Monday, 25 June 2012

England's dreaming ... but why not the rest of us?

Here we are the day after the night before and I'm listening to Gary Lineker on Radio Five Live lamenting another English failure. So it goes. So it always goes. 
I spent this afternoon watching the film One Night in Turin, the documentary about the 1990 World Cup  and it's amazing how familiar some of the echoes between then and now are - most notably in the discussions about England's preference for 4-4-2.
Otherwise, though, everything - football hooliganism, a government in 1990 that was explicitly anti-football, the last time West Germany played in an international competition - has changed. What hasn't changed is that sport and politics go hand and hand.
One Night in Turin is good fun, by the way. It has the advantage of the operatic nature of that World Cup. Not the best in terms of the football but full of great stories. 
You do watch it thinking how did England ever get to that semi-final, of course. Cameroon should have humped them in the quarter final. But then, as I've mentioned before, England were so good in that semi-final, so deserving of going through, you can't help but feel for them at the end of the film. There's some lovely footage of the late Bobby Robson consoling Paul Gascoigne just before the penalty shoot-out, Gazza knowing he won't be playing in the final if England do go through because he'd picked up a second booking. And rather moving footage of Chris Waddle too as he steps up to take a penalty and misses. The camera stays with him, watching as he drifts from disbelief to despair. The fact that West Germany's Lothar Mattheus goes to console him before joining his victorious team-mates speaks well of the German captain.  
It's interesting, though, watching it today particularly. In Scotland this morning the anti-independence campaign was launched probably thankful that England went out last night. This may seem a shallow point but the fact is there is no question that when England play in the World Cup and the Euros the TV coverage is so pro-English that it has an inevitable distancing effect for those of us who are not English. Last night I spent the match moaning that the Republic of Ireland should take back all those caps it gave Mark Lawrenson so boss-eyed was his commentary.
I doubt that's going to change how anyone will vote in a referendum of  course. But it's part of the mood music. And while it's totally understandable that the majority of viewers/listeners/football fans in the UK are English and it's no surprise that the coverage reflects that, it still sometimes feels that the rest of us are stuck on the outside looking through a glass wall. And no one seems to be looking back at us. There is no Scottish or Irish or Welsh equivalent of One Night in Turin. Yes, you might say, that's because none of them have ever reached the semi-final of a World Cup.  I can't argue with that.

But today is the 30th anniversary of Northern Ireland's win over Spain in the 1982 World Cup. If you want to know why that matters to me you can read a piece I wrote in yesterday's Sunday Herald (I'll post it here soon).
It's not an anniversary that has received much coverage elsewhere. Why should it, you might ask again? It was only a group game. That's true. But clearly Northern Ireland is never going to win the World Cup or the Euros. It's conceivable that we might never qualify for the finals again in my lifetime. So it seems like a worthwhile story, especially given the politics in Northern Ireland at the time, just a year after the Hunger Strikes.
The fact is that the football stories we get told for the most part are English stories. Not in books, but on TV and radio and in the newspapers, that tends to be the case.
I wish that wasn't so. I would love to see a documentary about Northern Ireland in Spain in 1982. But then I'd also love to see a documentary that traced German football from the war, or Spanish football. The beautiful game is full of amazing stories. Tell us them all.
I'm happy seeing English stories too, by the way. The fact is England's footballing history over the last 40 years is, in a way, also my history. There's another anniversary coming up tomorrow. It will be 16 years since England were knocked out of Euro '96 by the Germans. On penalties. Four minutes after the last penalty that night my daughter was born.

Friday, 22 June 2012

One night in Valencia

A couple of heads-ups for you. It is almost 30 years since Northern Ireland's glorious victory over Spain in the 1982 World Cup. If you remember watching it - and yes I do - you're probably not a young thing any more. I've written a piece celebrating Gerry Armstrong's winning goal in this year's Sunday Herald. Will link to it asap.

Also just announced yesterday is the Edinburgh Book Festival programme. And I'm appearing alongside the estimable Rodge Glass, author of Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs, which is a top novel by the way. The theme for our event is "When Sporting Dreams Go Sour". Plenty of scope there, I would have thought.
Feel free to come along on Monday, August 20 and snigger when I have to read out loud (Rodge is very good at it so that will make me look all the worse). The details are here:

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Euro 2012: Why I'm Not Supporting Ireland either

I was listening to Radio Five Live last night as Packie Bonner, John Aldridge and David O'Leary were reminiscing about playing for Ireland in the Euro 88 and the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and what was most striking was how familiar it sounded.
Change the year and move the accents slightly north (Aldridge accepted of course) and it could have been Gerry Armstrong, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside talking about Spain in 1982 (another anniversary fast approaching).
I remember watching Jack Charlton's team with a slightly detached enjoyment at the time. It was a great story in 88, especially when they beat England in the opening game - a classic case of the thrill that greets the triumph of the underdog. My dad, whose background and inclination were solidly unionist even cheered that one,  though his politics would have suggested otherwise. Sometimes, sport can be just sport I guess.
So here's the thing. I support Ireland on the rugby pitch but not on the football pitch (not unless they're playing for the Northern version). Why is that?
 I hope it is very simple. The Republic is another country in footballing terms - which are the terms I'm interested in -  and so many of the same reasons I suggested for not supporting England yesterday are relevant here too. Well, apart from the media coverage perhaps.
 Not everyone would adhere to such airy dismissals of course. The history of Northern Ireland's meetings with the Republic of Ireland has often had more than a bit of poison swirling around it, most notoriously in 1993 when Charlton's team travelled north to play at Windsor Park hoping to ensure their place in the World Cup in America. The venom in the ground that night directed towards the Republic's players would inspire Marie Jones's play A Night in November. It's a game I cover at length in Whose Side Are You On? On that night, as on many others, football was politics by another means. For some in the crowd at any rate.

And an ongoing tension between north and south continues up to the present day. The fact that there are players born and raised in the north playing for the south is a bugbear for some. There's been some heated words said in the last couple of months about Sunderland player James McLean's comments suggesting that Catholic players were not welcome in the Northern Ireland set-up. Former Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie had a go at him this week and even argued that McLean had used Northern Ireland when playing at Under 21 level: "He had no intention of every playing for the Northern Ireland senior team and he's made that clear but he used the Northern Ireland system to get into a position where he could defect to the Republic."
Others, anonymously, said much worse and even sent McLean death threats, which no one deserves.
McLean's comments do point out the challenge that still faces the Irish Football Association in Belfast despite the huge strides that have been made via the Football For All campaign. We have to recognise that some players from nationalist backgrounds will always prefer to play for the Republic. And after that make the Northern Ireland set-up as welcoming for everyone else. Some would argue - Gillespie among them, I guess - that's already been done.
Football has always been one of the principal sporting theatres for sectarianism in Ireland, north and south. That's a given. But it should be said that it's also a theatre for challenging it too. Gerry Armstrong and Pat Jennings are heroes to most Northern Ireland fans. It doesn't matter their background.
But back to not supporting Ireland. Here's the thing. I hope they do well. I hope they're not too boring and I hope that Robbie Keane bows out in scintillating form (always loved Robbie). But I'm not going to be cheering them on. I want Euro 2012 to be a brilliant footballing spectacle where the best players in the world play to the best of their ability and dazzle us with their skills. I kind of hope Spain win but really in the end I want the best team to win and not someone boring us to death with 1-0 wins.
If Northern Ireland had made it I would qualify that wish. But as they didn't, I can smugly say that's exactly why I won't be supporting Ireland (or England for that matter). In the end it is about the football.
Then again, say both England and Ireland come through their groups and meet in the quarter finals. Who will I be cheering on then?

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Euro 2012: Why I Won't Be Supporting England

A couple of years ago I was asked by the Sunday Herald in Glasgow to write a piece to run ahead of the World Cup explaining why I wouldn't be supporting England in South Africa. A little context. At the time England travelled with some expectation and I imagine while I was writing it the hot air of the media at the time would have been overheating me in the run-up to the tournament. I was also writing for a Scottish audience who were being encouraged to overturn their habit of saying "A-B-E" - "anyone but England". Which seemed to be ridiculous to me at the time. I tried to explain why in the following piece:

My name is Teddy Jamieson and I’m not supporting England during this World Cup. Does that make me a bad person? Actually, some people seem to think it does. Of late a lot of people seem to have been telling me I should get over myself and start supporting Fabio’s boys; newspaper columnists, Scottish footballing types (including the manager of the national side), even the Prime Minister have all implied as much.
Well I have listened to what’s been said, weighed up the advice and come to the conclusion that the argument being advanced is, in technical terms, mince.  I’m not raising a Red Cross above the house. I’m not praying that Gareth Barry’s fit. I’m more likely to be hoping that Wayne Rooney loses his temper and tells some luckless referee to stick his whistle up his vuvuzela.
There’s a very simple reason for this of course. I’m not English. This seem to confuse people, yet last I looked the United Kingdom consists of four countries, not one. And just because the other three countries weren’t - let’s not beat about the bush - good enough to participate in the South African extravaganza doesn’t necessarily mean I should then automatically cheer on the next-door neighbour. It’s a bit like living in the same street as someone who’s having a month-long party and you’re not invited (probably because you’re rubbish at dancing and they know you’ll drink all the booze). It’s understandable that, as much as you get along with them most of the time, you might get a bit irked as the noise rises.
What bugs me about the arguments being advanced at the moment is how they manage to both take football too seriously and not seriously enough at the same time. Too seriously in the sense that they conflate not supporting England with anti-Englishness. Which is spurious rot. It does not automatically make me some raving nationalist bigot who can tell you the names of every Scottish braveheart who died at Bannockburn. (That’s maybe because I’m not Scottish either. My national team of choice is Northern Ireland and I quite enjoy it when Scotland get humped too.)
Of course there are bigots out there. But they’re not the norm. The truth is, it’s not racism that fuels an antipathy to the England football team. It’s the thing that fuels football supporters everywhere -  sporting tribalism. This is what's not taken seriously enough. Would David Cameron stand up in parliament and suggest Celtic fans should back Rangers in any future Europa League final? Would he expect Liverpool fans to cheer on Man United in the Champions  League? No. So why is it that at international level such rivalries are suddenly meant to be put aside? As a Spurs and Stirling Albion fan I take almost as much delight in the failures of the Gooners and Alloa Athletic as the successes of the former. Sometimes, schadenfreude is the only pleasure we have.
And anyway,  even from an aesthetic viewpoint there’s no reason to support England. Are they likely to play the best football in the competition? I doubt it. That’s more likely to be Spain or Holland. Will they offer the best story? No, that will come from Argentina, where Diego Maradona will either undermine the most gifted players in the tournament, or, less likely, admittedly, guide them to a stunning triumph.
And how many times in living memory could you say England have ever actually played glorious football in the final stages of international competitions? Maybe in 1996. Mostly, though, they’re dour and relatively efficient. Until they meet someone better than they are. And there's always someone better than they are. The truth of it is, the England team are just Germans who are rubbish at penalties."

Revisiting the piece two years on, I'm rather pleased that I predicted the finalists (kind of). Oh and England lived down to my expectations. They had a poor tournament, played badly throughout and in the end were well beaten by Germany. 
It's interesting in 2012 that I don't feel quite as animated as I appear to be in that piece (which, incidentally was spiked for lack of space), which is probably a reflection of the much reduced level of expectation surrounding England this time. Too many injuries, Wayne Rooney out for two games and a sense that this is a team that's in transition.Even Time Magazine has noticed.
But I still don't want England to do well. Just because I don't really want to have to listen to the (understandable) triumphalism that would ensue.
What I didn't have room to address in that piece was the fact that, of course, I love English football. My whole frame of footballing reference arises out of 40 years of watching Match Of The Day. I love Spurs. Growing up, my favourite players were all Spurs players, often English players. I loved no one more than Glenn Hoddle and if you ask me now my favourite British player I'd say Hoddle before I'd say George Best. Or even Pat Jennings.
More than that I love England. London is my favourite city in the world. I love spending time in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. But in the end my national team is Northern Ireland, not  England and when the BBC becomes the EBC as it invariably does during such football tournaments I feel inevitably other, not part of the collective that's been reflected back at me.
But even so there are complications now and again. Back in 1990 I cursed and swore at England all the way through the tournament. To me they should have been knocked out by Belgium in the last 16, knocked out by Cameroon in the Quarter Finals and then they played West Germany in the semi-final. Since I was born in West Germany I've always had a soft spot for the German team (even wanting them rather than Holland to win in the 1974 World Cup final).
But as that game went on in the sheer theatre of the game I found myself willing England to win it. They were the better team. They deserved to get to the final. I wanted Chrissy Waddle to play in a World Cup final. They didn't get there of course. As already mentioned, rubbish at penalties. And of course I would have reverted to anyone but England if they had got to the final. 
But it didn't happen and it feels less likely this time. Perhaps I'll be surprised. Maybe England this time around will thrill me. Then again, it is England. The tragedy of English football? Its predictability.

Next: Why I'm not supporting the Republic of Ireland