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Dublin: 9°C Sunday 18 April 2021

Was that pity we felt? Watching England fail wasn't half as funny as it usually is

Columnist Tommy Martin charts the echoes of Brexit through England’s usual tournament exit.


IN THE MOMENTS after England’s defeat to Iceland, as the camera caught Jack Wilshere looking like he was poised to tear his face off in shame, I realised a new frontier in Anglo-Irish relations had been reached. Because in all centuries of our two nations’ entanglement, from Strongbow to Graham Norton, has any Irish person felt pity toward England?

I mean real, heartfelt, God-love-the-craturs pity?

The kind you might feel towards a labrador with distemper on Animal Hospital? This must be new, I thought.

We’ve had hatred in the past – plenty of that. Fear, I’m sure, on those occasions when they decided they’d had enough of our pesky insurrections. We’ve probably felt envy too, with their fancy ways and the big old Empire they had. Latterly, affection and respect, as the interconnected relationship between the two countries grew warm and healthy.

But I don’t know if we have ever pitied them before, have we?

Alas, such are the times we live in. Watching their players completely unravel as defeat loomed on Monday night didn’t bring out my usual reaction to English major tournament failure (maniacal, cackling laughter). The sight of the total collapse of their moral fibre – against, basically, a decent Championship side – wasn’t half as funny as it usually is.

How could it be? The backdrop of Brexit meant you couldn’t get the usual kick out of the mighty being laid low, the pricking of pomposity, self-delusion meeting bruising reality – you know, the full England Major Tournament Exit Extravaganza.

England v Iceland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Nice Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

It’s partially because this bunch of players seems harmless enough, free from odious Terrys or preening Beckhams. And because we are so consumed in the Premier League for nine months of the sporting year that to despise them for a month every two years is a bit silly.

But mostly I couldn’t indulge in the usual schadenfreude because I feel sorry for the whole confused, angry, frightened lot of them, footballers included.

Both Brexit and England’s Euros exit were followed by similarly multi-directional torrents of blame and anger.

With Brexit, the rich blamed the poor for wanting to change a set-up that was working quite nicely thank you very much. Some blamed the immigrants because that’s what the right wing media and their cynical political stooges told them to do. Some blamed arch-chancer Boris Johnson. Others blamed David Cameron, who at least had the grace to resign pronto, or Jeremy Corbyn, who slept through the whole thing.

English football also eviscerated itself. Jamie Carragher called out the Premier League academies – players were “too soft physically and too soft mentally,” said Carra, stopping short of calling for the return of National Service.

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Others blamed the mollycoddled yet oppressive atmosphere of the England camp. “England’s players stayed at the £500-a-night Auberge du Jeu de Paume,” wrote Daniel Taylor in the Guardian, “but there was still a complaint on the first night that the duvets could be plumper.”

Roy Hodgson copped most of it, particularly after it emerged that he’d gone sightseeing in Paris with assistant Ray Lewington rather than watch Iceland’s final group game. A nation suddenly imagined a cheesy montage of Hodgson and Lewington cruising on the Seine, taking selfies on the Eiffel Tower, lunching on escargot and licking ice-creams outside Notre Dame, while Iceland drilled their killer throw-in routines against Austria.

Roy Hodgson File Photo Source: Mike Egerton

Ultimately though, pity was the only emotion I felt on Monday night because of what those players were about to endure. The Sun put an image of Wayne Rooney’s six-year-old son on its front page as if in declaration of all-out war. The Times gave each England player 0 out of 10 in its player ratings. The Daily Mail ran a piece pointing out the crimes that meant England’s players were doomed to failure. These included Wayne Rooney’s hair issues, Dele Alli’s attractive girlfriend and Adam Lallana’s moisturiser endorsement.

The animals.

If Bobby Moore was the noble icon of the Boys of ’66, Steven Gerrard embodies this haunted generation. The former captain and veteran of previous tournament humiliations explained the whole, pitiful scenario better than anyone. “I hate to say it, but [during the game] your mind drifts to what the coverage is going to be like back home and the level of criticism you are going to get,” he wrote in the Telegraph.

What a thing to be thinking about at a time like that.

The England players are certainly overpaid, cossetted and detached, but to blame them individually for a system that hands emotionally underdeveloped boys six figure weekly wages is no fairer than slagging off an unemployed Sunderland factory worker for wondering what the EU has done for him lately.

Both Brexit and the football team’s problems are similarly tied up in Britain’s loss of values and sense of itself, and the triumph of individualism and greed over decency and collective solidarity. The nation of Magna Carta and the mother of parliaments has been undone from within by knaves and scoundrels; the cradle of football is now a laughing stock.

And that’s why they deserve pity, as strange as it might feel.

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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