So – last night I attended my first England football match as a neutral supporter (my only previous ‘live’ involvement with the England football team was as a Wales supporter at a World Cup qualifier in Cardiff about 6 or 7 years ago, now). I have always been taught to provide feedback using a Good : Bad : Good sandwich; so I’ll begin and end this piece with some positives. Wembley is without doubt the best stadium that I have ever visited (and I’ve been a to a few). The design manages to balance the competing demands for safety, comfort, and ease of entry/exit, with a great view (wherever your seat happens to be), and (normally) an electrifying atmosphere
This brings me to the disappointing aspect of last night’s experience. This was a ‘friendly’ encounter between England and Germany. Friendly in this context usually means ‘not part of a formal competition’, rather than amicable/chummy/matey or any of the other words that usually substitute for friendly. Although there was nothing on the game in terms of the result, this was one of the few remaining games that England will play on home soil before the World Cup finals in Brazil next summer, and I was expecting the usual rivalry between England and Germany to translate itself into some passion on the pitch and in the stands. These expectations were dashed on both counts, and spectacularly so. Bearing in mind this was pretty much a German reserve team, England struggled to impose themselves on the game throughout, and Germany’s one-nil victory would have been much more emphatic without the heroics of Engand’s goalkeeper, Joe Hart, who made three excellent saves on the night (which will have done his personal position and confidence no harm at all)
What was even more amazing to me though, was the England fans’ performance off the pitch. The rendition of the English anthem (God Save the Queen) before the kick-off was frankly butchered by a crowd that appeared as incapable of hitting the right note as the team’s strikers were of hitting the goal once the game started. The only ‘song’ that England’s supporters appear to have involves repetition of the one word : “Eng-er-land” over and over again – as far as I could tell, there wasn’t even any banter with the thousand or so German fans who comfortably out-sang the 80 times as many English fans in the stadium for pretty much the whole match. Worse than this, was the partizan nature of what support there was. It was probably a function of the match being in London on a weekday evening, but most of the supporters appeared to be followers of clubs from London. They were content to cheer and encourage contributions from players of their clubs, but appeared to have no qualms whatsoever about jeering and generally bad-mouthing England players from rival clubs (thus, Jordan Henderson’s introduction to the match from the bench in the second half was met with a clearly audible groan of disappointment and resignation from around the ground)
Whilst England were not very good on the night (and frankly have not so much as a snowball’s chance in hell of progressing very far in next year’s World Cup finals unless there is a major – and highly unlikely – improvement), there is no doubt that the crowd’s antipathy and failure to get behind their team communicated itself to the pitch and led to an increasing level of anxiety (and decline in standard of performance) amongst the players as the match progressed. Even in their darkest hours, supporters of Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have always sought to be the ‘twelfth player’ for their team at least while the game is in progress (although, admittedly, they can be pretty ferocious in their criticism of managers and players in the build-up to and post-mortem after matches
If last night is typical of the sort of ‘support’ that England’s footballers routinely receive, then it’s hardly surprising that the team often plays as though it has the weight of the world on its shoulders
To finish on a positive note, though, there is nowhere in the world that can organise the transfer of 40,000 people from a stadium onto a tube train and onto their final destinations better than Wembley!