boxes, more beer.
England is one of the biggest names in world football. We won the World Cup in 1966, we invented the fecking game, FFS. As a name, it’s up there with the greats like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, France, Spain et al.
But, more often than not, we’ve been shite! Look at the last World Cup, in 2014. We didn’t even get out of the group. At the Euros, in 2016, we did – but then we lost to pissing Iceland!
And it’s been like that for decades. Before 2014, we had the so-called Golden Generation, made up of massive names – brands – like Beckham, Owen, Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard.
All of them great players for their clubs but, Beckham aside, all of them coming way short when playing for England in the World Cup or Euros. A collection of brilliant players – but no TEAM.
During those Golden Generation days, England fans dared to dream. Surely these massive names would gel eventually? Cars and houses were bedecked in St George’s Flags. But tournament after tournament, they failed to deliver. We were shite.
And we lost five penalty shootouts (six if you include minor tournaments) without winning one.
You need to go back a long way to when we were last a decent team. And I don’t mean 1966. There were some good teams after then.
The Mexico 1986 tournament was the one in which I fell in love with football, watching the likes of Gary Lineker, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle reach the quarter-finals before Maradona’s Hand of God goal broke English hearts.
Four years later – and I literally have goosebumps writing this – was even better. Lineker and Waddle were joined by Gazza, Terry Butcher and (importantly for me as a Derby County fan) Mark Wright and Peter Shilton.
After stuttering in the group stages, we beat Belgium in the last 16 – and then Cameroon in the quarter-finals. They were both thrilling matches and, as with the current tournament, England got better and better with every match.
I’m ashamed to say I never saw the semi-final against West Germany (this was before the Berlin Wall came down!) My mum had asked me months before if I’d join her at some crappy school concert that my sister was in as my dad was working nights.
Not knowing that England would do so well, or even that there was a semi-final that night, I said yes. And then I couldn’t get out of going as the ticket had been paid for, and money was tight.
The school hall was full of (mainly) dads who really didn’t want to be in there. And nobody had the slightest clue what was happening over in Turin. This was before the internet, before mobile phones. The wait for news was agonising.
I remember the exact spot where I found out we’d lost on penalties (for the first time) as my mum and I walked home. I have a lump in my throat as I write this! I was inconsolable, and I have never watched that match – the one with Gazza’s tears.
So Italia 90 was a beautiful tournament. Then things were shite again. We finished bottom of our group in the 1992 Euros in Sweden, and we never even qualified for the World Cup in USA 1994.
And then it was Euro 1996 – the first major tournament in England for 30 years (of hurt). To a backdrop of Three Lions, by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds, we were brilliant again.
Gazza was back, and he was incredible. We had Alan Shearer as our talisman striker and a central defensive partnership of captain Tony Adams and a young Gareth Southgate.
This time, we bossed the group stages, finishing top. After a draw with Switzerland, we beat the old enemy Scotland and then put four past Holland. The football was sublime, and everyone was right behind the team.
Again, there were no websites or apps, but we drank every second of the football from Radio 1, BBC1 and ITV. Helped by the fact that the Euros was staged in England – and all England’s matches were at Wembley – this tournament was absolutely massive, similar to London 2012 was when the Olympics came to town.
England went into the quarter-finals (no round of 16 back then) against a really good Spain side. The only problem for yours truly was that I was on a ferry. I was, ironically, going to Spain with my pals and, because one of them had a flight phobia, we went by coach.
As the match was played, we were stuck on a ferry on the English Channel – and it didn’t have a TV on board anywhere. Different times!
Luckily, yours truly had a little red transistor radio I’d bought for £1, and so my pals and I gathered around that and listened to the match on Radio 5 (or was it Radio 2 back then?) praying that we wouldn’t lose the signal the further we got from Dover.
England were really up against it in that game (again, I’ve still never seen it!) but kept the scores level at 0-0 in 90 minutes and after extra time. Penalties.
It was only our second penalty shootout in history, so we didn’t have the FEAR that we were to develop over the following decades.
My pals and I were joined by loads of other passengers to listen to the penalties – and it was brilliant. Shearer, Platt, Pearce and Gazza. All four went in. No need for a fifth as Spain missed two of theirs.
We were in the semi-finals and it was the first day of our holiday. We felt epic. Best £1 I’d ever spent. Four days later and we faced Germany in our second semi-final in six years.
We went to an English bar in Spain and drank “Lineker litres” of lager. The atmosphere was amazing. We sang Three Lions and other songs for 90 minutes – and another 30 minutes of extra time.
But it was penalties again. 5-5. Then sudden death. Germany scored theirs. 6-5. Step up Gareth Southgate. “The whole of England is with you… Oh, it’s saaaaaaaaved!”
Utter, utter devastation. No dream Wembley final, no chance of winning our second major trophy since 1966, not even a third-place play-off. Game over. It took the shine off the rest of the holiday. We still had a brilliant time – but it was always there in the back of our minds that our arch rivals Germany would be in the final – OUR final.
And then decades of mediocrity with the “golden” boys. There were one or two quarter-finals, but we lost them all, usually on penalties, and we were never the force we were in 1990 or 1996.
Fast-forward to the present. After the disappointment of going out to Iceland in 2016, there was absolutely no expectation of any kind of success in this World Cup. Even the most optimistic pundits said we could reach the quarter-finals at best.
And things started relatively slowly. Yes, we hammered Panama 6-1, and yes, it was brilliant, but Panama are the world football equivalent of the Dog and Duck Sunday league team.
The Tunisia match started well but petered out for the last hour – and we were somewhat fortunate when Harry Kane’s shot hit the back of the net in injury time to grab us a last-gasp winner. And, of course, we lost our final group match to Belgium, even though it was a dead rubber and both sides fielded their squad players.
The defeat meant we finished second in the group but, by doing so, avoided the trickier half of the draw, where lurked the likes of Brazil, Portugal and France.
And, as in 1990, England have got better and better. The Colombia game always felt like England were in control. I felt completely relaxed – until we almost f*cked it up by letting them equalise after 93 minutes. But then the penalty shootout win was beyond ecstasy.
And then the Sweden match was similar. We look so comfortable. Admittedly, the play is a little slow and it’s like watching chess more than football sometimes, but you never get that feeling that England are in danger – unlike most matches for the past 20-odd years – proper nail-biters.
Gareth Southgate has galvanised this young squad of players and he keeps ticking things off his bucket list…
- Get out of a World Cup group for the first time in eight years.
- Win our first World Cup penalty shootout of all time (and first in major tournaments since 1996).
- Qualify for our first World Cup quarter-final for 12 years.
- Qualify for our first World Cup semi-final for 28 years.
And, tomorrow night, he has the chance to qualify for our first World Cup final for 52 years.
It’s absolutely incredible. The country is behind this team like it hasn’t been since 1996. Three Lions is played everywhere and is expected to get to No 1. #itscominghome is everywhere. Hashtags and memes certainly didn’t exist in 1996.
I have asked myself: who does this matter most to? Is it the older generation, middle-aged people like me, or the so-called millennials?
I’m gonna rule out the older folks. They were there in 1966. They’ve seen England win the ultimate trophy – and they’ve loved rubbing it in to those who weren’t even born back then over the ensuing decades.
The millennials, like middle-aged folk, have had to watch their fair share of shite from England, but I reckon they were just too young for most of the tournaments since Euro 1996 to really appreciate just how bad England were.
No, I’m gonna go for my age bracket (I’m a sprightly 44). Unlike the older folk, we’ve never seen England win a major tournament. Like the millennials, we’ve watched lots of shite.
But unlike the millennials, we remember 1990 and 1996, and we appreciate just how crushing it is to watch England lose a semi-final – to get so close and then to have nothing for the next two decades.
Whatever happens tomorrow night, it’s been quite a ride, and something that no right-minded person could have predicted before the tournament started. New heroes have been born to take their place in England folklore alongside Gazza, Lineker, Shearer and, of course, the 1966 squad.
Because we’ve done so well, I think that’s taken the pressure off the players. The Colombia win was a bonus, the Sweden win was a bonus. What a hat-trick it would be if we could defeat Croatia.
England euphoria – whatever your age.