Watching England away
I wasn't literally with the away fans on Wednesday for the England - Poland match, but I was away from the confines of London where I have watched all but a handful of England's games in recent years. In fact I can only think of the match against Tunisa at France 98 (watched alone in a hotel room in Marseille having failed to obtain a black market ticket), the away game against Sweden in 1998 (watched in a pub in Oakham) and the Portugal match in Euro2000 (watched in a bar in Belgium with my dad and my brother-in-law, and a very unhappy proprietor). I even managed to get to the pub to watch last year's Euro2004 qualifier against Slovakia, despite it being the day after my nephew was born and it clashing with hospital opening hours.
Anyway, this week I was in York, so watched the match in The White Horse on Bootham. It was quite different from my normal England pub watching experience. Without my regular band of brothers around me I was able to take in a lot more of the pub punditry going on around me - and also managed to pass the 90 minutes without professing an opinion that was immediately contradicted by events on the pitch.
One of the major differences was the appreciation of passages of passing or defensive play from England. Or rather the lack of it - in The Queens Arms or The College Arms we are liable to break into ripples of polite applause to mark good defensive tackles, well-placed passes and general all-round play. Not so in The White Horse, where derision greeted virtually everything except for direct shots at goal.
"When was the last time England entertained me?" moaned one punter behind me. Entertainment? You don't watch away qualification matches in Katowice for their entertainment value, mate, you watch them to see your team hopefully grind out a result in hostile and trying circumstances.
This was epitomised for me in the 89th minute when David Beckham was substituted. The England captain left the field barracked by the good citizens of York - "Get off you poof", "Past your sell-by date", "Fuck off with your Spanish free-kicks*". However no sooner had we seen him off when his replacement Owen Hargreaves came in for the same sort of treatment - as the guy behind me memorably observed before he had even stepped onto the pitch - "That cunt spends more time going backward than forward".
At the time we were 2-1 up away from home in a crucial World Cup qualifier. Surely I couldn't have been the only person in that pub who thought that only a manager with the tactical acumen of a Kevin Keegan would decide to bring on Shaun Wright-Phillips for his competitive debut rather than a defensive minded midfielder with Word Cup Finals experience? Apparently I was. (Mind you I should add at this point that my Championship Manager teams generally play a defensive 4-5-1 brand of entertainment-stifling football that would make even the great Italian catenaccio tactics of the 60's seem enthralling).
I guess what was strange was that suddenly the illusion that the country comes together to watch England matches has been severely dented if not shattered in my mind. Sure, we are all watching the same match, but across the country we are all reacting in our little regional ways. It was almost like being an away fan in the wrong end of the ground.
* A Spanish free kick is of course a technique Beckham has learnt at Real Madrid of emphasizing physical contact in order to win a free kick. Naturally, no English player would do such a thing without undue foreign influence.