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Why do Irish fans root against England?

As they prepare for a quarter-final against Ukraine, some critics are tipping the Three Lions for success at Euro 2020.

Image: INPHO

WHICH IRISH footballer most resembles a fan on the pitch?

Most people’s answer to this question would be James McClean.

The Stoke star is not the most technically gifted player the nation has ever produced, but he more than makes up for this shortcoming with his obvious passion and tireless work ethic on the pitch. You never get the sense that he is anything other than extremely grateful to be playing for his country.

McClean is clearly popular because of these qualities. In December 2017, a month after Ireland’s bid to qualify for the World Cup fell short owing to a 5-1 play-off defeat against Denmark, he was named RTE Sportsperson of the Year — an award voted for by the general public.

Off the pitch, the Derry native also comes across as atypical compared with the average modern footballer.

On Tuesday, he posted an Instagram picture of himself wearing a Toni Kroos jersey ahead of the big England-Germany round-of-16 clash.

The act reportedly annoyed some fans at his club, Stoke, and will likely do little to quell the inexcusable abuse he routinely receives, primarily owing to his ongoing refusal to wear a poppy, a stance he has felt the need to defend on more than one occasion.

Yet not everyone was damning of McClean’s provocative behaviour earlier this week.

Per the Stoke Sentinel, as one social media user weighed in: ”Irishman supports Germany, I don’t see a problem, to be honest.”

It’s hard to imagine many of McClean’s English-based Irish teammates being so public in their support for Germany, knowing the hassle it would inevitably create for themselves.

But the 31-year-old’s lack of a filter in comparison with others is precisely why he is so beloved on this isle, perhaps more so than most mega-rich footballers who the majority of the Irish public perhaps tend to find more difficult to identify with.

It is also no exaggeration to suggest that McClean’s ardent support for Germany was reflective of how a considerable portion of the Irish sporting public felt ahead of Tuesday’s game and will likely also feel ahead of this evening’s all-important quarter-final against Ukraine. 

When Ireland don’t qualify — which has been the case for 10 of the last 13 major tournaments — it seems that watching England succeed or fail is the biggest attraction for many. And polls conducted invariably suggest the latter is what is hoped for by the majority.

A report in the Irish Examiner last week noted how the two most-watched matches at the Euros so far were England games, with a massive 546,000 tuning in for the Scotland clash (the report was released before the Germany match, which likely rivals this figure). These are big numbers, particularly when you consider that Irish viewers also often have the option of watching games on British TV or alternative platforms.

The conversations are similar around every tournament. Someone invariably asks: ‘Why do so many Irish fans follow an English club yet consistently cheer against the Three Lions?’

This writer grew up cheering on whatever team England were playing at major tournaments — a steady diet of Irish history classes and constant Sky News updates on David Beckham’s metatarsal contributed to that feeling. But more than anything, it was just seen as a bit of craic among peers. Football is more fun to watch when you have someone to root against, and England traditionally fit the bill in that regard. That said, their current manager Gareth Southgate seems like a thoroughly decent person and they boast some of the most exciting attackers in the world, so in their present incarnation, they are arguably harder to dislike than ever.

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Yet as one of the top international sides, England are invariably expected to win, so Irish fans will naturally gravitate towards the underdogs more often than not. It’s not especially different to how most non-supporters rooted against Alex Ferguson’s Man United during their ’90s and ’00s heyday, and the majority of fans want Dublin GAA to fail nowadays. Granted, the Three Lions are not as successful as those sides and there surely is an element of post-colonial inferiority complex at play in some people’s thinking, but the basic logic still applies.

The most appropriate word happens to be of German origin — ‘schadenfreude,’ meaning pleasure derived from other people’s misfortune.

And few teams build themselves up so high before the almost inevitable fall as England tend to do in the lead-up to major tournaments.

That said, there is no real ‘good’ reason to root against English teams

The usual excuses tend to ring hollow. Yes, their media and fans get over-excited about these events but surely that is the case with most countries? It’s just far more noticeable for Irish audiences for whom the likes of BBC and Sky are easily accessible.

The recurring criticisms invariably apply to numerous other countries. ‘Their fans behave poorly. Their politicians are shameless. Their historical record is appalling. Their arrogance is astounding.’

If anything, they have more in common with Ireland than not — indeed, several members of their squad have Irish links and could theoretically have lined out for the Boys in Green, even when you look beyond the now-infamous cases of Declan Rice and Jack Grealish.

But ultimately, it’s only a game of football. It’s possible that a person could be in favour of or against a particular team for genuinely sinister reasons, but for the majority, it boils down to a bit of fun and perhaps some mild biases.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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