Well, thank goodness that’s all over for another four years: the crescendo and crash of hopefulness; the torn allegiances of head and heart. Football that didn’t come home. At least I can start wearing my waistcoat to work again without feeling like a turncoat. As the late Poly Styrene once sang, “Identity is the crisis, can’t you see?”
There comes a day, when you have to stop talking about ‘back in the day’. You find that the people you’re talking to weren’t even alive on that day. You learn that your teenage children are studying your own childhood in school as ‘History’. You realise that you sound like Methuselah.
They say that if you remember the Sixties, then you weren’t really there. Well, I remember the Sixties, at least the back end of them, but only from the viewpoint of a skinny little blond-haired boy wearing shorts, with nobbly knees. I still wear the knees. The end of the Sixties shaped my life, each year a milestone signposting dreams and highlighting conflict and contradictions. And it all began in 1966.
It was so exciting. We had just won the World Cup. For the first time ever. I could hardly contain myself. How exciting was that?! We had actually won the World Cup!!
No one told me it wasn’t us.
It’s my first proper footballing memory. All through that July I was glued to the TV. I remember dancing around my grandparents back garden in Coleraine at the half-time excitement of it all. North Korea! North Korea of all people, the minnows of the minnows, were three-nil up against the Portuguese in the quarterfinals. We all loved an underdog, especially one with no hint yet of a nuclear deterrent. Portugal came back to score five goals of their own of course, and caught the minnows hook, line and sinker, but then we put paid to them in the semis, didn’t we?
And so to the final. Wembley Stadium filled to the gills and more Union Jack flags than you could shake a stick at. Or shake with a stick. Our flags, our team. That opener from Haller was a sickener of course, though not as much as the equalizer from Weber in the eighty-ninth minute.
And then the extra time. Breath-taking. The Russian linesman (who turned out to be from the Ukraine, but that was one and the same thing, wasn’t it?). The counter-attack. The breakaway. All those ‘some people’ on the pitch. How right they proved to be. It was all over! We had won the World Cup.
Or rather, England had. With all those union flags, I had thought we were one and the same thing.
I don’t know where my fixation with football came from. There’s no history of it in our family. It’s not in my genes. My father went to a school where he played rugby and learned the bagpipes. My mother hid in her school’s changing rooms for a quick smoke when she was meant to be playing hockey. I kicked a football up and down our street from dawn to dusk.
Maybe it was the World Cup. Or maybe it was growing up in the same part of town as Georgie Best? He was the local hero, pudding and pie. The girls wanted to be kissed by him, and the boys cried just to be him, to play like him. Football: it was always going to get me into trouble. I mean, I’d already thought we’d won the World Cup.
The next year it got much worse. For the very first time a British team got through to the final of the European Cup. Our bhoys were about to become the Lisbon Lions. Another great television occasion, in ultra low definition. An early goal for Inter and then wave after wave of attack down the wings until those two second half goals secured an historic victory.
Celtic were European champions. Magazines and newspaper pull-outs were cannibalised as I plastered hooploads of green and white pictures, posters, and pennants all over my bedroom wall. Last year the World Cup and now the European Cup. How good at football were we?!
No one told me that young Protestant boys in Belfast weren’t supposed to support clubs like Celtic. I blame the parents. They weren’t into football, and they weren’t into bigotry either.
There were lots of us boys living in and around our street. We did lots of gender-specific boys’ stuff, and most of the boys’ stuff we did was play football. We shared our pitch with badly parked vehicles and quite a few moving ones. Matches were interspersed with shouts of “Car!” to evacuate the pitch, and endless interruptions to clean dog turds off the ball or off your feet. Some of us were Georgie Best, and some of us were cloggers. Me, I was becoming a blogger.
I wrote one of those babes-and-sucklings pieces on “My Family” so beloved by Primary School teachers. Tittering parents gathered round my contribution to the class’s wall display, reading something along the lines of “My dad is very sporty. He spends every Saturday afternoon lying on the settee watching the rugby on Grandstand.” How they laughed.
To enable my dad to develop this sporting prowess without interruption, he was more than happy for Barry to call round and take me to the football. Barry was a member of the local Youth Club and his dad was a director of Glentoran Football Club in East Belfast. Barry would pick me up on a Saturday afternoon, walk me through the ‘entry’ to catch the Mount Merrion bus down to the Oval. He’d carry me over the turnstile and into the black green and red world of the Cock ‘n’ Hens, the ‘Glens’.
Only weeks after Celtic’s greatest triumph, Glentoran were drawn against Benfica in the first round of the next season’s European Cup. It was a dream tie for fans brought up on a diet of Irish League football and pre-season friendlies against makeshift English League sides. The Glens took the lead at the Oval and held it until Eusebio scored a late equaliser. In the away leg they held on for a scoreless draw. This was the first year the “away goals” rule was used in European football. Benfica went through to the next round because they had scored one more away goal.
It was floodlight robbery. This was the season that Benfica went on to play Manchester United in the final of the European Cup, again at Wembley. To this day I swear that the away goals rule robbed me of seeing Glentoran in that final against Man Utd. As it is, United won that famous night at Wembley, and Bestie, our local hero, scored two of the four winning goals. From that moment, I was a confirmed lifelong Man Utd fan and, because I knew that all Man Utd fans have to live in Manchester, the day I left school was also the day I packed up my Glentoran hat and scarf and set off to enrol at the nearest university I could find to Old Trafford.
When, some years later, I settled down, I still settled only a short tram ride from Old Trafford. The person I settled down with had had the adolescence I had been denied – watching Bestie play at Old Trafford, driving past his goldfish bowl house in Bramhall, hanging round his night club hoping for a glimpse – though none of that influenced me at all in my choice of life partner, you understand. We announced our engagement in a United v Sunderland matchday programme and watched the game as usual from the Stretford End.
This World Cup in Russia has left me confused and conflicted. The person I have lived with all these years outgrew football, fell out of love with the beautiful game, fell into more than occasional exasperation with my continuing obsession. Yet as this 2018 World Cup progressed, I realised that she wasn’t just watching all the England games, she was totally absorbed by them, wrapped up in them, living every kick of every ball. I feigned indifference to it all, my country hadn’t qualified…
“Don’t start all that Northern Ireland nonsense!” she began. ” You’ve lived and worked most of your adult life in England, your children have all been born and bred here, you haven’t…”
She hadn’t been suckered in by 1966. She hadn’t been betrayed by bigotry in 1967. She hadn’t moved her life lock, stock and barrel based on 1968. She doesn’t understand that loyalties and identity in football aren’t up for negotiation. Football is always about your first love, never about a latest fling.
And yet I’m secretly glad that England did so well. I loved the great humility of their early expectations. I loved the way their youthful multi-cultural team has grown together in a way that assembled prima donnas seldom can. I loved a nation overcome by surprise at unity in this most fractious of times. I loved the way their manager, through all his unassuming ways, laid waste to our assumptions of how ‘management’ has to be.
And I love that even in this day and age, there is at least one other unpretentious person in the world who wears a waistcoat to work!