My first memory of supporting England was the European Championships of 1996. Gary Neville would later remark that though he didn’t know it then, this was as good as it got for a young player playing for England. For me as a young fan, this was very much the Everest of my experience of watching England.
Growing up in the south of England, outside of the match itself and family I only remember meeting one Everton supporter up until the my early teenage years. My school friends supported a mixture of teams, mainly Manchester United though a splattering of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham fans in amongst them. England was and remained the first and only opportunity to watch a team where you were not very much the minority, but also one where you supported a team that wasn’t expected to lose.
I was trying to explain to a 15 year old in law about Football’s coming home and the wider context it existed in. It was an England of hope and expectation not one underpinned by the fear, security and divisive anger that underpins the Brexit debate. After 18 years the Conservatives were heading out of government and were roundly hated, Labour were due to strike one of the most impressive and sizeable electoral victory in decades and were led by a handsome, cool and yet untainted Public school boy who had seemingly modernized the party to fit with the new modernity that existed. The battle of Britpop raged and cool Britannia existed. Football was emerging from being a niche game enjoyed by young working class men (and one that was plagued by hooliganism) into the broad mass event that it would become. This is not to say one is preferable to the other, but to underpin the point that to an 8 year old it reflected an exciting moment.
I watched the knockout rounds from a family holiday space in Spain. We played football against German children and I remained impressed at their resilience, telling my mum that even if they bled when they were kicked, they would not stop or cry. In our hotel David Seamans brother, possibly trying to escape the goldfish of Euro 96 in England would travel, be recognized and mobbed everywhere he went. Fans would sing “there’s only 1 David Seaman” to him as he and his wife looked on sheepishly.
This was a nadir for my international support. England failed but did so gloriously. That summer I was bought an England kit for my birthday and it was the first and only time I was ever as happy as getting an Everton kit. It’s little signifiers like this that I can use to trace my journey in relation to the England team. Even then, England and Everton were different. My initial support of Everton was forged against desperate relegation battles of 1994 & 1995 whereas supporting England was a more relaxed and enjoyable experience where I expected them to win and I could watch them alongside other people rather than on my own.
The first time I remember a subtle difference in my feelings towards England was in the England V Scotland qualifiers in 2001. With Everton continuing to struggle in the league, there was a resentment and jealousy creeping in to kids in my school year who supported other teams who had an easier time of it. My desire for unity with them was being chipped away. Everton also had a Scottish manager with several Scottish players (Gemmill, Weir, Hutchinson & Naysmith) with no representation in the England team. When Hutchinson scored the winner at Wembley with a dominant header I instinctively jumped up and celebrated, before considering my action and pondering whether it was appropriate. I felt enormous pride for Hutchinson to have scored the winner and a team full of players who didn’t play for Everton didn’t feel massively like my team. This feeling was re-enforced at the 2002 World Cup, where England would hammer Denmark 3-0 but a part of me just felt sorry for Everton’s only representative on the pitch Thomas Gravesen.
The next turning point for me came at Euro 2004, which would see our star striker Wayne Rooney steal the show as player of the tournament. I was always particularly irked at how England supporters would now claim ownership of Rooney and how they would subsequently insist on him being sold for the benefit of England. While said England supporters were not being deliberately dismissive of Everton I found it no less condescending and irritating. Given we had lost Nick Barmby 4 years earlier following his inclusion in the Euro 2000 squad my previous confused outlook towards the England national team and it’s support base was become an increasingly angry, antagonistic one.
The passing of Rooney from an Everton hero to national treasure, alongside the subsequent move that followed left an enormous sense of bitterness, some of which I directed at the national team in the years that followed. Not only did I not consider it my team but I felt they played a part in Manchester United stealing our prized asset. Such was my anger towards Wayne Rooney for his role in the debacle I would cheer against him in almost any game he played and this extended to England. I couldn’t stand the national circus and was privately delighted when Nuno Valente’s Portugal would knock them out of the 2006 World Cup.
My own anger towards the national team continued through further tournaments. While my antipathy towards Rooney waned I found it increasingly difficult to get behind a team captained by Stephen Gerrard. At tournaments I had a policy of cheering for Everton players in games and hoping to see Gerrard lose.
In 2014 Everton would have 4 representatives at the World Cup (Stones, Barkley, Jagielka & Baines). For me all 4 were treated shodily by the England management of Roy Hodgson. Baines who had long since been the best English left back would be given his opportunity too late. He was made a scapegoat for poor performances and the desire for England fans to see Luke Shaw take his place. I always found the arrogance of England supporters telling me how superior Shaw was to Baines as annoying and led me to profile their supporters easily as arrogant and against Everton. The same would be true for Jagielka, who took the blame for a mistake made by Gerrard in heading the ball directly to Luis Suarez and Gary Cahill who failed to cover the 2nd ball (a player who never had the same scrutiny as Jagielka at national level). Ross Barkley would go into the tournament in fabulous form, and look England’s brightest prospect in the warm up games, but Hodgson would seemingly focus on what he couldn’t do, while seemingly forgiving Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling erratic performances in a national shirt.
The same mistakes seemed to be repeated in 2016. Early into the season Liverpool supporting pundit opened up the debate of Alli V Barkley (obviously siding with Alli) and it became a crescendo in the national press as the player playing for a London team was given the nod. This was in spite of Barkley’s impressive performances in the qualifiers. Barkley and Stones were the only two players to have no involvement in what was a shambolic Euro 2016 campaign, with players such as Dele Alli flopping. Yet when the next England squad was announced, manager Sam Allardyce dropped Barkley altogether from the squad, kept on a large amount of the lads who had flopped and branded it as getting tough on the failures of the summer. This was then lapped up by the press who would support the decision to drop the one player who had no involvement in the previous summers debacle. Stones who would join one of the favoured top 6 teams would find himself instantly in the team.
The lessons I could take from the England team were that if you played for Everton you would be less likely to be given a chance, if you played would be lined up as a scapegoat and if you managed to perform well they would do their upmost to disrupt Everton’s chances of keeping you. While this may appear as something of a gross over-simplification there are certainly grounds to say that Everton and England ultimately had competing interests. For me there would only ever be one winner in which side I would pick.
This tournament has changed my views somewhat. I have been impressed with Southgate on the whole, who seems to run a more meritocratic camp that previous managers, keen to appease the top teams managers and the media allies they have. I have also been impressed with the way he has stood behind Jordan Pickford. Yet the same instincts that surround the England team exist, prior to the Columbia game he was being lined up as the scapegoat, as high profile journalists pointed out he was the “weak link”.
While I don’t believe this is an intentional bias on behalf of journalists, they come from a section of the country from and have a differing set of values too most Evertonians. Most live and work in London and are acutely aware that most of the support base for the England team exists across the South of England including the situation of the national stadium. Unlike Manchester United or Liverpool we do not have legions of fans across the South of the country and are just another regional side to them. Our players make an easy sacrifice to the majority of their readership.
Identity becomes a very important thing in any football discussion about the national team. While the phrase “scouse not English” has unfortunately been increasingly adopted by Liverpool supporters who are not from Liverpool but are very much from England it begins to become a parody of the point it is looking to make, which is unfortunate. I have lived all of my life outside of the city, to two parents from the city and entire family network who still frequent it.
Growing up my dad always made Merseyside into a magical utopia, full of Evertonians and knowledgable people who had forgotten more about football than most of the people I lived with had forgotten. Not only were Everton the greatest team the world had ever seen to him, but the city itself, filled with Evertonians was a modern day nirvana of justice, equality and sense. For a young man growing up with only himself and his younger brother being Evertonians the story was a powerful one and had always created a great yearning and admiration for a place that I would only really visit every other week to watch Everton.
I appreciate everyone will have a different story to tell, yet the city of Liverpool existing outside the value set of much of the rest of the country is something that should be cherished from those within it and not taken for granted or wished away. It is that spirit that would make Alan Ball (a World Cup Winner) say that once touched by Everton nothing would ever be the same. It is what brings ex managers and players back. People will make their own mind up about England but should never lose sight of what a remarkable place the city of Liverpool is and how that is very ingrained into the values of the football club.
I have allowed myself to enjoy Englands cup run this year. I have certainly enjoyed Jordan Pickfords outstanding goalkeeping. I’ve enjoyed seeing people happy at a time of acute political and social difficulties. There is a raging debate as to whether this team is a reflection of Brexit or remain values, yet surely it unites both? It is the never say die, ferocious underdog spirit of Brexit allied to the cosmopolitan, urban and ethnically diverse nature of the remain vote.
Scouse or English? Unfortunately I cannot claim to be scouse and I would never really associate myself as massively English. I’ll stick with the label Evertonian, which works for me.