Football may not have come home, but then it never really left

Deep down, the English probably know that the past few weeks were a glorious blip

It was a stroke of genius by someone in RTÉ to schedule a rerun of Cormac Hargaden's evocative documentary on John Giles on the same week that England's World Cup dreams evaporated in a haze of flung warm lager.

What a bewildering few days and nights it has been for England. As if losing in extra-time to a skilled and granite-carved Croatian team wasn’t enough, they then had to watch in their millions a stern-faced Roy Keane admonish the nation as if it had been a mouthy child, like a school teacher out of a Frank O’Connor story administering six of the best for the child’s own good.

As if it wasn’t sufficiently tortuous to see that golden early spell when, but for a little more cold-hearted composure and a dash of finesse, England could have gone two- or even three-nil up before the Croatians realised what was happening, they then had to go through the slow dismantling of what had been constructed in the English imagination over the previous fortnight: a willingness to dare that this version of England could actually go all the way. There must have been half an hour there on Wednesday night, England leading 1-0 after Kieran Trippier’s confidently thumped free kick, that the shires and cities were buzzing in a harmony seldom felt.

What will make this summer so memorable, for the English, is that these few weeks were at once very real – because they felt them and lived them, in the pubs and parks and beaches where they turned out to watch the matches – and an illusion because by the time Big Ben chimed for the evening news, it was all over and they were as far away as ever. Worse still, it emerged that Luka Modric, Croatia’s impish midfield genius, not content to merely play his country into its first ever World Cup final, was crossly berating England’s media for its overbearing arrogance, revealing that his team had taken succour from all the gassy predictions and bright hope. Suddenly “It’s coming home”, the dear old catchphrase – the wish spoken out loud – had become a stick with which to beat England and its conceits.


Then came Trump

How did this happen? They had a manager who could not have been more gallant and who had stepped out of a Savile Row catalogue; a team of nonstars who were ’umble to a fault; they’d gone down fighting (Trippier staggering from the field will become the iconic image of that night) to the bitter end. They had done everything right – and still they were mocked for it. As if all the crushing disappointment and self-questioning wasn’t enough, the English then had to cope with the state visit of Donald Trump, who within 48 hours managed to threaten and insult all of Britain and mangle the English language, prompting this outburst from Will Hutton, political economist and principal of Hertford College, Oxford:

“It is beyond extraordinary. Trump holds Britain in complete contempt. Mrs May should reciprocate, cancel tomorrow’s meetings and ask him to leave. Let’s get off our knees as a country, walk tall and stop conniving in the new lows and humiliations wrought on us by Brexit.”

It was the definition of a rough week. One minute, football is coming home. The next, your country is given the dog-and-lamppost treatment by the ultimate American idiot.

It has only been through this World Cup tournament, which, because of Southgate’s prudent management of expectation, was a hugely positive experience for the players, that the unspeakable pressure on previous England teams and players bears comparison. Ever since 1990, England teams were puffed up and built up in the English media only to be savaged in headlines (Swedes 2, Turnips 1) when they underperformed. The players resented the sense that the media and public were just waiting for them to fail, and the inevitable failure gave way to a wave of self-loathing. Then, in the vacuum months, talk would turn to a new manager: could Kev Keegan be the man? These few weeks in Russia have felt light and genuinely optimistic and, in a strange way, kind of naive.

And so “It’s coming home” took off as a kind of charm, and it’s only now, when it’s all over, that the true meaning of the phrase was questioned. What did it even mean?

Born narrator

Watching Giles revisit his landmark places and moments offered what may be the best answer. It’s a terrific documentary, not least because it highlights something that you don’t really notice about Giles in his role as a television analyst: he is a born narrator with a distinctive voice. But there’s a moment very early in the film when Giles returns to Elland Road. A few fans happen to spot him and he obliges them with photographs. One young man, an Asian fan and probably just a weekend visitor to Leeds, can’t get over his luck at having come across one of Don Revie’s gods in the flesh. “I can’t believe this,” he says, overjoyed.

Giles’s football story runs through the heart of the evolution of English football from the 1950s, from the tough apprenticeship at Old Trafford to the terrible romance of the Busby Babes, the emergence of Leeds United under Revie, the doomed few weeks with Brian Clough. Those were stories that riveted generations of Irish fans and, as England’s football league became a global phenomenon, so football fans around the world have become fascinated by the rich histories and stories and personalities of the football clubs that provided the glamorous front to England’s steadfast industrial cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and London.

England’s football clubs have an international allure that the prestige clubs of Germany or France or even Spain can’t really match. It is through the clubs and the desire of fans from around the world to ally themselves to the hopes and emotions of Everton or Arsenal or Spurs, that the vague idea of England as the home of football takes root through a phrase that was popularised through a throwaway pop song.

A glorious blip

Deep down, the English probably know that the past few weeks were a glorious blip. Germany in a tizz. Argentina in absolute turmoil. Italy and Holland not even at the tournament. There was a sense that whatever force was behind the legacy of hurt and bad luck and humiliation of earlier tournaments was suddenly working with England. The lectures from Keane and Modric afterwards were sort of proof of the centralised role English football plays in the international imagination.

The odd thing was that it was possible to detect, beneath Keane’s hectoring tone, a slight vexation that England’s national team didn’t seize the day here. England, after all, shaped him as a footballer, just as it did Giles. Both men forged brilliant football careers on those famous grounds, and although Irish to the hilt, they have been shaped by England’s football culture.

“Johnny Giles is the conductor of the orchestra: the best passer of a ball with two feet I’ve ever seen since I was in football,” Don Revie said once. Ironically, it was that very quality which England lacked as they came tantalisingly close to returning to 1966. They may never have a better chance. France or Croatia will become world champions and retreat into a private reverie, and in a few weeks’ time, the Premier League – England’s game – will start up again. And the world will watch it.

Coming home? In many ways, it never left.