The Beautiful Game Versus The Black Dog

A very personal subject and a huge issue for modern sport.

The life of a footballer, or indeed any professional athlete, is one fans envy; the glory, the money, the fact they’re being paid to do a job an ordinary fan would probably do for free. It makes them seem superhuman to us mortals. But what about the person behind the fame and Luis Vuitton washbag? What about when the dream turns into a nightmare and we see the real human behind the veneer?

As males we’re told from an early age to “man up”, were told that “boys shouldn’t cry” and all the usual “stiff upper lip” macho nonsense. Depression is an unseen illness, there are no outward physical symptoms, and even in 2018 people who claim to be living with the symptoms of depression are sometimes thought of as weak minded or are merely making it up. The real shame in all of this is that some young boys and adolescents actually believe this and by the time they move into adulthood they’re a lot less likely to discuss their feelings (something which is seen as a feminine trait) especially with their peers. Now imagine you’re a footballer, from the time you’re barely into your teens you’re taught to be strong, both mentally and physically, to be better than everyone else. This elitist attitude is certainly a good trait when we’re moulding our next generation of footballers, however it magnifies those fears of weakness and isolation when mental health problems arise.

There have been many well publicised cases of players receiving help for mental health conditions; Chris Kirkland, George Green, Stan Collymore, Darren Eadie, Aaron Lennon, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Adrian Mutu, Fernando Ricksen, Andrew Cole and Paul Merson, to name a handful. Some of those players are a big presence on the pitch, a captain, the face of their club. Even Juventus legend, Gianluigi Buffon, sought treatment for depression in 2003. During an interview later on he recalled the “dark periods” he had experienced. It is safe to assume if a hugely successful and iconic player such as Buffon can experience depression then absolutely anyone can. One may ask the question “what does he have to be depressed about?” But when you’re in that zone nothing else matters; the money, the big house, the adulation of the fans. Nothing. One would easily give it all up in a heartbeat just to feel better again.

If there is anything good to come from their struggles it is that their public recognition of the illness has given the courage to a number of fans and players to admit they need help. Former Arsenal captain, Tony Adams, who was jailed in December 1990 for drink driving as a result of years of alcoholism, set up the Sporting Chance foundation in 2000. It provides a quiet, safe environment for male and female athletes to receive counselling and treatment for all types of mental health problems. They have also branched out into training and education and regularly attend organisations across the UK to spread the word of addiction and mental health treatment.

In Germany, Teresa Enke, widow of Robert Enke, formed a foundation in his name after he committed suicide on 2009. The aim of the foundation is to help educate people about depression and heart conditions in children (those familiar with Enke’s story will know his daughter died from a heart condition, aged just 2 years old). In October 2016 they developed the EnkeApp, which not only provides information on mental health treatment but also acts as an emergency help button for people contemplating suicide. By using the app an alert is sent to the emergency services and users can be located via GPS.

There are, unfortunately, more players like Robert Enke, who have attempted to take it a step further than most and tried to end their lives. Justin Fashanu committed suicide in May 1998 after experiencing problems after publicly admitting he was gay in 1990. Former Leeds United and Newcastle United player, Gary Speed, also committed suicide in 2011. Although no history of mental illness had been reported by Speed or his family, it is believed the pressures of managing his professional and personal life contributed to his decision to end his life. Speed’s death evoked action by the FA as they sent out a booklet on mental health to all their members and over 50,000 former players. It may only be a booklet but at the very least the problem is being recognised by the FA and the best case scenario is with a greater awareness of the matter tragedies like this will be prevented.

If society is to rid itself of years of ridicule and ignorance around mental health, then it needs to get away from sensationalism of the issue. It is an illness, not an affair with a porn star. By the same token when a celebrity tells the public they’re gay, why does everyone go into a frenzied meltdown? The issues of mental health and sexuality, while important to people’s lives, are no more sensational than boiling an egg. Admittedly the more exposure these issues have, the less likely they are to appear shocking. However, it is a very fine line which the media treads, in the case of The Sun, they’re about 40 miles past the line. In 2003, boxer, Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The Sun ran a front page headline stating “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. This was hardly a surprise from such a less than reputable newspaper and it certainly didn’t help people accept the seriousness of the situation, instead it made a joke out of it when it was anything but.

In the 15 years since then there have been huge strides made to raise awareness of the issue, charities like Mind and CALM have helped people to better identify the symptoms and get the help they need. As a result, society is more educated and a little more compassionate towards those in the same situation, but the stigma of weakness still exists. That stigma is made up of two parts, the first being a general ignorance around mental health itself, the second is the perception towards players of the wider public. These are going to be the hardest issues to tackle and changing people’s attitudes in an increasingly opinionated world is going to be hugely difficult.

Footballers suffer from the problem that their profession is right in the middle of the media spotlight, we all know this goes with the territory and most people believe the players themselves court this hype. However, when things go wrong the feelings of guilt when they’re being expected to perform without question and be a role model, week after week, are significantly increased. Last year 160 Professional Footballer’s Association members sought advice and help for mental health problems through the association; 62 of which were current players and managers. The question is how many more out there need their help but feel too ashamed because of the stigma, to speak up?

It is churlish to place footballers above everyday people simply because of their profession. Nearly 20% of the population in the UK are affected by anxiety and depression, however in most cases because the average fan cannot relate to the life of a modern footballer they often take their admittance less seriously than people of their own peer group, as a result footballers are seen to be attention seeking or exaggerating to gain the public’s sympathy. The footballer’s feelings of how they will be perceived is part two of the stigma and places most of them in an impossible situation.

The negative perception isn’t just restricted to opposition fans and the media. In February 2018, Cowdenbeath player, David Cox, described how he was not only the target of fans but also opposition players for merely speaking publicly about his own mental health problems. No doubt it took Cox great courage and determination to not only face the fact he needed help but to also speak up and acknowledge it for everyone to hear and judge. The positive work by charities, the NHS and the football authorities has increased awareness but the David Cox case highlights the point that most footballers aren’t afforded the luxury that you or I have; namely keeping these issues within a close network of family and friends. It is little wonder footballers suffer in silence or speak up when the situation is much worse than it needs to be.

The focus for awareness amongst footballers tends to be on those who are in their 20s and 30s and are at the peak of their careers, however there also needs to be significant attention afforded to what players do with their lives after retirement. Their career is very short when compared to the majority of professions and they can be out of the game by their mid-30s, some retire earlier, whether through injury or just a simple lack of ability. Long gone are the days where a footballer retired to run a country pub or a post office, and even with vast sums of cash in reserve, not properly occupying your time can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. Without sensible investment, education and preparation for retirement during their careers a former player can easily spiral out of control and struggle with loneliness, boredom and debt and turn to drugs, alcohol and gambling, amongst others, as coping mechanisms. Many players have ended up penniless within years of retirement; Geoff Hurst had to claim unemployment benefit in the early 1980s after leaving football for a short while (it is a scandal the FA didn’t offer him a job for life, but I digress). Former Aston Villa player, Lee Hendrie, was almost another tragic case; he tried to commit suicide twice before being declared bankrupt in 2012. Former England goalkeeper, David James, is another example. Despite playing at the highest level for a number of years (and thus being expected to have accumulated a significant retirement fund) was declared bankrupt in 2014.

It is a fair argument that these players, who have had everything done for them from their youth days in the academies, aren’t used to fending for themselves, especially where financial matters are concerned. The responsibility is not only with the individual and their club but also with their agent. A good agent will obviously guide and advise the player, however in a world of ‘super agents’ who very often appear to be acting in their own interests, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn this doesn’t happen very often. It will certainly be interesting to see how the players of today manage when they retire over the next decade.

There is also a need, one which is probably more important than focusing on adult professionals, and that is to ensure tomorrow’s adults are well cared for. The necessity for clubs to be an extension of social services is more vital than ever with hundreds of young men and women being released by English academies every year. They have been fed a dream of money, fame and glory from an early age and to have it taken away and be pushed out into the big, wide world can often be too much for some. In March 2013 a young man who was released from a Premier League academy at 16 committed suicide after suffering with mental health problems following his release. Currently English academies provide education and training for players between the ages of 16 and 18, as well as teaching life skills and emotional wellbeing courses. Significantly both the Football League and Premier League manage their players’ expectations throughout their time in the academies and keep in touch with the boys and girls they release for up to four years after. It is hoped by demonstrating a dedication to the duty of care beyond the football pitch they can help prevent the tragic suicide of 2013.

Depression and other mental health conditions are extremely complex and while patients can be medicated and treated one can simply not explain the power of the mind, the power that it holds over us, every day. Depression is an abhorrent illness and one which makes the sufferer disengage from society. This is its most debilitating symptom; it makes you do exactly the opposite of what you should do in order to receive help; it prevents you from speaking up.

This article has been troubling to research and write, not least because of my own personal experiences with depression, but I am glad I did. I usually sum up my articles with a question or give the reader something to think about, this time I’ll change it slightly and bring myself into it. I too have met with my fair share of negativity on the subject of my own mental health, but I believe the world is much more educated and sympathetic than it used to be. While writing this has brought back a lot of old memories it is nothing compared to that of the tragedies face by the Enke, Speed and Fashanu families. I survived, I received help. Over the years I have managed to more or less deal with this horrific illness and I urge anyone reading this who is struggling to cope to seek help, see your doctor or speak to one of the many mental health charities out there. Former Wigan Athletic and Liverpool goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, said in an interview, “I just want people to know that you’ve got to talk. I never saw a way out until I started talking” I agree with him; it worked for me.

www.mind.org.uk

www.thecalmzone.net

Chasing Rainbows – Memoirs of 1996, Part Two…

“Why didn’t he just hammer it?”

Holland provided the last test of the group stage. Often flattering to deceive, the Dutch were a team at war with each other. Childish in-fighting marred their campaign and at times it appeared they just didn’t want to be there. England just needed a point to qualify and was their first evening game of the tournament which meant cooler conditions for both fans and players. The game started brightly and England took the lead, the rejuvenated Shearer tucked home a penalty after Paul Ince was fouled. That was the first half. Fairly comfortable. England on the brink.

The second half, or at least 20 minutes of it, produced, arguably, some of the finest counter attacking football seen by England. Time and again the Dutch defence was carved open and England scored three goals in 11 minutes to completely blow Holland out of the water. It was simply effortless, clinical and quite frankly, surreal. Teddy Sheringham, one of the most underrated players to pull on the three lions shirt, was instrumental in the victory. A visit to YouTube for those of you who haven’t seen the goals is definitely worth a minute of your time. It was men versus boys, Oasis versus Blur, Premier League versus Sunday League. More choruses of Three Lions filled the packed out Wembley stands. This is what balmy summer evenings were made for, surely?

To this day it is still spoken of in the same sentence as the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich in 2001 and I was lucky to have witnessed it. A small footnote was Patrick Kluivert’s consolation for Holland. It meant Holland qualified ahead of Scotland as they had a superior goal difference. Poor Scotland! The next day I rushed off to the shop and bought a paper, the English media are known for their borderline racist/World War-related headline puns and the Mirror’s ‘E-Dam Busters’ was the pick of a sorry bunch. Unfortunately it wasn’t the last time the media would embarrass themselves and the country during the tournament.

Spain were up next in the Quarter Final. The nation had gone completely Euro 96-mad over the previous week. There was blanket TV coverage and everyone was talking about the tournament and the team; there was no escape. It had truly captured the imagination of the nation, at last. As ever when there is massive expectation of the England team they rarely deliver and this was no exception. I watched between my fingers in my living room as England were outplayed by a very unfortunate Spainish side. If the Scotland game had been the starter, the Holland game the main course, then this was the very dry and lifeless dessert. Penalties were an inevitability and I was actually thankful when they arrived. England’s self inflicted penalty shootout hell wasn’t quite as prominent in 1996, although I had witnessed the penalty defeat to West Germany in Turin in 1990; I was 11 and was allowed to stay up and watch the penalty shoot out. I went to bed in tears though. Stuart Pearce, who had missed in that 1990 shootout, blew away the demons of six years earlier and struck his penalty home. It could’ve all gone horribly wrong for him and his fist-pumping celebration of joy and relief still brings out the primordial patriot in me. All of England’s player scored their kicks and Seaman, the other hero of the day, saved Miguel Angel Nadal’s penalty and sent England through to the Semi Final. Thoroughly hyped up, I went straight round to my friend’s house wanting to talk about nothing else all evening, and that’s just what we did, the memories of being extremely fortunate not to have been comprehensively beaten in normal time all but forgotten. Football was definitely coming home.

Germany would be the Semi Final opponents, a massive rival, unfortunately it isn’t just because of 1966. There is and probably always will be a World War agenda to the attitude of some England fans whenever we play Germany, it really is a shame that such attitudes still exist. I met a thoroughly pleasant, football-mad bunch of German fans in a London pub before an England and Germany friendly in 2007, the drinks flowed and the football banter did too. It’s a shame most England fans wouldn’t have given them the time of day. The good old English press certainly played up to this bizarre obsession with the War as they excelled themselves in the racist headline stakes. The Mirror’s latest offering showed Gascoigne and Pearce in World War One soldier helmets (not literally, mid-nineties photoshop), either side of the headline “Achtung! Surrender! For you Fritz the Euro 96 is over” Now I’m sure the German players can read English newspapers and quite apart from the xenophobic, cringe worthy embarrassment this caused it will have no doubt fired them up too.

The game itself was a draining, sweat inducing, nerve shredding nightmare. England, in their very drab and unfamiliar, grey away kit, took the lead after just two minutes as Shearer headed in Gascoigne’s corner. His fifth goal of the tournament. This was it, we were going to do it! The country erupted. Pandemonium. I strutted around the living room, Mick Jagger-style, in delirious delight. However it was apparent England were not going to hold on to the lead, even against a mostly moribund German team and their equalizer was deserved. A cat-and-mouse game ensued in which Germany were marginally better. Extra time arrived, chances were few and far between however Darren Anderton hit the post with the ball falling straight into German goalkeeper, Andreas Kope’s, grateful hands, as the Wembley crowd gasped, howled and moaned their way through a myriad of emotions. 200 miles away I felt exactly the same.

Now there are moments in a game, usually just one, late in the game, where a team has a chance to score, this is their golden chance. Take it or leave it. A Sheringham cross was volleyed across the goal by Shearer from a tight angle, it evaded Kopke as it flew across the goal, arriving like a blonde freight train was Gascoigne, only he had checked his run in anticipation that the German goalkeeper would intercept the cross, he didn’t and the ball grazed the outstretched Englishman’s studs and carried on its way across the goal. Gascoigne lay shattered on the Wembley turf, he reflected the mood of the whole country; worn out and drained. That was the chance. That ten seconds of footage still brings me out in goose pimples. So close.

That was it. Penalties, for the second time in as many games and the real start of England’s tournament penalty shootout madness. Each team dispatched their first four (current England players take note, please), as I watched cross-legged in front of the TV unable to move, like a toddler watching The Wizard of Oz for the first time. Future England manager, Gareth Southgate, stepped up to take the fifth, he isn’t the first person you would think of as a penalty taker but his courage has to be admired. I remember Kopke hammered the ball against the crossbar during Southgate’s walk to the penalty area, forcing the England man to retrieve the ball from around 20 yards away, no doubt this played on his mind as he stepped up. I can still remember BBC commentator, Barry Davies’, loud and desperate cry of “oh no!” as Southgate’s weak penalty was saved. I burst into tears. It was over, there was no coming back (even typing this 22 years later it still brings a tear to my eye). Former Juventus player, Andreas Moller, scored Germany’s winner and that was it. TV shots showed a forlorn looking Baddiel and Skinner in the crowd, players cried during the lap of honour, coaching staff consoled each other. The world which had been so bright and joyful days earlier came crashing down in a shower of misery and sorrow. The now obligatory playing of Three Lions after the game now seemed different, hollow, as if it was now completely alien to me. I went to bed that night with the same phrase repeating in my mind “why didn’t he just hammer it?”.

The outpouring of anger and frustration was huge. Widespread rioting erupted in central London and this spilled over into many towns and cities. The spectre of hooliganism may have all but been eradicated but it was a sickening throwback to an almost pre-historic football era. England fans’ behaviour at the World Cup in France in 1998 and at Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium would be a nadir and almost lead to the team being removed from the latter tournament.

After the defeat to Germany, Euro 96 was over for me, the final was just another game. The England team, for a short time, had given the country a real sense of community in the days before widespread internet made the world seem a lot bigger and more shallow. Before Euro 96 the English population were embarrassed to admit they watched their national team, but the players representing England in Euro 96 very briefly made us extremely proud once more. From being branded as drunken thugs not more than a month ago, the same players were now the pride of the nation.

To anyone from one of the other competing nations or indeed a neutral fan, Euro 96 wouldn’t evoke many fond memories. The tournament was dominated by dreary, defensive football punctuated with only a handful of decent games, the knockout stages produced just nine goals in seven games as the new golden goal rule backfired. It had been designed to be a professional football version of the school playground next-goal-wins rule, all it ensured was the two teams would just play out the final half an hour in midfield before penalties, like some unfulfilling foreplay before the main event. The stadiums were mostly half empty and atmosphere lacking as local communities didn’t get behind the tournament in the same way the London Olympics captured the public’s imagination in 2012. However to truly understand why English people of a certain age still love the summer of 1996 one has to understand the country at the time. The wave of pop culture movements such as Britpop, under the umbrella term, Cool Britannia, still had the country in its grip. British-made art, fashion, music and film were thrust into the spotlight and held in extremely high esteem. An apparently fresher and younger Labour government was already heavily predicted to oust the Conservative government in May 1997. Even as crass, superficial and boorish as that whole era seems looking back it had a certain Englishness about it. A two fingers up to the establishment as the underdog rose up for a short while. English to the core, like a Michelin star restaurant serving Pot Noodles. Euro 96 was the cherry on top of a real eccentric and joyful cake, it was a huge caricature of mid-nineties life in England and is something to behold, to be revered and remembered. A Summer of Love-style euphoria mixed with chips and gravy, indie pop and the Union Flag.

As with most eras they tend to drift away, there isn’t a full stop but they just continue until no one is really bothered and they’re pre-occupied by the next big thing. The Cool Britannia era faded as Labour, under Tony Blair, won the 1997 election, thus ending 18 years of Conservative rule. Oasis, Blur and Pulp released albums which reflected the almost literal hangover of the era and as I approached my 18th birthday in early 1997, I didn’t know it at the time, but there would never be another summer like 1996 again.

The Boys of Summer – Memoirs of 1996, Part One…

“Football’s coming home”

June 1996, a month which  will always bring a smile to the face of English people old enough to remember the European Championships in England. Not just because the hosts reached the semi final (a semi final for England back then was almost a minimum requirement), it was just a magnificent time to be a teenager in England. It was a Summer of Britpop, Blair and blonde haired dynamic, midfielders and it felt like the whole country was on top of the world for a few months.

Personally I was 17 and had just doubled my measly £70 per week wage as I’d started my first office job. At the time though it was more than enough to keep me in clothes, cheap beer and have enough left over to watch my team, Stockport County, every other week, so for me the sense of change and growing up was huge back then. I had been looking forward to the tournament for years, I have vague memories of the 1990 World Cup in Italy and of Euro 92 in Sweden. England didn’t qualify for the corporate snooze-fest that was the 1994 World Cup in the USA and were awful in Sweden. Presiding over that period was Graham Taylor, a man who had his head super-imposed on to a turnip by the English media after defeat to Sweden at Euro 92. A behind the scenes documentary shown after his resignation showed just how much pressure he was under and it was difficult not to feel sorry for him. Being an adolescent England fan wasn’t fun.

The off the field problem of hooliganism was all but ignored by the media and the FA and had, in the main, been brought under control since the introduction of all-seater stadiums in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. In regards to the tournament itself actual football related trouble was relatively low, it can be argued this is due to a certain degree of under-reporting as the FA didn’t want to undermine their bid for the 2006 World Cup. The high price of tickets is another factor, again it can be said the FA priced out anyone they thought to be the main cause of trouble, thus ensuring a peaceful environment for the games. Domestically, there was a general good feeling that football was starting to attract a more family-friendly type of fan. While this was good for the people counting the cash, it generally wasn’t good for the atmosphere of the newly refurbished stadiums. The formation of the new Premier League in 1992 greatly developed the new wave of football fan in England. For the first time games had been broadcast via a TV subscription, it may be the norm now, but at the time it was a peek into a future of the armchair-style of consuming football games and the gentrification of football in general. The Premier League, as a separate entity to the Football League, was able to negotiate its own TV rights deal, thus instantly making the top 20 teams in the country far richer than the rest. With seemingly endless cash reserves the teams were able to attract the continent’s best players and so began the story of the Premier League we know today.

There was of course the pre-tournament pop song; long ridiculed as cliché-filled ramblings full of awkward-looking footballers mouthing the words to unspeakably awful songs on Top of the Pops. The official Euro 96 anthem was the equally awful “We’re in This Together” by Simply Red. Obviously no one remembers that, the one we do remember is “Three Lions” by the Lightning Seeds and featuring comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. The Three Lions song stayed away from cheesy pop and melodically told the world exactly what it was like to follow England since their 1966 World Cup victory; a time of being so close, yet so far. It was a catchy, simple song and was massively over played before, during and still many years after the tournament. It became the very definition of a summer football anthem and perfectly struck a chord with England fans. Although these types of songs are few and far between now, and although it is a little dated looking back, no one has come close to capturing the mood of life as an England fan since. It certainly makes me smile, even 22 years later.

 

Like any hosts England had proceeded the tournament with over two years of dull and meaningless friendlies, most of which were usually draws and all seemingly played out in the north London drizzle. The most notable exception was an away friendly in Dublin in February 1995; the game didn’t last a half as a proportion of England fans rioted and forced the abandonment of the game. A political nightmare of a game at the best of times, an apparent failure by the Irish police to act upon intelligence of pre-planned trouble allowed the game to become a magnet for those fans with anti-Irish political views. As we know friendlies are usually played in midweek and this meant the majority of the English support came from the south of the country as the vast majority of friendlies were played at Wembley. As a result, and going against the general myth that Manchester United supporters come from the south of England, players of the aforementioned club were roundly jeered and booed. It’s little wonder most United supporters like to poke fun at England’s failures and generally distance themselves from the national team.

 

Boring friendlies and rioting fans aside and despite their recent failings in major competitions the England team were still expected to do well and the comparisons with 1966 were unavoidable. England had a lot of attacking talent with Alan Shearer (despite being in the middle of a national goal scoring drought), Steve McManaman, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham, however their defence remained suspect against the best teams (this all sounds very familiar!). On the pitch England prepared for Euro 96 with the usual pre-tournament warm-up games, these games are usually against no-mark patsies and teams from the same continent as the upcoming opponents, sometimes a mix of both. In May 1996 the FA sent England to the far east to play two friendlies, no doubt in order to help grease the wheels of the Hong Kong handover to China in 1997. I remember coming home from work early to watch one game, God only knows why, as England went through the motions to avoid fatigue and injury so close to the tournament. The tour was made famous by what happened after the second game. Several of the players were caught out on the town and seemed to be enjoying the local hospitality a little more than is respectable. The most infamous photo of that night was on the front cover of most newspapers and showed Sheringham and Gascoigne among others, drunkenly fooling around. According to reports Gascoigne was lay on a dentist’s chair while the bar staff poured several bottles of spirits into his open mouth. The controversy didn’t end there as Gascoigne was apparently responsible for £5000 worth of damage to the Cathay Pacific plane which brought the team home, the squad however claimed “collective responsibility”. The outrage was understandable and there were calls for Gascoigne among others to be dropped from the squad. I remember picking up the newspaper in my local shop and thinking it was hilarious. It didn’t matter that the players looked infantile and thuggish in front of the world. It definitely appealed to my youthful, exuberant side, although in hindsight it can’t be denied it was hardly great publicity or great preparation for a tournament they were hosting.

 

Given the furore around the Hong Kong trip you could be forgiven for forgetting about the tournament but when England took the field against Switzerland on 8 June the nation expected them to be dispatched with ease. Of course we know just how disappointing England seem to be during tournaments and this was no different as the players wilted in the baking English summer. Shearer scored his first goal in an eternity but that was about it, England were happy to hold on to the lead. The Swiss, buoyed by a respectable performance in the United States two years earlier, looked more likely to win as the game wore on and they even contrived to hit the crossbar from pretty much underneath it with the game still finely balanced. They did however equalise when Stuart Pearce’s handball gifted them a penalty with eight minutes left. Personally I missed it as I was in the toilet, I might as well have stayed there. 1-1. At least England didn’t lose. The press criticism reached epic proportions afterwards, the dentist’s chair farce still fresh in the memory coupled with a drab draw in the opening game increased up the pressure ahead of a game versus their biggest rivals.

Saturday 15th June, a day I’ll never forget. I had been eagerly anticipating the Scotland game all week, my youthful optimism yet to be tainted by years of hurt. On the morning of the game I was nervously kicking a football around my back garden when I heard a very deep rumble which lasted for around 20 seconds, living near a busy road meant this wasn’t completely out of the ordinary but this was different, almost what I’d imagine an earthquake to sound like. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but around half an hour later my Mum, upon ending a phone call, told me a bomb had gone off in Manchester. For the next hour I was glued to the news, the IRA had detonated the largest bomb in mainland Britian since World War Two, causing £700 million worth of damage to the city centre. I lived around 12 miles away, as the crow flies, in the foothills of the Pennines and that rumble I heard was the echo of the bomb. It still chills me when I think of it now. Fortunately no one was killed, my cousin who had been working in the area at the time was, thankfully, evacuated when the warning was given. Seeing my home town ruined by terrorists was deeply saddening, it still is, but the regeneration of the city centre in the months and years afterwards has been spectacular, Manchester as a whole has changed beyond recognition and the city has enjoyed economic growth in each of the 20 years since then. A lot of regeneration had been carried out in the years prior to the bomb as Manchester bid to host the Olympics in 1996 and of course were awarded the Commonwealth Games of 2002, the bomb of 1996 meant a whole lot more would be carried out before those 2002 games. Manchester was one of the host cities at Euro 96 and the show went on, the game between Germany and Russia went ahead the next day after Old Trafford had been guarded overnight and searched extensively before the game. To a 17 year old awaiting a game versus Scotland the bomb quickly took second place in my conscience.

Some still question the English passion for such occasions, instead suggesting the Scots, Welsh or whoever they’re playing, take it more seriously. This is completely wrong. I can assure you, the English take a game versus Scotland just as seriously. Watching Pearce barely being able to look his opponents in the eye as they went through the pre-match handshake showed just how much it meant to the players too. I watched the game at a friend’s house and we collectively sighed as England again made a frustrating start, the summer heat taking its toll very quickly to serve up a anti-climatic first half. The second half saw a complete turnaround as England finally clicked into gear after the introduction of Jamie Redknapp in midfield. The breakthrough came in the 53rd minute, Gary Neville crossed for Shearer to head home at the far post. Cue delirium, cue Three Lions being sung with gusto; and not just at Wembley. Eventually though the nerves crept in and Adams conceded a penalty after a foul on Gordon Durie. It felt like the lyrics to Three Lions were ringing true all over again. At the time I didn’t see the ball move during Gary McAllister’s run up, all I saw was David Seaman dive to his right and push the ball away. Cue sun-stroked, sweaty teenagers hugging each other in a heap of joy. I ran to the phone in my friend’s house (no widespread ownership of mobiles in the mid-nineties) to call my half-Scottish Mum, as she picked up the phone I heard a collective scream from the living room, I ran back just in time to see Gascoigne peel away and celebrate, on his back, as though in the dentist chair again, with McManaman, Redknapp and Sheringham pouring mock spirits into his mouth. Yes I missed it. That goal. Arguably the greatest moment of his career and almost certainly his last. The game was done, England had almost qualified for the knockout rounds. For me it was time to retire to the local park with my friends, a football and several cans of cheap, watery lager. The chance to listen to a few Oasis tunes and to try and recreate that goal under the sultry evening sky wasn’t one we passed up.

Stay tuned for part two.