The spell is broken. England are out of the World Cup, and, for a while yesterday morning, it poured with rain – the first rain we’d had in weeks. I’m incredibly proud of everything that our young, inexperienced group of players and our inspirational manager have achieved, and we desperately need rain to put out the fires on Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor, but I just want to turn the clock back to Wednesday afternoon, when everything seemed possible!
The football was still the headlines of the news yesterday morning, the morning after the night before, and we were still hearing about the twelve young lads and their coach being rescued from the caves in Thailand (although it’s so sad that one man died during the rescue effort, and possibly a bit tacky that there’s already talk of making a film about it all) … but then came Donald Trump, our incompetent embarrassment of a government, and yet another year of Twelfth Day of July unrest in Northern Ireland.
For a few weeks, we were Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream … . (Incidentally, Simon Schama, the historian and TV presenter, once made a thought-provoking point about how that song could only have been written by the child of immigrants who’d fled persecution for the American Dream.) Yesterday morning, the skies were grey, and it was sinking in that the World Cup was not coming home after all. But, hey, what a time we’ve had! Before the World Cup started, we didn’t dare hope for any more than getting out of the group. Not to mention all the catastrophising about how the tournament was going to be spoilt by racism, homophobia and Russia’s troubled relations with the rest of the world. And look what we got instead! Talk about the feelgood factor. It felt as if the whole country was singing Three Lions.
And we’ve still got Wimbledon! Well, OK, this isn’t a national thing, but it will make me ecstatically happy if the French Open champion can win his third Wimbledon title on Sunday. OK, I’m not holding my breath. Nole looked worryingly good yesterday. Balkan double? Croatia win the World Cup and Serbia win Wimbledon? How weird would that be? And there are so many stories of the horrors of the wars of the 1990s tied up in all that. Sport can give so much.
We hoped. And we dreamed. Everyone, including Princes William and Harry, was saying “It’s coming home”. That song! 1996 was weird. It started off being all so exciting. I’d just been to Prague for a belated 21st birthday weekend away, and the Czech Republic were based in Manchester for Euro ’96, so the flight home was full of football fans. There was such a buzz in the air. Then the IRA blew up our city centre. So we didn’t quite get the ongoing 1996 feelgood factor. But we got the song. Everyone gets the song! Everyone’s been singing it. Friends who normally have little interest in football have been posting on Facebook about how excited they are. The day of the semi-final was even dubbed Waistcoat Wednesday, with people posting pictures of themselves wearing waistcoats in honour of Gareth Southgate! At 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, the streets were deserted. Everyone was watching the match. We were all in it together.
That hasn’t happened too much lately. And the leadership qualities displayed by Gareth Southgate, and the sense of team spirit he’s instilled in the team, the togetherness, the unity – well, there’s been precious little of that around either. I do appreciate that Theresa May’s in a difficult position, but, come on, two years to agree an internal position on Brexit, and then it all falls apart within three days? How on earth are we meant to negotiate with the EU when Cabinet members can’t even agree amongst themselves? Summoned to Chequers, told to put their mobile phones away, like a bunch of naughty schoolkids in detention – and then the whole thing falling apart anyway. That’s not Three Lions; that’s Madness’s You’re An Embarrassment.
And the Opposition are no better. Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is extremely concerning, as well as embarrassing. And does anyone have the remotest clue what Labour’s policy on the best way of getting us out of the EU is? No, me neither. And all this talk about “Brexiters” and “Remoaners”. The decision’s been made, OK? You may as well label people as Hanoverians and Jacobites, or Roundheads and Cavaliers. Move on. But it’s very difficult when both main parties are making such a mess of everything. There is not one senior politician at Westminster who inspires a scrap of confidence. Leadership? Togetherness? Unity? Hah! Gareth Southgate for PM! I’m telling you, he could only do better! He and the players brought us together.
Sport does this. London 2012. Andy Murray winning Wimbledon. Oh, it can go horribly wrong well, we all know that; but it can do this. There’s something a bit different about it this time, though. It’s not just the success – whilst it lasted. It’s the team spirit. This is not the so-called “Golden Generation” of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard & co, or the 1998 squad which included the likes of David Beckham and Alan Shearer. Most of these players weren’t even household names before the tournament began. But they’ve connected, to use a modern-day buzzword – with each other, and with the fans. They got it. We got it.
And the skies were blue. And the sun shone.
I think it actually started with the Royal Wedding. We’ve watched Prince Harry grow up. We saw that little boy walking along behind his mother’s coffin. We’ve seen him get himself into trouble. And then we’ve seen him as a hero, whether it’s been serving in Afghanistan or helping to organise the Invictus Games. Very few people have got a bad word to say about him. And we’ve seen his romances with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas end in tears, and longed for him to find his happy ever after. And now, hopefully, he has. We’d have been delighted for him whomever that was with – but the fact that his fairytale princess is a mixed-race American divorcee actress somehow did that bit extra to bring people together. It reminded us that it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter who you love. It doesn’t matter about race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status … any of it. All that matters is that people are happy. It was the stuff of fairytales, but very modern ones. It brought everyone together. We needed that.
The sky was a perfect cornflower blue. Not a cloud in it. The sun shone down.
And then, as the sky continued to be blue, and the sun continued to shine, Gareth Southgate and his band of brothers gave us hopes and dreams, and showed us what leadership and togetherness are about – something that our politicians don’t seem to have the first clue regarding.
This is history. Twenty years from now, we’ll be looking back on the early summer of 2018, and we’ll be remembering how it was hot and sunny for days and days on end, and how we got to the semi-finals of the World Cup. We don’t know what lies ahead – but do we ever? In 1990, we were riding the crest of a wave of hope, with the Berlin Wall down, Nelson Mandela released from prison and Germany set for reunification. Well, that soon went pear-shaped, didn’t it? Croatia, where they were celebrating as we cried, could tell us all about that. In 2018, everything’s a mass of uncertainty. But maybe it’ll all turn out for the best? Well, you never know.
52 years of hurt can go a long way towards stopping you from dreaming. I mean 52 years since 1966, OK – I have not personally experienced 52 years of hurt! The first World Cup I remember was 1982! But we’re dreaming again. There’s a positivity in the air. There’s hope, and there’s pride. And there are waistcoats!
There were things I thought I might never see. Growing up in the 1980s, you seriously began to wonder whether United would ever win the league again. We waited 26 years. City fans waited longer. We waited 77 years for a British man to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon again. Going back to 1990, or, rather, to 1989, I’m not sure that we thought we’d see the Berlin Wall come down in our lifetimes, or that Nelson Mandela would ever be released from prison. We certainly never thought we’d see Prince Harry marry a lovely mixed-race American divorcee actress.
And, yes, “We’ve seen it all before” and we know all about semi-final heartbreak. But people are already looking ahead to Euro 2020. And the country’s come together. We’ve been reminded that we can do this. We can do leadership. We can do unity. We can do hopes and dreams. Thank you for that, Gareth and the boys. We needed it from someone, and we’ve got it from you. And we’ll never forget this summer. We’ve been living through history in the making.