BY JIM KEOGHAN
Thereâ€™s a special kind of puzzled look that comes over an English supportersâ€™ face when you tell them that you, a fellow English person, donâ€™t support the national side. Itâ€™s a mix of incomprehension, surprise and a tiny bit of hate. The kind of look you or I might have on our face if we witnessed a close friend purposely and ostentatiously urinating on a photograph of our family, without context.
Over the years I’ve lost countÂ how often Iâ€™ve seen that look appear when Iâ€™ve told someone that I donâ€™t follow England. In fact, itâ€™s occurred with such frequency that there have been times that Iâ€™ve considered lying, just for the sake of an easy life, and instead said that of course I love â€˜En-ger-landâ€™, that I too will weep if they exit the World Cup, and that I have also suffered [insert number] years of hurt.
Growing up in Liverpool during the 1980s, the England side was a negligible presence. I was aware of them but they were of no real consequence. They were a bit like foreign holidays, the theatre or pasta. Something for other people, not the likes of me.
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England were always seen as â€˜southernâ€™ team, a side for the people of the Home Counties to get excited about. And thatâ€™s because it was the â€˜Southâ€™ which was more readily identifiable as â€˜Englandâ€™. It was their version of â€˜Englishnessâ€™; Routemaster Buses, Big Ben, the Royal Family, warm beer in a country pub, cricket on the village green, a yellowing jigsaw box in a rural post-office window; that was the dominant national narrative.
The northern, urban experience, was nowhere to be seen in this story; no room for Manchester or Liverpool or Newcastle; no room for our landmarks, our history, our experiences. This was the England of the White Cliffs of Dover; of the stiff upper lip; of high tea and repressed sexuality.
But disconnection from this narrative was not the only thing that made following England difficult. So too did the issue of patriotism.
Those livingÂ south ofÂ the Watford Gap seemed genuinely connected to this vision of â€˜Englandâ€™. It was a connection that fuelled a sense of patriotism that only served to accentuate the otherworldly nature of following the national side. United in patriotic fervour, they could cheerfully set aside club level partisan differences and embrace a team that flew the flag that they so passionately believed in. Unable to experience this, those of us who felt disconnected could not override our own, narrow interests. The idea of putting club before country was simply unimaginable. For me, it was Everton or it was nothing.
Without a connection to â€˜Englandâ€™ and immune to nationalistic flag-waving, partisanship always came first; meaning my World Cup memories were not shaped by how well the â€˜Three Lionsâ€™ had fared but instead by how well Everton players did, such as Anders Limparâ€™s 20 minute cameo for Sweden at USA 1994; Tim Cahill scoring Australiaâ€™s first goal in a World Cup at Germany 2006 or Tim Howardâ€™s goalkeeping heroics for the USA at Brazil 2014. It was these teams that interested me and held my allegiance, not England.
And that was the case even when England boasted Everton players. Irrespective of the presence of Blues, I still could not get behind the national side. Over time I came to see this as not just indifference to the notion of â€˜Englishnessâ€™ and absence of patriotism but also a growing animosity towards these elements too. In my mind â€˜Englandâ€™ became a tarnished brand, too closely associated with â€˜Little Englandâ€™, and its various malign characteristics.
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And this hostility has only blossomed in the last few years as this section of society, through their voting patterns, slowly undermines aspects of national life about which we should be patriotic, such as universal healthcare, welfare provision and a culture of openness and tolerance to those coming into the country. As England slowly morphs into â€˜Little Englandâ€™ it gets harder and harder to associate with anything that is culturally tied to the values, emblems and narratives that this demographic celebrates.
And thatâ€™s before you even take into account the manifold other ways that â€˜En-ger-landâ€™ frustrate, such as various pre-game montages of England players looking down at their chests, then looking up as they are introduced, all set to a stirring musical backdrop, of suffering those with a casual interest in football suddenly becoming â€˜En-ger-landâ€™ enthusiasts, replete with every piece of merchandise you can imagine, and enduring a media machine that will inevitably gear up to â€˜Sun Levelsâ€™ of hysteria if the tiniest prospect of the country winning the tournament emerges in their minds (and their minds alone).
Set against all of the above, like many others, my affiliation at tournaments inevitably varies. Sometimes itâ€™s an international side that plays attractive football, sometimes itâ€™s a side with an appealing back story, but more often itâ€™s simply a side that has taken Everton players with them.
Is this so wrong though? Iâ€™ve often struggled to understand why anybody should be expected to follow their national side. Modern fandom, whether you agree with or not, is no longer determined by geographic proximity. People support whoever they want, even if that club plays hundreds of miles away. After all, how many Liverpool fans are from Liverpool, Manchester United fans from Manchester, Arsenal fans from London?
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If this is the nature of the modern game, why canâ€™t it apply to national sides too? Why canâ€™t we as fans cast our collective eyes over those teams assembled in Russia and simply choose one we like? And, given free choice, without the baggage of national identity, how many of you reading this would choose to follow England? Rarely exciting to watch, tactically conservative and perennially underwhelming, it would be like choosing to follow Sunderland.
This time around, despite the new â€˜philosophyâ€™, the absence of the usual dinosaurs that often mar England sides and an apparent sense of realism both within the media and the national set up regarding the team’s chances in Russia, my allegiance will still go elsewhere. England remain England. And nothingâ€™s going to change that.
Follow Jim on Twitter @jimmykeo