We are a mere two months away from the start of the 2014 World Cup football tournament. Media pressure is already on the England team to beat Italy in their opening match. Grumblings from the fans that England won’t get past the first stage of this tournament have already started. And of course 1966 is on everyone’s mind, the last time England won a major football trophy.
Deep down in every English football fan there is an unconscious pride for the beautiful game. England is, after all, the birthplace of football, home to the world’s first football club, the oldest domestic knockout competition (the FA Cup), and of course the very first national team.
The fact is that football has been played in England for hundreds of years. With so much experience under the belt, and what with being the founding fathers of the game, you would be forgiven for thinking that world football would be dominated by the England team.
Unfortunately world domination couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been almost half a century since a football trophy was held up on the world stage by the England team.
It’s been so long, it almost doesn’t matter anymore. As a nation we’ve abandoned all hope of seeing the England team raise a major trophy, in our lifetime at least. Almost. So as a ritual we protect ourselves by exclaiming that the national team has no hope of winning anything even before the tournament starts. From there, all England can do is pleasantly surprise us.
Once the World Cup actually gets underway, the mood will change. There will be sparks of hope, there will be excitement; because what is irrefutable about football in Britain is that the passion of the average fan is immeasurable. It can be felt every week on football terraces the length and breadth of Britain, from professional club games on a Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning games played by wannabe premier league players.
And it is that passion I wanted to share with my seven-year-old son when we took a flight together back to England a month ago. I wanted to take him to his first live football match at the ground of my own beloved team, the stadium where my football supporting years began three decades previously. We travelled light with a small case between us, carrying the precious cargo of two red, black and yellow striped woollen bobble hats that must be twenty years old.
At midday on a Saturday we set off along the M25, a journey which not only took us to Watford, but which also transported me down memory lane.
In the 1983/84 season I had stood for the first time on the terraces of Vicarage Road. Watford FC was taking on the mighty Manchester United. My dad and I were United fans (in my defence we had lived in Cheshire until a few years prior to this game). I was eleven years old, completely smitten by my first live football game. Standing on the terraces (seats in football stadiums only became standard after the dreadful Hillsborough disaster that claimed the lives of 96 football fans), soaked in the atmosphere of anticipation, excitement and unity, it felt like a second home. The match ended 0-0. It didn’t matter.
That same season Watford FC reached the FA Cup Final at Wembley. There were tears shed in our house that Saturday as the cup slipped away from the Hornets, but it served as the affirmation that I wanted to be a part of this amazing football journey. Lucky for me my parents were hooked too.
As a family we not only attended every home game but we travelled to all the corners of England to support Watford during many of their away games too. We were there for the highs, and the many, many lows.
When my parents went their separate ways I remained in Watford and I continued my annual renewal of my season ticket, right up to the 1999/00 season, after which I moved to the Netherlands.
Of course the Netherlands has its fair share of top football teams but no fan turns off fifteen years of loyalty and passion for a team just because the miles separate them. My heart remains on the terraces of Vicarage Road, however fond of the Dutch national team I have become during my expat years.
And so, one month ago, my eldest son sat sandwiched between his grandad and me in the Stanley Rous stand a month ago to watch Watford FC play Barnsley. The opening notes of the Z-Cars theme blasted out of the stadium speakers as the players entered the field; the crowd rose to their feet, cheering and singing and the match kicked off. Within minutes Watford scored their first goal. The reflex action of jumping up and cheering as the ball hit the net took over. It felt like I’d never been away.
English football may not be dominating the world stage, the national side’s trophy cabinet may have plenty of space on the shelves to fill, but the fans of this beautiful game are passionate, loyal, and devoted to their teams across the nation. And, despite hiding behind a façade of grumblings and verbal abuse, English fans remain secretly hopeful; after all you just never know, maybe THIS is England’s year……. maybe. But we doubt it.