Monday 15 October 2018

Penalty heartache as England progress

6:15pm, and driving my daughter home from her dance class, I cast an eye on the mixture of people in England shirts and straight-from-work clothes, holding pints and conversation in the front garden of the pub by what used to be my local shops.

There was definitely room for envy on my part, knowing their anticipation was building of a night that would contain excitement, tension and, possibly, jubilation at the end of it. I was in that pub during Euro 96, when a likeminded friend and I watched sour faced as England beat Holland 4-1. Sadly, that friend was turned by patriotism during the Germany semi-final, and though I only see him by chance these days, I expect he's kept up the national pride, just like all the rest. I saw the semi-final in that same pub, silently ecstatic when Arsenal's goalkeeper couldn't save the decisive penalty shoot-out kick, following the failure of one Gareth Southgate to beat Thomas Kopke in the Wembley goal.

"Oh no!" Barry Davies had yelled when Southgate's low shot was beaten away, probably a fan of that Venables team more than Graham Taylor's of four years earlier.

In contrast to the people in that pub tonight, my tension was purely negative, founded on my desperate hope that throughout the pubs and living rooms in the country, including my friends and family, there would be sadness. This may not say much for my character, putting my wishes first ahead of millions of others, but it's how I felt and I'll live with it. It's only hope after all. If I somehow had the chance to effect the result, say with some secret power, I wouldn't have used it. See, not such a bad character, really.

The nerves made the Colombia match unwatchable, but the unseen hung over me throughout the evening. Even though Rodriguez's injury had resigned me to the surely inevitable outcome, I was somehow still receptive to an alternative. The pride of Falcao might show England what we hadn't seen from him in a Chelsea or Manchester United shirt. Cuadrado, who had been given scant opportunity by Chelsea, might bring the winning mentality forged at Juventus, while defender Davinson Sanchez could find extra motivation in facing his Tottenham team-mates. Less hope was invested in Carlos Sanches, a disaster at Villa following his performances at World Cup 2014, and this year sent off after only two minutes in the opening game defeat to Japan for a daft handball in the area.

Twenty years ago during France 98, I'd invested reluctant faith in Colombia, too, when they played England in the final group game.  I watched it in the pub on Brighton Pier with the turncoat friend and another, amongst the customary wall-to-wall ensemble of white shirts. I actually went into that tournament determined to support England, to claim the journey and exile the resentment. I even planted a poster of England in our front garden, complete with the crossed out face of Teddy Sheringham (I couldn't be expected to transition without some complications). I cheered goals from Shearer and Scholes in the 2-0 opening win over Tunisia, and then had friends round for the 2-1 defeat to Romania, in which I showed no let-up in damning the ineptitude of Sheringham. But by the time we were in the pub on the pier, I'd reverted to type, yearning for Valderamma's Colombia to break free of their ineffective, lightweight five-a-side favoured style of football and deny Glenn Hoddle's men a place in the second phase. My heart sank when Darren Anderton (of Spurs) whacked in the first goal, and then cursed David Beckham's 25 yard free kick curler that now counts as an embryonic example of a blossoming trademark. Bedlam broke out around me and England were through to face my beloved Argentina. Surrounded by the vibe of Loaded magazine as we left the pier towards town, a bloke latched on to the three of us, asking "Right lads, where we g'ain, where we g'ain?!!"
"Er, The Event?" my turncoat friend recommended, and it was in that vast, cheesy-tuned venue, that a couple of hours later, I joined a circle of triumph with my two friends to the inevitable playing of Three Lions and Vindaloo. But it was really just a hollow, drunken sham.

And so tonight. Without a giant screen projecting the images in front of me, I learned of my fate via a breaking news bulletin on the missus' phone. It read: 'England inflict more misery on Pierce by winning their first ever World Cup penalty shoot-out, 4-3 over Colombia'. Or something.  My heart sank deeper than it did for the Anderton goal. Like then, there's significant Tottenham involvement in the 'heroics' (yawn). Kane scored another penalty in normal time (1-1), and Eric Dier (Ugh!) scored the decisive shoot-out kick. Gary Lineker, I later read, "had a tear in my eye", watching the players celebrating at the end.

I was left to absorb the bitterness of it, and mutter to the missus that my main hope now was in those Tottenham players matching their achievements at domestic club level of the last two seasons - beaten in FA Cup semi finals when the tough opposition finally showed up. Except that Croatia, if the tough opposition is to be Croatia, won't have the monied depth of talent like Chelsea and Manchester United (the last-four victors over Tottenham, respectively), and that, befitting a country of just 3 million, they/I will have a close-your-eyes, fingers-crossed faith that their first choice starting 11 are all still standing by the time of kick off in 8 days.          




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