Ticket To Ride

As England swept to a first World Cup semi-final for the first time in 28 years and only the third time ever, anyone that spends any sort of dwelling time on the internets would have bombarded with #ItsComingHome memes, pictures of England shirted men jumping through bus shelters and videos of pints of beer being lobbed into the air, like graduates tossing their mortarboards skywards.

I was only 6 years old during Italia 90, but perfectly remember the Britpop soundtracked euphoria of Euro 96, which had that rare quality of feeling era defining even as it was unfolding. Maybe it is a trick of memory, but none of the hindsight testimonials of that summer feel exaggerated or a product of over-attributed nostalgia.

Of course, Euro 96 had extra resonance for an Arsenal supporting England fan because David Seaman emerged as a national hero. I vividly remember one of my sisters, who has no interest in football whatsoever, phoning me straight after the penalty shootout victory against Spain and saying, “I love that goalkeeper of yours.”

Only 5 Arsenal players featured at Euro 96 and one of them, Glen Helder, didn’t kick a ball at the tournament and, indeed, left Arsenal shortly after it had finished. The fallout of England’s penalty shootout loss to Germany forced Tony Adams to face up to his demons, as he responded to defeat through the crutch of alcohol.

There is simply no denying that watching your national side can feel special when there is prominent involvement from your club. As much as many of us like to put club tribalism to one side during an international tournament, I’m not convinced it totally deserts you. Of course, I can only speak for myself and am not licensed to tell other people how they feel.

So we come to the most successful England team of a generation. Plenty of thinkpieces have been written about how this England side has a diversity and a youthfulness that appeals to a country experiencing deep political divisions. I happen to think some of it is a little overwrought, if Mateus Uribe’s penalty had been an inch lower, Harry Maguire would not suddenly be seen as a nation’s great uniting force.

The sensitive, intelligent approach of Gareth Southgate and the work that England’s PR team have done have certainly united the country behind the national team. That does not simply feel like a product of England advancing, I think that sense of unity emanates from the beginning of the World Cup. This squad seems relatively unburdened by divisive characters like John Terry and Wayne Rooney.

Yet there are some potentially uncomfortable truths to this England squad for an Arsenal fan. Firstly, it is distinctly lacking in Arsenal representation. Danny Welbeck is very much a squad player, not quite the equal of the third choice goalkeeper, but not far off and he might well be leaving the club this summer anyway given his contract situation. The same was true of England’s World Cup squad in 1990, who also reached the semi-finals.

Tony Adams was surprisingly omitted from the squad. David Seaman was the third choice goalkeeper, but hadn’t yet joined the club. In 1966, England’s World Cup winning squad had a single Gunner, but George Eastham was an unused substitute in every match. He didn’t even receive a winners’ medal until 2009.

Personally, I find England slightly easier to watch when there are no Arsenal players involved. It allows me to put my club bias to one side a little and I don’t fret pointlessly about one of ‘my’ players being ‘blamed’ for some perceived failure. England World Cup games also attract quite a lot of casual fans and when I am exposed to what I consider ill-informed comment about one of ‘my’ boys in earshot at the local pub, I find that an unavoidable sense of superiority and defensiveness kicks in.

The dial on my internal monologue turns to supercilious. “No! No! No! You don’t know what you’re talking about. I do. You don’t understand, I do!” It’s pointless and a little unattractive, which is why I am fine with a lack of Arsenal presence, it allows me to relax and enjoy a little more. I don’t give much of a shit if I am exposed to what I consider to be a bad opinion of Ashley Young or Kieran Trippier.

Most of the people I watch England matches with support lower league teams and enjoy the experience of watching the national team far more, because they do not carry these tribal biases. It also partially explains why the St. George’s flags mounted in stadia overwhelmingly bear the names of football league teams.

So personally, I am fine with the Three Lions not having a little cannon superimposed over them. But the second and probably most significant uncomfortable truth for an English Arsenal fan is that this squad was very Spursy. Its talisman was Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier earned rave reviews for his performances in the tournament, Dele Alli is one of the team’s attacking lynchpins.

Kyle Walker, now of Manchester City, spent eight years at White Hart Lane and even netted a winner in a North London derby. Danny Rose was part of the squad. England even play a bit like Spurs, focusing on forcing turnovers high up the pitch and playing the ball into the channels for Raheem Sterling to chase in an attempt to force opponents to play in areas they don’t want to.

The pawprints of Mauricio Pochettino were all over England’s performance against Colombia, where the team embraced the cynicism and dark arts deployed by his Spurs team. Some Arsenal fans have said that the inherent Spursiness of this England side makes them difficult to back, that no matter how much they fight the impulse, there is a nagging pinch at the nape of their necks when Dele Alli or Harry Kane nets for the Three Lions.

I can’t pretend that it is 100% not a factor for me. I enjoy the World Cup because I like the idea of watching football with a 1 month hiatus from the exhausting tribal squabbling. But it never leaves me completely. That said, I did not find it to be too much of an issue during this tournament because the Premier League felt so thoroughly on the backburner.

And also, like the vast, vast majority of fans in international tournaments, I am totally fairweather when it comes to England. I did not watch all of their World Cup qualifiers, I often forget the friendlies are even happening nowadays. One of my other writing gigs is to cover the Brazilian national side, so it’s not so much a learned or schooled apathy, I am just often busy focusing on other things during international breaks.

The point of this is not to boast. Let’s face it, there is nothing more annoying than someone telling you how much they don’t care about that thing that everyone else cares about. But I have never been to an England game and really only ‘support’ them in any sense in knockout games of tournaments (I missed the Belgium game during the group phase because I was at a concert).

I am a fairweather gloryhunter when it comes to England and I totally own it. There is a lot of faux moralising when it comes to exactly how to be a football fan, how much is enough celebration in a particular scenario, what you have to do to be perceived as a ‘proper fan’ and it’s all pretty tiresome and irrelevant. I saw quite a few disparaging tweets towards Arsenal fans who admitted to feeling the lingering spectre of ‘Spursiness’ in this England side.

Personally, I don’t think it’s cool to try to dictate people’s gut instincts to them. You can’t really tell someone to turn the tap off on how they feel. I am sure Spurs fans will have enjoyed this England side significantly more because of the strong Tottenham presence- I would in their position. I gloried in David Seaman’s hero status back in 1996.

Ultimately though, I think I find the tribalism all a bit irrelevant during the summer, when the club focus is dimmed a little. Maybe that partially explains my indifference to qualifiers, which feel more like an interruption. I found it easy to put to one side this summer and I really enjoyed the feel of a united country, especially given the deep political divisions of the last few years.

My experience of the tournament was that England fans had hope without the inflection of expectation or entitlement, led by a manager defined by his humility. In my experience people were united and happy to enjoy the ride. I found that easy to enjoy and a refreshing pallet cleanser for the season ahead.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.