I’ve watched England all my life. My earliest memory is collecting Panini Stickers for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. These sticker albums were all the rage, with packs flying off the shelves and a busy market of “swapsies” in the primary school playground as we all set about trying to complete our collections. Nobody I knew ever did! Although I don’t remember much about the tournament itself (I was seven!), I do remember being very happy about getting the Kevin Keegan sticker in my England page…
The 1986 World Cup is much clearer in my memory. I remember the injustice of Maradona’s handball goal, sending us crashing out in the quarter finals. I remember Italia ’90 too, when Chris Waddle’s penalty miss sent us out at the semi-final stage.
Summer 1996 gave me the tournament that I will never forget. I was 21 years old, and I had just finished my final exams at university. I was waiting around for my friends to finish theirs, before we all headed off for a holiday in France together to celebrate the end of three years at university. The sun was shining, Britpop was at its height, and we had the Euros on home soil.
Criticism of the team was rife before the tournament, but it soon turned round on a tidal wave of national expectation. Although we thrashed the Netherlands 4-1, the game of the tournament for me was England vs Scotland. There was so much riding on the match, with a lot of criticism in the press counterbalanced by a rising tide of national expectation. Shearer settled nerves early on, and keeper David Seaman pulled off a magnificent penalty save – but it was Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne’s sublime bit of skill just on the edge of the Scottish penalty area which propelled us all to believe that maybe, just maybe, this was our year.
Of course, it wasn’t to be. Gazza’s outstretched foot was just a whisker away from converting a Shearer cross into a golden goal in extra time of the semi final, but it finished goalless. Current England manager Gareth Southgate’s agonising penalty miss sent us crashing out and the dream was over.
Michael Owen provided the moment of the tournament for me in 1998. Aged just 18, his pace terrified opposing defenders. He ripped through Argentina to score a stunner in the last 16 of the World Cup, before we went out, yet again, on penalties.
It’s a familiar pattern. You start the tournament feeling realistic: there are much better teams in the draw. We don’t really stand a chance. But then the players step on to the pitch, and you hear the national anthem. They string a few passes together. The keeper makes a decent save. There’s a moment of brilliance, the ball is in the back of the net, and you’re up off the sofa yelling in excitement. You start to believe…this could be our moment. This could be it. We could actually win this. Until – usually – we don’t.
Now we’re back on home soil again. In the topsy-turvy world that we currently inhabit, the 2020 Euros are being played all across the continent…in 2021. We were lucky enough to go to Wembley to watch a qualifier (5-0 against Bulgaria), so we’re fully invested! We’ve got the wall chart up. We’ve drawn our teams in the sweepstake (I’ve got Spain…), dusted off the St George’s flags and plotted out the various routes to the final. Could this be our year?
Gareth Southgate is the man of the moment. I’ve been impressed by his calm, controlled approach to the task. He doesn’t listen to the thousands of armchair pundits across the land, cursing him for picking Tripper at left back and questioning Sterling’s inclusion in the team given his poor club form this year. He assesses the situation in front of him, and makes the call that he thinks is right. He proved, in the 2018 World Cup, that he knows what he is doing. He can lead a team through a major tournament and the team are with him.
His beautifully written “Dear England” shows that he knows that the national team is about much more than football. He said: “the result is just a small part of it. When England play, there’s much more at stake than that. It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever…I think about all the young kids who will be watching this summer, filling out their first wall charts. No matter what happens, I just hope that their parents, teachers and club managers will turn to them and say, “Look. That’s the way to represent your country. That’s what England is about. That is what’s possible.”
On Sunday, against Croatia, in a re-match against the team that knocked us out of the World Cup in 2018, on a gloriously sunny afternoon, at Wembley Stadium with 22,500 actual fans in the stands, his players showed us what’s possible. Kalvin Phillips was a tremendous presence, finding Raheem Sterling to set us on our way with a solid 1-0 victory. And so, hope begins to bloom again…
My 21-year-old self still lives on in my 46-year-old body. He still lives the moment of Gazza’s glorious goal against Scotland in 1996. And here we are, in 2021, facing our old rivals at Wembley in the Euros again. Phil Foden has dyed his hair in a Gazza style. Is it too much to hope that he can capture some of his iconic football magic as well?
Euro 2020 (in 2021) gives us all a chance to share in something special, something that brings us all together. We can hope together, celebrate together, enjoy together. If necessary we can commiserate together. But, after what everyone has been through over the past year and a half, I hope that the next month gives us moments to celebrate. Because, whether we win or lose, it’s coming home. You heard it here first.