Time to wrap up the Club versus Country series. OK, Colin Randall was as excited as any kid when England beat Germany to win the 1966 World Cup. He’d be lying if he said no international achievement had given him pleasure, and no failure had caused disappointment, in the years that have passed since then. But the fact remains that for him – as for so many of the rival fans who answer the question when put by Salut! Sunderland – club, in his case Sunderland, comes first every time. Could the following description of the blight of hooliganism which affected the sport for so many years be part of the reason why? …
I wish I had a completely satisfactory answer to the question of why every Sunderland game matters so much while no England match matters in the same way. Believe it or not, I actually envy the Scots, Irish and Welsh fans who so fervently support their national sides.
Fans of other countries show impressive national loyalty, too. I remember finding myself among a trainload of Dutch fans on their way from the central station in Amsterdam to a Euro 2000 game. The carriage was a sea of orange and seemed to be rocking. It was impossible not to be struck by the depth of devotion. Despite being an ordinarily patriotic Englishman, I simply cannot summon the same emotional attachment.
This does not mean I am ashamed of my country. Far from it. There is so much in our history and culture to admire. I love the spirit of tolerance that still manages to triumph, more often than not, over nastiness and prejudice in a snarling modern age. It is just that I lack that strength of feeling, when it comes to football at national level, that binds the Celtic tribes of the British Isles, along with the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, South Americans……
The explanation for my overwhelming preference for club over country is more complex than my deep dislike of hard-of-thinking hooliganism.
I agree with my big pal Pete Sixsmith that Sir Alf Ramsey’s refusal to select Jimmy Montgomery for the 1970 World Cup squad was reprehensible (in Pete’s case reason enough to bother little or nothing for England ever since). And it can hardly be argued that Len Shackleton, Brian Clough or Kevin Phillips were ever given fair cracks of the international whip.
But there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the yob factor is a strong, probably the strongest, cause of my disenchantment.
Every team has had its share of troublemakers. The fan base may incorporate a hooligan fringe of five per cent, 10 per cent depending on the club. We could be mischievous and suggest that the proportion rises to nearly 100 per cent at Millwall or, if you ignore docile glory seekers, Chelsea.
My contention is that virtually every single one of those hooligans is also an England supporter, and many of them are active in their support, home and especially away. That undeniably drives the percentage higher. I once reduced a sports editor to spluttering rage by suggesting at a morning editorial conference that the proportion of yobs among England’s travelling support was therefore as high as 30 or 40 per cent.
It was an exaggeration, but one based on the assessment applied by the National Crime Intelligence Service (NCIS), which used to monitor football-related violence. When slotting football fans into categories. NCIS had Category C fans as out and out thugs or trouble organisers, there for the ruck whether or not they actually liked football as well. In Category A were what we might call ordinary, decent fans, the sort of people that restore your faith in the England following. Category B fans, I remember NCIS officials saying, were those who could veer either way: essentially boisterous but harmless, though liable to join in if trouble flared.
Just before the 1998 World Cup finals in France, England played Saudi Arabia in a warm up friendly at Wembley. I took my football-loving younger daughter, but could not get tickets for us to sit together. We were a few rows apart, each surrounded by, to be honest, evil little toe rags. My lot, who supported Portsmouth, struck up an early chant with words along the lines of: “Where’s your camel, where’s your camel, where’s your f****** camel gone.”
They sang it repeatedly before and during the (awful) game. There was some casual racist abuse and, for good measure, a bit of sexual innuendo. The fans in question were young and drunk, but had no other excuse for their obnoxious behaviour. My daughter reported similar unpleasantness from the people around her seat, Reading followers if memory serves me right.
And I bet a few of our matchday neighbours then found their way to France, where the behaviour of some England fans yet again brought shame on their nation.
For most of the first half of 1998, I had been dreading the World Cup. As a senior reporter at the Telegraph, I was expecting to spend the tournament in France, covering events outside rather than inside the grounds. My apprehension had nothing to do with cowardice; I have covered riots, been as close to war as I’d ever want, faced threats in bleak parts of Belfast, stared into the barrels of rifles brandished by drug-crazed Third World soldiers and dodged stones lobbed by Muslim youths.
But I love football. To have to watch and report on the antics of people who besmirch the game, and the country they claim to love, pains me beyond belief.
It is impossible to overstate the joy I felt when someone told me a few weeks before France 98 began that I was not going to the finals after all, but around the world as part of a bizarre World Cup project. The High Street menswear chain Burton’s had agreed to sponsor a series of travel-cum-football articles under the heading of Around the World in 18 Days. I was one of three journalists chosen to carve up the 32 qualifying countries. I then travelled to each of those on my list and reported on how their fans back home were following events in France.
From Oslo to Soweto, Kingston to Miami and back again to a clutch of European countries, I joined locals as they watched the first round games in crowded squares, heaving little bars, a township shebeen and even a mosque. I thought of colleagues in France and thanked my lucky stars. It would have been a dream assignment in any circumstances, but what it meant I was not doing made it seem better still.
No, I do not buy the “all England fans are trouble” philosophy that has so often dictated Continental police practices, and far too much of the media coverage. I have willingly investigated and written about the legitimate grievances of innocent fans caught up in violence and wrongly accused. But the blameless casualties are victims of the rotten apples as much as of incompetent or unjust policing. When aggrieved England fans cry “we woz provoked”, they sometimes mean no more than that someone spoke to them in their own language in their own country.
If some fans behave like morons, they can hardly be surprised to be treated as such. Even some otherwise rational England followers have in the past defended trouble-makers on the basis that local police over-reacted to high spirits. But there is not really any good reason why the French or Greek or Turkish police should have to tolerate drunken louts trashing their national flag, or getting out of hand in city centre bars.
If France 98 was a blessed relief for me, my luck was to run out when Euro 2000 came around. Off I went to Holland and Belgium, with no escape tunnel to spare me the task of monitoring the deeds and misdeeds of the England support.
I will never forget the sunny Saturday that I sat in the square at Charleroi, sipping beer and exchanging footballing reminiscences with great lads, including Sunderland fans recognised from home, long before England v Germany kicked off. The day before, I had even been roped into playing in a bridge-building friendly between England and Germany fans.
So much for building bridges. Only a couple of hours after I’d enjoyed those beers with fellow SAFC fans, little pockets of fighting began to erupt around the large square. Glasses were thrown, the rival chanting became more aggressive.
Before long the yobs, with a good few Germans happy to get stuck in, too, had turned the square into a battleground. The scenes were not that dreadful, and were probably made to seem much worse on television as each outbreak was screened over and over again. Each skirmish, each robust intervention by Belgian police lasted only a minute or two. Yet there was no reason why the ordinary people of a small Belgian town should have had to put up with even that extent of disorder.
My guess at the time was that England fans prone to lawlessness had been encouraged by the comparatively relaxed approach of the Dutch police earlier in the competition.
But the scenes in Charleroi were really quite tame by comparison with what had gone on the previous night in the centre of Brussels as English fans swarmed into the city.
One or two bars were taken over by scores of English supporters. No problem, in itself. But as the gestures and chanting became steadily more aggressive, the Belgian police grew impatient and edgy. It was the cue for a series of running battles that stretched long into the night. Tear gas was used, often indiscriminately, and I have no doubt that a lot of fans, including many of those rounded up and unceremoniously kicked out of Belgium, were treated very unfairly. Thuggish elements from the north African community of Brussels also became involved and, I suspect, got away with rather more than a lot of England fans.
Once again, however, I blamed not the heavy-handed cops, or the willingness of those louts of Maghrebin origins to engage any young Englishman they encountered, but those very England hoodlums whose conduct invariably causes each clash in the first place. And no one can have been unaware that Belgian police chiefs had warned in the run-up to Euro 2000 that they would respond firmly to any unacceptable behaviour.
Of course I cannot pretend that everyone who has ever supported my beloved football club is or was a model of restraint and decent behaviour.
I am well aware that several of the countries with relatively trouble-free records in internationals – Holland being one good example – have failed to defeat inter-club supporter violence with anything like the success of the English authorities. In France, rival crews are content to forget their shared allegiance to the same club, Paris St Germain, and fight each other for supposed supremacy. It is also true that the worst single act of violence at France 98 involved not English but German fans (the horrific attack on a French policeman).
But in well over 40 years of following the Lads, home and away and some seasons more than others, I have rarely if ever felt threatened or especially uncomfortable, or guilty about having a daughter in tow. I cannot say the same about the England games I have attended, in whatever capacity.
A lot of people will strongly disagree with my attitude, but I have attempted to explain the context of my feelings.
In the end those feelings are my problem, no one else’s. As crowd trouble has become gradually less commonplace at football, I should have mellowed.
I realise I am in a small minority when I say that at a game against Blackburn two years ago, I was completely bemused as to why David Bentley was attracting stick from some of our fans every time he touched the ball. I was still scratching my head in search of some forgotten Newcastle link, or to remember that he had been guilty of a Mido/Nugent-like refusal to join SAFC, when I saw in the paper that he’d snubbed the England under-21 squad.
Some will be thinking: “Quite right that he was booed.” I honestly couldn’t give a stuff what he thought of the call-up.
Others, neutrals or those with a liking for the supposedly bigger clubs (in reality not clubs at all, just brands), might have some sneaking regard for my club-before-country stance if only I supported one of these win-win-win brands.
And maybe they’d be the ones with a point. Let’s go back to my beginning: just say Joelle and I had struck a deal all those years ago when she asked me to stop smoking: no more cigarettes but as much of the Lads as I wanted in the 38 years that have ensued. How much more of those eight relegation seasons, four Wembley defeats, missed promotions, desperate escapes and bitter disappointments would any sane man have wanted to inflict on himself, especially if he couldn’t even resort between each setback to a comforting fag?
… to be continued