I didn’t write Fever Pitch. Nick Hornby did. It’s rather good actually. Not as good as About A Boy (‘are we having duck?’) but a decent read. I recommend it. What I’m trying to say is that meandering pieces about the beautiful game aren’t my thing. In fact, I’m not that keen on football at all.
Even when you could watch it on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon, I don’t remember professional football being a huge part of family life. I learnt all the words to the Anfield Rap in 1988, in an effort to impress one of my siblings, and we occasionally played football in the garden (jumpers for goalposts and all that) but I was always in goal.
I dabbled with it a bit more in my teens, like most kids do, to fit in with the crowd. For a while I had quite a lot of Leicester City branded clothing, and, when Walkers were still their shirt sponsor, spent several notable years dressed as a packet of cheese and onion crisps.
But the fact that England have just delivered their worst performance in a World Cup finals since 1958 holds no particular emotional significance for me. I’d struggle to name anyone much in the squad, in fact. Even the goalie, although I recognise him from the Head and Shoulders advert.
I don’t particularly like what football does to the people of this country either. Normally rational, decent friends of mine start getting quite sweary on Facebook, and it becomes very difficult to establish which pubs are showing the matches, and which are hosting BNP meetings (are we meant to call them ‘Britain First’ now? I’ve lost track).
But I join in, in a light-hearted fashion, feigning some sort of interest and participating in the sweepstake at work (admittedly I drew Brazil this year, which suddenly made it considerably more enjoyable). I do this, because England’s semi-final loss against West Germany in Italia ’90 was one of the formative moments of my childhood.
For a start, the England team that year had a great song. As we’ve already established (see: ‘Anfield Rap‘), I was a sucker for a good song. World In Motion remains, in my view, the best football song of all time (I mean, I like Three Lions, but it hasn’t got ‘Arrividerci’ in it).
It also had a great mascot. (Exhibit A). The mascot was basically a load of Tetris bricks with a football for a head. I was, at the time, desperate to own a Gameboy. I was hooked. (I have also literally JUST realised these bricks formed the component parts of the Italian flag. Oh the shame).
To tell you the truth, I can remember nothing of the group stages. Wikipedia tells me that England topped the group with one win (against Egypt) and two draws (Ireland and the Netherlands), so I imagine things weren’t looking hopeful. Apparently it took extra time to get past Belgium with a one-nil win in the last sixteen, so maybe the rose tinted glasses through which I see this tournament have much to do with the fact that I didn’t actually watch any of it until the quarter final against Cameroon.
I say ‘watched it’. I didn’t, in fact, watch the quarter final. Mum and dad had chosen the day of England’s world cup quarter final to go and visit some family friends who lived about a 90 minute drive away in Surrey. As an nine year old, I remember thinking it odd that my normally sociable older brothers, then 17 and 19, didn’t come with us. As we got in the car to come home, dad put the radio on, and I realised why…
There’s a quote in the film, The History Boys, that I’m rather fond of. Daykin is talking to Mr Irwin about moments when history ‘rattles over the points’ – and small, seemingly insignificant factors from the past turn out to have had massive impact on the present (‘If Halifax had had better teeth, we might’ve lost the war’). England’s game against Cameroon went to extra time, and I might’ve made it back to watch my hero Lineker’s penalty put England through to a World Cup semi-final for the first (and so far only) time in my life, had we not had to stop on the way home so I could be car-sick into a window cleaner’s bucket outside the Happy Eater at Broadbridge Heath.
And so that semi-final, that pivotal moment, that game which taught me so much about hope, and disappointment, was the first and only game of the entire tournament that I saw live.
I could recount every moment of that game. Tell you about the flag I made, about how many times I replayed West Germany’s first goal in my head, about how much I loved Gary Lineker when he scored that equaliser in the 80th minute. But all you really need to know is that after extra time and penalties, when not even the genius that was Peter Shilton could save us, I went to the downstairs toilet, locked the door, and cried my eyes out.
At that moment, I needed to be alone. Because in a house full of people, I was the only one who had really thought we were going to do it. I was too young to be cynical. Hadn’t yet learned to expect disappointment. I had hope. Real hope. With a tinge of expectation. Based on nothing more scientific than childish optimism and a cheesy song by New Order.
So yes, England have finished the group stage with one point. Yes, they were rubbish. But if you’ve got small people in your life, remember that learning to deal with disappointment is nowhere near as important as learning the value of hope.
Chin up. It’s only four years to the next one.