I was there in 1966: for many England fans that day, it was never only a game
Back then – 30 July 1966 – it was pretty well possible to park your car within a minute’s walk of Wembley’s twin towers, and when our Ford Zephyr came to a juddering halt, me clutching the envelope containing our tickets in one hand and my self-constructed union jack flagpole in the other, my dad gave me a talk I had never expected. It was not about the rarity of this moment, the first English appearance in a World Cup final since the tournament began. It was about the opposition team: West Germany. I said I knew they were good. East Germany, by contrast, were rubbish.
He told me he did not like the team we were about to play and reeled off the names of cousins of whom I had never previously heard who had died in two previous world wars. He told me about D-day, something it emerged he had a small hand in planning at Shaef, the Allied headquarters.
It was a strangely revelatory and un-Dad like moment in the car park. But looking back in 1966, the war had ended only 21 years previously, as recent in memory as now of a Labour government, and perhaps for tens of thousands at Wembley that day, it was never only a game.
For me, W. Germany – as they were described on the Wembley scoreboard – meant largely one thing: Uwe Seeler, their captain and a player who seemed to have something bionic in his calf muscles that allowed him to hang in the air waiting for the ball to meet his head in transit to goal. I remember thinking the whole German side as they came out of the tunnel looked massive alongside our motley crew. It was Seeler who got bundled over by Jack Charlton and won the free-kick that led to West Germany’s equaliser just before full time, prompting extra time and Geoff Hurst’s heroics.
For the third goal I remember clutching my dad’s hand – very un-son like – while we waited for the ref to consult the linesman, someone from Azerbaijan who supposedly had a grudge against the Germans for beating the Soviet Union in the semi-finals. He pointed to the centre circle. The ball was fully over the line. Thank God VAR had not been invented.
We waved our union jack flags, none of that St George nonsense, and roared, after nine beats: “England.”
In those days the atmosphere, as at FA Cup finals, was built solely by the ends, without the need for the synthetic blaring of the music right up to kick-off that the FA regards as part of the entertainment package fans want. At full time I innocently told my dad to let bygones be bygones. I was off my trolley. He smiled lamely.
And when it was truly all over, and I put away my treasured World Cup Willie T-shirt and my long-lost scrapbook, I had no conception that this was to be the start of 50 years of hurt. After all, the next year I was back at Wembley to see Rodney Marsh and Third Division QPR beat West Brom in the League Cup final. Wembley was where my team won.
Yes, we went to te 1990 World Cup – games in Florence, Bologna and Naples – and I remember a weekend in Lisbon in 2004 when we blagged some tickets on the day to watch David Beckham in the European Championship, only for him to balloon a penalty over the bar and blame the pitch. “It was always a Mickey Mouse tournament,” was our excuse (one currently not ageing well). We spent some time in Berlin in 2006, watching more haunted run-ups to missed penalties.
But by then my contempt for the England team had well set in. The antics of the overpaid, pissed players, the managers who studied their bank balance and not an English dictionary, the endless repetitive inquests about the English game, the excuses, the entitlement, the midweek friendlies against Moldova, Harry Kane taking the corners, followed by a newspaper industry back on the drug again four years later with the next manager dragooned into saying: “We can win the World Cup.” You just waited for club football to restart.
And the fans. England Away, through the 50 years of hurting others, has managed to attract a fascistic corps of anti-diplomats who regard trashing a bar as banter. In Portugal, and then more depressingly still at Wembley against the Czech Republic only last month, teenagers sang about the “English RAF” shooting down German bombers. None of them, not even a few, would have the first clue about the role Czech pilots played fighting alongside the RAF.
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I would never begrudge my father his sense of patriotism, but booing the national anthem of another team just leaves me not wanting to sing mine.
Whether this England team provide a form of redemption for us disillusioned ’66 vets – and yes, I would play Jack Grealish, now that you ask – Gary Lineker will help reveal on Sunday. Gareth Southgate – please God do not be Sir Gareth Southgate – seems admirably modest, and has built a team in his own image. Whatever the result, modesty, after more than half a century of misplaced hyperbole, will seem a blessed relief, and a victory of sorts.