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Irish fans should think twice before sneering at England World Cup hype

The Three Lions’ followers are struggling to contain their excitement with the team on the brink of history.

England fans celebrate.
England fans celebrate.
Image: John Stillwell

IT IS FAIR to say that England’s footballing public (sections of the media and fans) have lost the run of themselves to a degree over the past few weeks.

After overcoming Tunisia and Panama, two teams widely perceived as being among the worst in the competition, there was premature talk of England reaching the World Cup semi-finals and purposely losing to Belgium so they were put on the supposedly easier side of the draw.

During the TV coverage in particular, there have been times where it seems as if all those involved are more interested in cheerleading than rigorous analysis.

Earlier in the tournament, presenter Gabby Logan showed off an outfit with the words ‘Come on England’ on the back.

Before half-time in their opening match against a sub-par Tunisia team, Martin Keown was already excitedly proclaiming: “Dare I say England are playing the best football we have seen in the tournament so far.”

Over the past week, a video has been doing the rounds of Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker among others singing ‘Football’s Coming Home’ (and perhaps even more egregiously, Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’).

It is about as far away as you could get from the infamous Eamon Dunphy pen-throwing incident — in the end, what it amounts to is not much different from getting a bunch of random fans onto the television to give excited and reactionary thoughts on their favourite team.

Irish followers who tune in to English TV coverage of the national team will routinely use words like “stomach churning” to describe what they see.

Even Gary Neville, widely regarded as one of the best and most measured analysts, was talking about the prospect of a semi-final long before England got there and joyfully embracing Ian Wright after the successful penalty shootout against Colombia.

So the ‘no cheering in the press box’ dictum has been routinely flouted during Russia 2018. But in the context of the situation, can you really say that there have been many past examples whereby the alternative course of action has been taken?

Two years ago, when Robbie Brady scored the winner against Italy at Euro 2016, I received an impromptu hug from the journalist to my right on that unforgettable night in Lille. My own reaction could hardly be described as especially calm or neutral either.

After Ireland went out in the last 16, it was routinely talked of as a great success, even though England getting to the same stage of the competition was portrayed by most commentators as some sort of epic failure.

There are several other examples where Irish broadcasters were not exactly emotionally detached from the situation — Bill O’Herlihy wearing an Ireland cap during Italia ’90 is one example of many. Andy Townsend passionately celebrating in the ITV studios after Robbie Keane’s late goal against Germany in 2002 is another case in point. Yet in a way, it figures. The whole concept of following a football team is fundamentally irrational and essentially childlike — after all, even if Ireland win the World Cup, it is unlikely to make any real difference to your life, aside from providing people with good memories and fleeting happiness. Yet even journalists, all of whom started out as fans like everyone else, are not immune from the hype and sometimes just as prone as the next person to getting over-excited.

Source: Eirchive/YouTube

In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that this type of supporter-like behaviour is what most sports fans really want from analysts when it comes to international football.

When pundits try to inject a bit of reality into the situation and offer a genuinely critical appraisal of the game (e.g. Dunphy during the Egypt match), they are often vilified by a public with no appetite for realism in such a fantastical situation.

England fans trashing IKEA stores, constantly shouting ‘it’s coming home’ and generally going crazy may seem a little perplexing to the outsider, but it is hardly a unique example of football supporters getting carried away as a result of a few good or bad results, or indeed the occasional controversial incident.

From an Irish perspective, the whole Saipan controversy and the national obsession it became springs to mind. There was talk of then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern intervening, while subsequently, at least one person seriously suggested Roy Keane’s return to the Irish team should be decided by a referendum. Imagine how England fans would have viewed this had people in their country had widespread access to all the Irish TV stations and newspapers.

Therefore, World Cup fever is infectious and no country is immune. If anything, Ireland and England are relatively mild in their reactions compared with some others. After a couple of questionable decisions went against them during their 1990 World Cup match, fans back in Cameroon rioted. The murder of Colombia star Andrés Escobar was widely believed to be a punishment, after he unwittingly scored a pivotal own goal during the 1994 World Cup. After biting an opponent against Italy, Luis Suarez was vehemently defended in his homeland. Claims of his indiscretion were dismissed as an English press agenda by Uruguayan TV, despite the star himself later issuing an apology over the incident.

Perhaps part of the reason why Irish people sometimes get worked up about English World Cup hype is due to the unique access we have to their coverage, with BBC and Sky among other channels widely available in homes across the country. Few countries are in this position where they have a front-row seat to a rival team’s media, and the fact that Ireland usually do not qualify only serves to intensify the scrutiny on the neighbours.

So regardless of whether England win or lose tonight, the result is likely to be greeted with widespread hysteria across the water.

And inevitably, many Irish fans will react in a cool, sardonic manner to all this hoopla, as if it is totally alien to them. Yet let he who has never sat back and watched on as a man on national TV called for a referendum on Roy Keane’s return to the Irish team cast the first stone.

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Paul Fennessy

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