There was another night when England had an important match, and I found myself enjoying a non-football night out in France instead.
It was only a week or two before September 11. England away to Germany in a World Cup qualifier. I was tucking into a great meal in the pretty Normandy town of Honfleur, not far from the distinctly unpretty city of Le Havre. Such was the depth, then, of my eternal club-before-country feeling that I’d briefly forgotten about the game in Munich.
On a table a few feet from mine, a group of English people were getting excited. I suddenly remembered about the game, heard mention of five and immediately feared the worst. But hang on, they sound happy, ecstatic even. So I wandered over and asked the obvious questions and returned to my table with news of Owen’s hat trick, a famous 5-1 win and other details of no interest to a football-loathing Frenchwoman.
Leaving the Cranberries’ excellent concert in Nice – go to this link if you want to read more on that – I was fully aware that England had been playing Algeria.
There was a shuttle bus back into town, and the desire to know the score was outweighed by the need for food. But in a fashion similar to Sept 2001, I learnt what I thought must have been the outcome.
As we reached the centre of Nice, the part of the city that owes its allegiance to Algeria was out in force and the place was en fête. We’d lost!
Then the Indian restaurant I’d spotted earlier came into view and I wasn’t going to risk arriving too late to be served. Inside, an Indian family – parents and two children all speaking French to one another – was engrossed in some Bollywood on the large screen. No football there. And no one among the mainly Pakistani staff had the faintest idea about England v Algeria (if I’d asked about a a minor cricket tournament from the late 1960s, they’d have offered more information than you’d ever need).
So it had to wait. I’d dutifully left my mobile in the hotel, so the vitriol pouring from the fingertips of fellow Blackcats list subscribers – “f****** shite?; no, Jeremy, It wasn’t as good as that!” – was not available to me.
Walking back to the hotel, I saw another family, this one decked out in the colours of Algeria. I just wanted to know by how many England had lost. “Non,” came the reply. “We didn’t win. It was a match nul. 0-0.”
Enough, though, for French-Algerians to celebrate, as if they’d just beaten Leeds in the FA Cup Final in 1973. And enough to confirm that give or take Anelka’s obscenities aimed at his team coach, our World Cup is not so different, not so better so far than France’s.