England our England
When Gareth Southgate was appointed England’s manager, a lot of people criticised him for being “too nice”.
He didn’t think he was the right person to lead the team either. He said he wasn’t ready when the post suddenly became available and was only persuaded to do the job temporarily until someone better could be found.
Most of us in England remember Southgate instead as the 26 year old who, as a player, missed a penalty that resulted in us not reaching the final of the European Championship in 1996.
That was the furthest most English people have ever seen England get to in a major competition. And we never saw England get that far again, despite the following decade being our supposed ‘golden generation’ of superstar footballers.
The current England team are definitely not our golden generation. They’re not superstars. I don’t know who they date, what cereals they eat, or pretty much anything that they do off the pitch — apart from campaign on issues they care about to help create a more tolerant, modern English nation. On the pitch, however, most of us had pretty low expectations for the team this year.
Some politicians — and people in the media who have built their career on being outraged — saw this as the opportunity to stir the culture wars.
Some booed them, some vowed not to watch them. One cabinet minister said she sympathised with people booing the team. One MP said he would boycott watching England play this summer. English actor turned politician Lawrence Fox even said this England team makes him embarrassed to be British and he hopes anyone but England wins.
So, at the start of this tournament, Southgate published an essay titled ‘Dear England’ to explain the team’s pride at representing England and what it means to them to be English in the modern world. It was beautifully written.
Dear England | By Gareth Southgate
Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images Dear England, It has been an extremely difficult year. Everyone in this country…
The critics didn’t give up. Some said that Southgate must have had the essay written for him by a savvy PR man. The implicit insinuation is that footballers are too thick to write something like that. As it happens, Southgate’s original career choice was actually journalism — a profession that, unlike football, is still largely closed off to working class people. What really annoyed those critics though is that Southgate and his team were able to speak about England and to England in a way that they could never do.
As far as I can tell from friends and family, his essay was really fucking popular across England. He articulated the English identity that my own son Villem is already learning about.
This England team heard the boos, they read the abuse online, they saw the mocking criticism from high profile politicians and media figures. And you know what they did differently as a result? Nothing. They played on with pride. They are unfuckwithable.
I should point out that clapping fans far outnumber the tiny minority of people who boo — but boos are easier to hear.
That’s the problem with polarisation. Most people are in the middle but the extremes get amplified. Afterall, Lawrence Fox recently ran for London Mayor and — despite dominating the media coverage — only got 2% of the vote, losing his deposit and only narrowly coming ahead of a guy dressed as a bin whose policies included reversing the tube escalators so commuters had to run up them Gladiators-style.
“I have some bad news,” Southgate wrote when addressing the critics. “You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”
This England team has already surpassed all expectations and, as far as I’m concerned, they’ve already won. Even their critics are now pretending they’ve always been fully behind England. Personally, I won’t be any less happy or proud of them if getting to the final is their achievement. I’m glad to have finally seen that happen. Italy would be worthy winners. So whatever happens on Sunday is a bonus.
We sing ‘It’s coming home’ in the continuous tense for a reason. It’s a self-deprecating song about living through failure but with a tiny bit of hope that just maybe one day we could go all the way. Football was invented in England and ‘coming home’ was a reference to England hosting it during that fateful ’96 tournament. But fully understanding the song requires not just understanding the modern English identity — but also a sense of irony.
So I want to say a big shout-out to everyone who supported England from the start of this tournament. And all of you who I watched England with through years and years of disappointment.
And even those of you who have no love for England, I hope you can appreciate what these people have done to overcome their critics and stand up for what they believe in.
They’re good lads. And Southgate is the right man to lead them. Hollywood could not write a more beautiful redemption arc following the disappointment of ’96 and everything this team has been through to get to the final.
And spare a thought for Lee Anderson on Sunday.
He’s the miserable MP who said he’s boycotting the games. Just imagine him peeling back his curtains to see the streets filled with jubilation as he wonders to himself whether, maybe, perhaps, he may have just slightly misread the fucking room. Because this team and everything they represent, this is England.
(PS. I discovered last night that Lee Anderson was born in 1967, just after England last won a major tournament. So maybe him not watching and England doing well just shows that he was the jinx all along!)