Isn’t it relaxing to have a weekend with no game to worry about?
This is what I wrote for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free web pages last time England played Israel. They gave it the headline: Cry God for Niall, Sunderland and St Roy! I’d have stuck to Niall as Saint, but nothing much has changed for England, or indeed for me in the Club vs Country debate:
Cry God for St Niall, Sunderland and Roy!
The sports writers are already building up England’s game in Israel this weekend as a great footballing calamity waiting to happen: lose, we are told, and our hopes of qualification for next year’s European Championships will be in ruins.
So why – daft and English though I may be – will I probably forget to even check on the score? My lack of concern has little to do with living in France, where most people will, naturally, be more bothered about events in Lithuania. When I eventually find out what happened, I will be disappointed if England have lost or drawn, and quite pleased if they have won. But that’s it.
The result from Tel Aviv will have no lasting impact to match the joy of hearing Sunderland have won, or the injured feelings I suffer when they are beaten in a game on which absolutely nothing depends. Come to think of it, Israel 2, England 0 on Saturday evening would be a great deal less disappointing than Leeds Reserves 2, Sunderland Reserves 0 – a score line that denied us the 2001 Premiership Reserve League title.
Club v country is a contest, for this fan, with only one outcome. Many England supporters will be horrified at the thought, but am I completely alone?
Perhaps not every club fan would think seriously about getting from London to a midweek reserve game – only the problem of catching a train back, in the end, defeated that slightly pathetic plan in 2001 – but we do represent a sizeable minority.
Despite the early promise of the Quinn/Keane Revolution, the identity of my club naturally provides a complete answer to any suspicion of glory-seeking. But it wouldn’t necessarily come as a big surprise to find a Man Utd fan who preferred the Red Devils to England, whether or not that fan had ever been to Manchester, or indeed England.
But my guess is that for every one of those Torquay United or Grimsby Town banners you see among England supporters, there is at least one follower of each club who cares much more about its results than about those of the national team, at whatever level the club happens to be playing.
The reasons will differ. My own disenchantment with the national side stems to a large extent from close encounters, as a reporter, with another sizeable minority: the hooligan element (among the fans, I should add, not the hoolie-watching reporters).
Every club has a yob contingent. It might vary, but 5% or 10% sounds about right. If I am correct in believing that virtually all these hooligans also support England, then the percentage of yobs drawn to internationals is likely to be many times higher.
I will forget the outcome of Saturday’s game in Israel a lot more quickly than I will forget how much nicer Belgium seemed in 2000 after England’s early elimination.
Charleroi may not have been the world war three depicted in some television coverage at the time. But what happened there the day we played Germany – and, more emphatically, what had taken place the night before in Brussels as our fans began to arrive – was deeply unpleasant and shaming.
A lot has been achieved, especially at club level, to curb match-day violence. Worse things probably happen these days in France and elsewhere in Europe than they do in or around English stadiums.
But the reality of England’s support, in particular its travelling (and often ticketless) support, is that among lots of decent and passionate fans remains an obnoxious core of young and sometimes not-so-young men who either actively seek trouble or are happy to be sucked in to any that kicks off.
It will take more than the encouraging signs from last year’s World Cup finals in Germany to convince me that this is already an issue of the past.
The biggest cloud over my weekend is not, therefore, the possibility of an England setback in Tel Aviv, but the certainty of a cancelled league programme, which means I have no score to look out for.
* If you think you know where in the south of France I’m happier to be, enter the competition at Salut!