Why I chose Manchester United over England.
Ten years ago the unthinkable happened. I remember it well; I was working until six and the whole town seemed to shut down by five. Still my boss wouldn’t let me knock off early and it was only an uncharacteristically energetic dash to the pub that ensured I made it in time for kick off.
Thank God I did; despite going behind we turned the match on its head and routed the opposition. Our biggest tormentor was on his knees! The reaction to the goals ranged from disbelief, to jubilation, to hysterical laughter. Every single goal was scored by an employee of Liverpool football club yet it mattered not one bit. I felt on cloud nine. A huge night unfolded as it seemed everyone was sharing the joy. We had all won and partisanship was put aside as we celebrated into the night. Our small town nightclub even lifted it’s prohibition on wearing sportswear so the dance floor could be filled by polyester Umbro shirts stained with Metz and Boddingtons.
I’m 28 years of age and for my generation that demolition of Germany in Munich sits alongside the drubbing of Holland five years earlier as genuinely great moments watching England. Sadly they are isolated incidents and I have never felt that same rush when watching my nation since. I have fallen out of love with my national team and I’d like to explain why.
My experience of watching England stands in stark contrast to watching Manchester United where I have been fortunate to grow up in an era where the footballing Gods have lavished Old Trafford with gifts. The charges of glory supporter are inaccurate but I would endorse any accusations of being a lucky swine. I have written about my United loving Dad in an earlier blog on Jaap Stam and it is fair to say that following the Reds was never my choice – no alternative was conceivable whilst I lived under his roof. Naturally I thank him for having the decency to bring a son into the world just a decade before they would rule like Kings over English football.
It might well be that this fortunate coincidence in terms of my club’s success has had a detrimental impact on my appreciation of an under-performing national team. It is no coincidence that the happier times of my England viewing were in the period where Beckham, Neville, and Scholes formed the nucleus of the side yet it is the treatment of those cherished United players that has contributed to the aquiescence I feel towards the national team today.
It could be argued that becoming England captain was the beginning of the end of Beckham at United. Unquestionably his greatest season in a red shirt followed his ‘ten heroic lions, one stupid boy’ World Cup shame – where it was conveniently forgotten that he was arguably England’s most impressive player in the tournament. The way that the press villified perhaps their greatest emerging young talent for a moment of madness left a bad taste which despite seeming to be washed away by United’s subsequent success subconsciously lingered. The way that Beckham embraced the captaincy and showed such pride for his nation was admirable yet I have always felt more than a little annoyed that he was so happy to accept this superficial redemption. The sycophancy lavished upon him by a press who had targetted him just years earlier deserved to be held to account. It says more about my paranoia than reality that I felt that our number 7 had chosen the Three Lions over the Red Devil. It certainly didn’t suppress Ferguson’s growing suspicion that Brand Beckham and Manchester United were destined for divergent paths.
The ‘criminal’ misuse of Scholes has been in my view over exagerrated. The popular narrative of a creative genius shunted out to the left wing begins to fall apart when you consider that this was as part of a midfield diamond, that Ferguson himself had deployed him in the same role several times, and that the greatest creator of the modern era Zinedine Zidane occupied a very similar role. Scholes contribution to my waning passion was his retirement from international football. If the most talented player to come from a nation in the last twenty five years chooses to forego representing them then something is wrong. If the national team wasn’t the pinnacle for Scholes why should it be so for me?
Neville has been extremely forthcoming on his national service in a quest to raise funds for his latest legal battle over his telly-tubby eco-mansion. He has gone as far as to dismiss his international career as a ‘wasted opportunity.’ Yet Neville himself can be considered part of the problem. He has always put United first and been proud of the fact. His famous leadership of the aborted strike in response to Rio Ferdinand’s suspension is a case in point; perhaps I am doing him a disservice but I doubt he would have been moved to such action had the Peckham funster been a resident of West London or Merseyside. Club rivalry was endemic within the camp as Andy Mitten explains in his excellent recent article on United and England. If the players themselves saw England as secondary to their clubs, then why shouldn’t I feel the same way?
I should also point out that with age often comes cynicism. As an over-enthusiastic, idealistic Seventeen year old it was easy for me to get swept up in the England national hysteria. At that stage I didn’t even really view the national team and the FA as being particularly related so the English FA’s duplicitous behaviour over United’s withdrawal from the FA cup was not a factor. However as I have grown wise it has become increasingly apparent that unpleasant forces surround and consume Project England and I want nothing to do with them.
The FA sees the national team as a convenient poster boy – massaging the egos of the members of the old boys club who view spending millions on the latest hired hand from abroad as preferable to investing in the grass roots of the national game.
The Gutter Press use the national team to perpetutate their jingoisitic, shameful attitude to global history whilst at the same time eagerly attempting to crack the code for Ashley Cole’s voicemail in the hope of a sordid Sunday splash on the eve of a big game to achieve maximum exposure. I’m counting the days until their beloved ’Arry finally takes over and they get what they deserve.
The fans who infest the half empty ‘national’ stadium viewing their admission ticket as a right to abuse those players who dare to turn out for a different club to the one who’s replica shirt they stretch to its limits. Even this pales next to the aural hatecrime that is the INGERLUND band.
Phase one of my giving up on England came in 2003 when I endured yet another tedious friendly – this time away in South Africa – and realised that my life was richer when I steered clear of such vapid occasions. It turned out to be the case and I confess to a misplaced feeling of superiority when workmates lament another 90 minutes of their lives wasted whilst Peter Drury shouts to convince himself that they are in fact witnessing a ‘spectacle.’
Phase two came when I realised that qualifying games against Andorra, etc were no more enthralling than the friendlies I had already abandoned. Football on television is approaching saturation and summer aside the chance to watch a quality encounter is never far away – so I treat the international break as just that… a break. Try it. Your family will appreciate the gesture and you’ll feel released from the grinding chore of trying to find positives in a one goal victory over Azerbaijan. This comes with the caveat that for games that really matter I will feel compelled to watch but as a fan of sporting theatre rather than any great attachment to England.
Phase three is to no longer feel any attachment to my national side in tournaments. It is an enticing prospect, and it would be fantastic to not feel in any way connected to our archaic brand of football but this is a step I’ll struggle to take. I love World Cups. Even boring ones like 2010 fill me with anticipation and excitement of different football cultures clashing head on in a tournament atmosphere. It would be churlish and self-defeating to distance myself entirely from my national team – I am English after all. However it is indicative of how far along the path I have gone that the tears of the ’96 and ’98, that were replaced by the anger and hurt of ’00 and ’04, have since been replaced by indifference and even in the case of ’10 laughter. To come away from your nation being mauled excited about the spatial awareness of your opponents attack suggests that a close bond no longer exists.
As a footballer today the Champions League has replaced the World Cup as the capstone of quality. Players of all nations compete for their club sides. Players who train together each day, who can be moulded by their managers, who cultivate an identity and style. International football does not afford this opportunity. The reality is that making the first eleven of Manchester United is a far greater achievement than winning an international cap. Manchester United are viewed throughout the globe as amongst the top ten teams currently playing the game.
So why have my thoughts turned to my relationship with England? As Ferguson has publically noted, the nation who routinely revel in lambasting our club have now once again turned to it to improve their fortunes. The flagbearers of the new dashing, exciting side of the Ferguson era are embarking on their own England careers. What joys await them? Scrutiny of their anthem singing? In-fighting with the City contigent? Scapegoating for yet another tournament failure? Good luck boys, you’ll need it.
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