First published in July 2018
It is a love that dare not speak its name. Unless there’s a football tournament on. English pride and nationalism are perhaps the most difficult to bear or understand. As this World Cup blooms like a Russian flower from the snows of geopolitics, in England the repeated call of football’s coming home is heard like music to some but white noise to others. Why?
England, one of the four countries that make up the country the United Kingdom, loves football. But by the 1980s hooliganism was so associated with the nation that it was labelled ‘The English Disease’. The violence followed and was instigated by supporters of English clubs across several decades both at home and across Europe. Hooliganism turned England’s name to mud.
After the 1985 Heysel disaster, 14 Liverpool fans were convicted of manslaughter when 39 Juventus fans were killed after rioting and fighting in the rotting Belgium stadium. English football clubs were then banned from European competitions for five years — a shameful exile.
The tragedy of Hillsborough in 1989 where 96 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed during an FA Cup semi-final cemented the idea of football matches as dangerous, joyless hell holes where fans were kept in ‘pens’ and smeared as criminals by the government, police and the media. For England, football was not the beautiful game, it was a wretched and poisonous thing.
Then, during the Italia ’90 World Cup England’s group games were all held in Sardinia. The island’s physical separation from mainland Italy symbolised the quarantine England was held in as if the organisers hoped to keep the barbarians from sacking Rome (the closest they got was Turin for the semi-finals).
In his book “All Played Out” Pete Davies tells the story of Italia ’90 observing that before the summer tournament Cagliari prepared for the tournament by hosting a conference with the ominous title “Arrivano Gli Inglesi” — The English Are Coming.
At the end of the tournament, the young Paul Gascoigne created a watershed in English football when he cried on the pitch when he knew he would be suspended for the final if they were to progress in their match against Germany. He didn’t bawl but welled up, his eyes went red and filled with tears. This man, probably England’s most naturally talented player ever, was doing something years of English braggadocio and pain — both caused and felt — did not permit. He loosened everyone’s stiff upper lips and cried the tears of a child.
If 1990 was the year of an English wobbly lip then 1996 was the year when the nation wailed about its rehabilitation, a prodigal son to the European family. England hosted a tournament for the first time in 30 years. European nations no longer kept England in quarantine but travelled to the country to play and enjoy football.
This is when ‘Football’s Coming Home’ was written and became the unofficial national anthem of a country that welcomed Europe to its island home. The song is associated with arrogance for unsubtly reminding the world that England invented football and was now taking back control of the sport. But this would be a misinterpretation.
Long ago England shed the worst parts of this arrogance — perhaps when they lost to the United States (at the time a team of part-timers) in 1950, who shocked England in their first World Cup tournament. Or perhaps more recently when they lost convincingly to Iceland (a team that included part-timers) in 2016. For England there are no expectations of victory and triumph, the song only wants to reinstall pride in English football after “30 years of hurt”. But by extension, it calls for pride in the country of England…and that’s where it can get problematic.
Englishness is the most unsettled patriotism of these islands. In part, this is caused by the confusing and asymmetrical nature and history of the U.K. England lives alongside other nations in the United Kingdom that consider it to be overwhelmingly dominant, arrogant and patronising — and this will be borne out in many anecdotes or history books. This is fundamentally caused by England being the overwhelming majority part of the population and the class system that underpins English society.
After 1707, when the UK was invented, Englishness got lost and smothered by the British project and to identify as English and not British became odd, something that lay between the paradoxical and the unfashionable.
It was left and forgotten as an identity until it was mobilised and weaponised by racists in the 1950s and ’60s who hated the arrival of the Windrush generation — who were all British citizens. The cross of St. George was adopted as a weapon of racism and became a symbol of this hate — often the last thing seen by a black or Asian person before they received a kick to the head by an English racist.
Other British nations take pride in the country because of their varying struggles of self-determination and resistance against English dominance which makes it somehow nobler and more sympathetic — and rightly so in many cases. But the only time England really had to resist against overwhelming imperialism was against Nazi Germany and that was explicitly a British endeavour.
English Not British
So if the story of British Imperialism is to be told from start to finish perhaps the first victim was actually Englishness itself. Englishness was lost in the attitudes and apparatus of 300 years of British history. Other nations of the Union managed to tell their story — with its ups and downs — always alongside the British story, whereas England failed to do this.
England is lost to the cities of ‘the North’, the countless shire villages in ‘the countryside’ and the ultimate dominance of London. There is no time for Thomas Hardy, Alan Turing or Ellen MacArthur to be considered primarily English when they could be British. Whereas Dylan Thomas, George Best and Billy Connolly all conjure their respective nations first and foremost. This is an example of the power of history, story and symbols.
Before Britain, thoughts turn to ‘Elizabethan’ England as the last time you can clearly envisage a certain independent strain of Englishness. But this is irrelevant to reality when there is chattering discomfort at the ‘The Sun’ newspaper giving away free St. George’s flags.
It is a symptom of Englishness’s failure to continue its own history beyond the creation of the Union. 300 years on, Englishness is like an ailing body that can only tell ancient stories or belch racism.
Now, there is a common refrain of “English not British” which is justified as being comparable to “Welsh not British”. But it is not the same because there is a subtext of general sympathy if Wales was to assert itself against dominant England — when the other way round it comes across as endorsing domination over smaller or weaker countries.
“English not British” summons a straight-faced arrogance that shuts down any relationship with Britain (and by extension other countries) or acceptance of Britain’s now multicultural character. Of course, this is not true for nearly all who say it — but it is the cause of the discomfort.
Plainly, to be proud of being English is a straightforward and obvious thing for many born here. But for others, Englishness is the receptacle where negative aspects of Britishness are left to rot. This absurd chasm splits largely along class lines. People who, if asked, would consider themselves more working-class may tend to call themselves English as a matter of fact and pride. More middle class-identifying people would worry about being seen to be English when they have a perfectly good nationality of British to take advantage of anyway.
The English are prisoners of class division more than any other and these divides mean that unlike St David, St Patrick and St Andrew; St George’s day is not a celebration but a day of embarrassed hand-wringing, where the St George’s flag unfurls on some houses but certainly not on others. The more middle class avoid eye contact with the tattooed and cross the street when they pass a patriotic flat-roofed pub. This silent sneer of Englishness stops us from celebrating.
In Spain and Catalunya St George’s day is widely acknowledged by exchanging books as presents. What a positive way of marking St George’s Day! Surely the land of Shakespeare could find it in itself to give gifts of the written word to each other as well as keeping the pubs open a bit longer.
Go and watch the colour footage of the 1966 World Cup Final where England defeated West Germany. There are countless Union Jacks in support of England, something you would never see today. Fans actually sing ‘Rule Britannia’ at the end of the Pathe news report. This encapsulates England’s ‘problem’ of dominant Britishness. Now England supporters paint their face and hold their flags as every other nation in the World Cup does. But because of lovely Britishness and because of the English Disease of hooliganism, Englishness is viewed as a continuation of the racist/hooligan set that animated English patriotism against its will in the mid-20th Century.
‘Tears for Heros/ Dressed in Gray’
This is why the 1996 song “Football’s Coming Home” is so powerful because it captures the moment when hooliganism was directly repudiated by England fans who could sing about their nation in positive and separate terms from Britishness.
Watch the footage of the Euro ’96 semi-final between England and Germany, specifically the 10 minutes before the match. The knowing commentator Barry Davis who would have followed the disasters of English football across the decades of his career delivers the perfect commentary in the build-up to the match. Saying simply:
“All the lads and lasses here. And all the smiling and painted faces hoping that England’s summer carnival will continue.”
And then… silence. For minutes. A great observer and commentator, Davis knows when to shut up and invites you to listen to the stadium sing every word of Football’s Coming Home. Every man, woman, child and German. No intimidation, no pain, football is shown as the inclusive and beautiful game — and for a moment England enjoyed being English.
That night there was violence in London after England’s loss and hooliganism showed it couldn’t be destroyed by Gazza crying or a sing-song in Wembley. But now, over twenty years later, hooliganism is no longer the ‘English’ Disease and English supporters are more likely to be the victims of violence like in Euro 2016. It’s different and it’s better.
Ultimately “football’s coming home” is not about football. It’s about home. It’s singing about what England as a home is or should be. Is it a place of suspicion, barriers and pain? Or is it a place of acceptance, open arms and joy? Are we the England of 1980’s football terraces or the sunny jubilant moments of 1996?
England reminds me of Good Will Hunting. It needs truthful soul searching and repeated acknowledgement to dissolve the bravado and understand that it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. Before breaking down in great liberating tears of weakness, starting again and choosing to be or not to be happy in oneself.
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