I am not what you’d call a stereotypical England fan. I’m a typical leftie Guardian reader, I have middle class guilt about our colonial past and a problem with the national anthem given I don’t believe in God and am a republican. I don’t have any tattoos and my knuckles don’t scrape the ground as I walk down the street. I don’t sing “No surrender” and find typical little-Englander behaviour abroad completely cringe worthy but then thankfully that stereotype, born from the 80’s and 90’s television news coverage of fat pissed blokes chucking garden furniture at each other in various cities across mainland Europe is less and less representative of what the modern England fan is really like.
The broadening of the active support, no longer solely the preserve of white blokes of questionable politics ready to “retaliate” at the drop of a hat to any perceived slight by jonny foreigner now means a more representative cross section of the English general public in terms of age, sex, class and ethnicity following the national team both home and away. I’ve always supported England since I started watching the Gills in 1977-78. Usually it was on television with one or two trips to Wembley every year, usually for competitive games. My focus was invariably my club, England only ever took priority for crucial midweek qualifiers and during the summer every two years if we managed to qualify for major tournaments. Italia ’90 reinvigorated the nation’s and my own somewhat jaded relationship with the national team thanks to Gascoigne’s exploits and an unlikely run to the semi-finals. The last minute hook shot by David Platt to beat Belgium in the last sixteen remains my favourite non-Gills moment in football.
Euro ’96 held in England was the pivotal moment when I finally felt relaxed watching England, the atmosphere at Wembley for those magical few weeks was joyful and positive, not poisonous and cynical. The Cross of St George was the flag of choice for the first time rather than the Union Jack with all the historical baggage it brings. “Three Lions” was the anthem that encapsulated the time, tongue in cheek, not taking ourselves too seriously, but still determined to achieve something special.
Unfortunately going to watch England play away was never going to be so relaxed, even in the mid-90’s. Unfortunately a sizable minority of the regular fans that travelled were “old school” – unreconstructed blokes of a certain disposition. All too often they really were the victims of disgusting provocation by locals coming “out to play” because of the reputation of our fans as hooligans, or disgraceful police brutality and incompetence, but still too many of them were “up for it”, happy to drink and sing and support the team but if push came to shove stand their ground and push back hard.
The reputation and policing put off many other fans from watching England away until the France ’98 World Cup. With the competition so close to home and with travel opportunities broadening as costs came down thousands of people decided to watch England abroad for the first time. I was one of them, winning a Match of the Day competition to see England play Tunisia in Marseille. It was amazing. Actually being in the stadium watching England abroad with 30,000 other fans in the World Cup was brilliant. The noise, the colour, the bravado, the pride, the atmosphere and the anticipation was utterly delicious. There might have been some unsavoury characters there in the background, it wasn’t what you’d call relaxing and the performance was solid rather than spectacular (2-0) but the combination of being abroad with watching your team along with thousands of others, of actually “being there”, not at home in the pub was a truly intoxicating feeling, one which I vowed to repeat there and then. Watching the Gills is more personal, more regular and what I do nine months a year, but for a treat once in a while nothing could top it.
I was already going to virtually every competitive home game at Wembley from 1996 onwards and continued to do so but didn’t get the chance to see England abroad again until Euro 2004. We were lucky enough to see England beat Switzerland in Coimbra 3-0 and Croatia in Lisbon, the second game being an absolute belter of a match won 4-2 thanks largely to a majestic performance by Wayne Rooney. It was at that point having enjoyed a completely trouble free fortnight in Portugal savouring the multi-cultural atmosphere and not being embarrassed by shenanigans from any England fans that I decided to join the official England fans organization. For £65 you get membership for two years, priority for home games and access to away tickets although if they are oversubscribed they are distributed 70% via loyalty (they count your “caps” – two for an away game, one for a home game), the rest via a ballot. The 2006-08 membership saw the introduction of a £5 saving for each member when buying home tickets which means over the two year cycle I’ve nearly saved my membership fee on tickets. I’ve also had access to the Englandfans+ online message board which is both entertaining and informative. There is a bit of snobbery from “high cappers” towards the “low cappers” and you’ve never heard such a moaning bunch of sods, but amongst it all there are so very well travelled people. There is a great communal feeling of brotherhood, everybody shares information, travel tips and the overwhelming ethos is lets get as many England fans as possible into every away game.
After the 2006 World Cup where our group of Gills managed to get tickets for England vs. Paraguay in Frankfurt and vs. Sweden in Cologne some of us decided to try and give non-tournament away games a try. I went to Netherlands vs. England in Amsterdam by coach with 100 England supporters on a trip organised by a Yeovil fan. It was a right laugh, the game being pretty irrelevant but the camaraderie and general heady mixture of seeing a new city, watching football in a new stadium and meeting fans and swapping tales with people from all over the country was wonderful. The same went for our trip last year to see England play Andorra in Barcelona. The game was poor, McClaren was and still is a twat of the highest order, but we had a fabulous time, the most surreal moment being that the game in question was played in the Olympic stadium on top of a mountain and most people ended up catching the open-air escalators up the side of the hill. It was wet and the flagstones were slippy and inevitably some of the more inebriated England fans decided to race each other up the adjoining steps to the tune of “Rocky” before going arse over tit to the general amusement of everyone else.
Okay so some of the fans got helplessly drunk, a few were boorish, some of the tree climbing antics in the main square before the game got a bit out of hand, but there wasn’t any trouble, the police kept their distance and 12,000 England fans managed to go to Barcelona, enjoy themselves and leave it in one piece. No rioting, no baton charges or chairs flung through windows, there still remains a stubborn minority of old school “no surrender” mob, those that aren’t banned that is, but they are now so out numbered by people who want to have a great time rather than recreate World War Two that the peaceful majority are what you now see as the norm.
Our recent trip to Paris to see England play France was typical. We had a brilliant two days, the actual game was crap (the more I go the worse we get!) but we didn’t care, that wasn’t the point, just as watching the Gills away is partly about the trip, the banter, the memories, so it is with England when it comes to friendlies. It would have been nice not to lose, great to score but it wasn’t to be. As chief organiser of our trip it was just a relief it all went to plan…
Nine of us travelled to Paris the “pikey way” – with Eurostar long since sold out of budget tickets we opted to go by P&O ferry and local SNCF train. As ever there were a few worries, two weeks before we left Seafrance were on strike meaning “operation Stack” and long delays to P&O services. A week before we went the weather was so bad the port was closed and the French railways were on strike. Thankfully everything was sorted as we embarked on the 08.25 sailing for Calais. There were plenty of other England fans onboard but few were daft enough to take our chosen route. When we got to Calais we caught the slow stopping service to Amiens. The same route that people took down to Etaples for the Gills’ Le Touquet friendlies a few years back. It was something out of the 1950’s the train clanked and gurgled and rattled unconvincingly through the bland northern France countryside stopping at every hamlet but we didn’t really care, most of our number had bought a slab of beers to share for the journey and the Faversham mob opted for boxes of wine… We did meet some people with an even more convoluted plan, a trio of Sheffield University students trying to “blag” their way to Tallinn in Estonia for £15 in the name of charity. Full marks for getting as far as Calais for £2 but a resounding “could do better” for their geography, getting on a slow train south to Amiens rather than a fast one north east to Belgium was not a masterstroke.
Having changed at Amiens we got a faster train to Paris arriving at the Gare du Nord at 16.20 French time. We checked into our, ahem, budget hotel, met up with the tenth Gill in our party who’d flown in from Amsterdam and with four RC Lens fans who come over to watch the Gills once or twice every season. They had kindly bought tickets in the French end for the half our of number who aren’t Englandfans members and so didn’t have tickets in the official away end.
When we got home and then told people we went to Paris for a couple of days most people would ask what did we see? The Arc de Triomphe? The Eiffel Tower? The Champs Elysees? The Louvre? Nah, we stood outside some bars opposite the Gare du Nord drinking beer, mingling with other England fans and soaking up the atmosphere. It was jovial, boisterous but not confrontational and Herve and the rest of the Lens boys just wanted to see and hear the England fans in full voice, flags hung from every available vantage point including two Gills flags naturally.
We then caught the RER train out to the Stade de France, a true modern marvel when it was unveiled for the 1998 World Cup but now, ten years later, not nearly as good as Wembley. Set in a similarly unpromising suburb the stadium has numerous temporary bars on the equivalent of Wembley Way for the 78,500 crowd. We joined in the happy throng, “signing in” at the temporary Englandfans cabin to get our “caps”, sampling the atmosphere, enjoying the anticipation of a big match and Beckham’s 100th cap and invariably bumping into still more Gills fans.
As ever when we go abroad there was no official programme on public sale, just a semi-official freebie issued by the stadium (all long gone) and rumours of an official free one only distributed within the corporate and VIP sections! Bloody amateurs! Likewise getting into the stadium itself was a right old palaver, a top tip is to always allow extra time to get in (although one of our number took this to extreme taking his seat a full hour early due to previous consumption of copious amounts of red wine and a failure to adjust his watch to French time) – it is never as smooth or painless as in England, and this was no exception. With painstaking searching of fans a scrum rapidly developed, it wasn’t pleasant and once finally inside the ground the signage was rotten and the stewarding clueless.
I ended up in the wrong section in the wrong block but it didn’t matter because nobody was sitting in their right seats, we all stood for the entire duration of the game, many in the aisles as is the tradition at England away games. I didn’t mind, the atmosphere wasn’t too bad and being towards the back of the lower tier wasn’t a bad view. The actual stadium was better than I was expecting, I thought the space between the goal and the stands would be more of a problem but it wasn’t that different from Wembley really. It is a pretty spectacular ground, perhaps a bit bland but then modern bowl stadiums often are. We had French fans on the tier behind us which made for a few lively moments but generally the home fans weren’t very noisy at all. Fair play to the locals though, they gave Beckham a generous hand for his hundredth cap but otherwise were subdued.
As to the game, well it was a friendly, France are a very good side, one of the best in the world, we’re not at the moment, were going through a transitional period under a new manager. We weren’t stuffed, we competed but we were creatively barren and lost. The goal was a penalty, James brought down Anelka and Ribery stroked home the only goal (32 minutes). For the only time in the game the home fans made a right old din, but it soon faded like the England performance. We huffed and puffed, Beckham went off, some more strikers came on and still we couldn’t even fashion a chance worthy of the name. Something is missing from the current team, the spark, the flash of genius, the magic fairy dust, we see these self same players on television every week performing like true greats for their clubs and yet put them together and collectively for whatever reason they don‘t. It is a mystery (partly mental) which Fabio Capello will have to solve if he wishes to keep his job beyond 2010…
Post match and our journey back to Gare du Nord went very smoothly, more than one station serves the Stade de France meaning no significant queuing. Then it was back to the same bars opposite for more beers although to be honest when we finally headed for bed just before two I’d had enough, it had been a long day. I was glad I wasn’t one of the England fans we’d met who had nowhere to stay and were planning to stay up all night drinking in bars before catching the first train home at six o’clock in the morning.
The next morning we all resurfaced and some even braved a traditional breakfast of croissant and a 12 euro stein of beer! Rather them than me. Our return journey to Calais was via the Eurostar to Calais Frethun, it meant checking in as if we were heading for St Pancras. Our original tickets got lost in the post before we went so had to get them reissued. Eurostar mistakenly put London rather than Calais on four of them which meant when we disembarked at Calais the French authorities were totally non-plussed by our desire to get off the train before it got to England. There were other England fans from Canterbury following the same curious but cheap route, we swapped tales of our adventures abroad before they rushed off for an early ferry. Our progress was far more stately, more beer, more frites, most banter before catching the ferry back to Blighty. Another set of positive memories going to watch England stored away. Thankfully the bad old days of hooligans running amok are a thing of the past, the banning orders work and the policing is more sophisticated. The biggest change though is cultural, we as a nation are now more widely travelled and worldly wise. The ignorance and arrogance of the past if not completely gone is now diluted by “normal” people who might drink too much beer or like hanging obscure club flags from bus stops, but who mean no harm and do no harm except perhaps to your eardrums. Progress at last, just a shame the same can’t be said for the fecking team!