The day football came home

It’s busy by the time we arrive. Not rammed. Not half as busy as it will be by kick off in an hours time, but busier than we might have hoped.

We won’t get a seat. That much is obvious right away. Every chair is occupied or reserved. Guarded by bags or drinks or hands draped over seat backs, designed to look loose but ready to snap to attention at a moments notice, warding off chair thieves.

Such criminals are known to operate in the area, though there are no signs up. No warning that the bar will not take responsibility for the loss of any laxly guarded chair which goes missing. Everyone knows.

Most of the seat occupants are wearing shirts or plain T-shirts, yet none stand to make way for those of us that have bothered to don the three lions. One more violation the bar won’t intercede to rectify.

Broken Britain.

I buy a round and we find a ledge, by which I mean somewhere we can stand and rest our drinks. Not a legend. We haven’t bumped into Alan Shearer.

The room isn’t that large and still I seem to be a million miles away from the television which is roughly the size of an iPhone plus.

I won’t be able to see a thing but it doesn’t matter. The tension is building. So are the nerves, so is the excitement. I can’t wait. England are about to play in their first World Cup semi-final of my lifetime.

And we’re going to win.

***

Born in 1992, I’m used to disappointment. The first tournament I remember was Japan 2002 – going out to Brazil. Every year the expectation builds but long ago I gave up any hopes we might truly have a chance of doing anything at a major tournament.

The first England game of World Cup 2018. James and I found a pub and a great seat. The place filled up around us.

We didn’t expect we would do anything in this tournament. Deep down, I didn’t even expect a win.

The team is young, exciting, unburdened, but England don’t win the first game of a major tournament. It just doesn’t happen.

It looked like our predictions were coming true.

We’d played well but it was 1-1, the clock ticking down.

We’d seen it all before.

We’d snuck into an Instagram pic of the girl who used to work at James’ gym, sitting beside us, and spent a lot of time trying to decide if the girl a few tables away was attractive or not, but other than that, there hadn’t been much excitement.

I was beginning to lose hope. It was all falling apart.

Then it came. The ball whipped into the box. Kane rising as we knew he could.

Goal.

2-1.

England have won their first game at a World Cup for however long. Too long.

We look at each other. We say it for the first time.

“It’s coming home.”

***

They’re singing it now. Jubilant. Excited. I would get involved but I’m too nervous. Heart pounding. Sweat pouring. Though that’s more down to the Sarahan heat in this greenhouse style pub than anything else. Heatstroke is a real possibility.

“It’s coming home hone, it’s coming.”

We’ve all been singing it. The memes have been everywhere. Like everyone else I’ve listened to the song a couple of times a day since we beat Columbia.

It’s even written on the bus ticket I received this morning. I remember it rolling out of the machine. Seeing those words. Like some kind of fortune.

It was going to happen.

It occurs to me we’re like a mother who has lost her son, many years ago.

She’s been told he’s not coming back. Never going to see him again, but she allows herself to dream and if his name was football she would say

Football’s coming home.”

But of course, he never does.

Only now there’s been evidence. Someone has sighted football. The net is closing. They’re going to bring him in.

Football is coming home. Home to its mother, the nation of England.

***

Italy had missed out on World Cup qualification for the first time since Henry VIII was on the throne. The Netherlands had fallen once again.

But Panama made it.

Hearing of the upcoming tournament they had gathered a group of butchers, bakers, and street fighters to put together what they might loosely describe as a “football team.”

In the three games they played, I never saw any evidence of that.

They had qualified above America, but that’s no feat.

American’s can’t use their feet, everyone knows that. That’s why they drive everywhere rather than walk. Why they make such good goalkeepers. And why they say ‘the hand of the mountain’ rather than foot.

England should never have had trouble with them. We should have known that it would be a good score and that this wouldn’t mean anything.

But 6-1… it didn’t matter that it came from two penalties as they tried to KO us, a couple of scruffy rebounds and one great Lingard goal. It didn’t matter that they scored when they should never have had a sniff.

6-1.

6-1.

For the first time in my memory, we were through, with a game to spare. A free game.

It felt almost naughty. Like it shouldn’t be allowed.

All over, we began to tingle.

Football was coming home.

***

Six minutes pass, then Trippier scores the first, a free kick.

It’s beautiful. We all go mad. James scratches up my back jumping on me and it hurts, but that doesn’t matter. I’m close to tears. It’s the first of many.

We’re going to tear Croatia apart.

We’re on top. Playing the better football. We just need a second.

Lingard scoops one wide. Kane has a couple of good chances. One amazing chance.

It’s called as offside after he misses but replays show it would have been overturned if only he could have slotted it in.

He should have slotted it in.

The half-time whistle goes. Still 1-0. I begin to feel uneasy.

You have to capitalise when you’re on top. Have to score. That’s how Mexico went out.

I pray it won’t be the same for us. Pray we keep doing what we’re doing.

Besides, Croatia have gone to extra time and penalties the last two games. They’re a much older team. They will tire.

We’ve nothing to fear.

We’re going to reach our first final since ‘66.

I know it.

***

Belgium was surreal.

The game, I mean, rather than the team or country.

The world cup has already gone mad by the time we sat down to watch it. The draw had fallen in such a way that the winner of this game would likely have to take on Brazil and France – the loser Sweden.

Both sides had qualified and it ended up as a B team match. Reserves vs reserves.

No one wants to win but no one has passed that message on to Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United and Sunderland fame. He puts in a great goal.

The only goal. We’ve just lost 0-1 and yet, we’re celebrating.

It could be the loss that wins us the World Cup.

***

It’s all going wrong.

We’re doing everything you shouldn’t do when you’re ahead. Dropping back. Allowing them on.

They’re supposed to be tired but obviously, no one told them. They’re coming at us. Attacking again and again. We’ve forgotten how to go forward. The strength and speed of our upfront players has been forgotten.

I can’t remember the last time we attacked. It’s become about holding on. If we can just get to the end of the game then it will all be –

They score.

I feel the air rush from me. I feel sick. We saw it coming but that makes it no better. They’ve scored and the momentum is theirs.

You can almost see the hope going out of the England players’ eyes. It won’t even reach extra time. They’re going to score a second. They’re going to put it out of sight.

It’s all about to be over.

The final whistle goes. They didn’t deserve to only be one down at the end of the first. We don’t deserve to be in the competition come the end of the second.

But we are. It’s going into extra time.

We need to turn this around.

***

2016, the Euro’s in France, out at the first knock out round against Iceland.

2014, the World Cup in Brazil, out at the groups without a win.

2012, the Euro’s in Poland and Ukraine, out at the first knock out round against Italy.

2010, the World Cup in South Africa, out at the first knock out round against Germany.

2008, the Euro’s in Austria and Switzerland, did not qualify

2006, the Euro’s in Germany, 12 years ago. That’s how far back you have to go before you find a major tournament in which England got past the first knock out round.

Having not got into football in a big way until my university years – 2010 – I don’t remember us getting past a knock out round. Not really.

Going into the Columbia game I felt a crushing hopelessness. I was afraid. Shaking. Terrified.

We scored a penalty early in the second half and, still I wasn’t hopeful. I knew it wasn’t going to happen. Knew we stood almost no chance of winning.

When they won a penalty in the 94th minute I turned to my friends and said ‘Mina scores this.’

The ball was whipped in. Mina jumped. The ball went in.

We were going to Extra time but they could have called it off right there. The hope drained out of the room. We saw it fade.

Extra time started and they were all over us.

I felt sick.

We played better in the second half of extra time but still, we couldn’t score.

The game was going to penalties.

I couldn’t watch. England had never won on penalties at a major tournement and this was going to be no different.

Falcao stepped up. Scored.

Kane stepped up. Scored.

They scored. We scored. They scored.

Henderson stepped up.

Missed.

It was all over. Then… they missed. We scored.

It was even. They stepped up.

Missed.

Eric Dier stepped up. The room was dead silent. The crowd was dead silent.

In my life, I had never felt anything like it.

Dier shoots.

Dier scores.

The room went mental. I jumped from my seat and celebrated like a mad man with everyone else. The emotion of it was incredible. I felt tears in my eyes.

We had made it past the first knock out round.

We had won a penalty shoot out.

Could anything stop us now?

***

Extra time slips away and I can barely focus on what’s happening. They have a chance. We have a chance. It’s desperate, terrifying.

I want to leave.

The room applauds and cheers and screams whenever we feel we should have a foul.

I remember how well we played in the first half. Know we can do it again. Know if we do then we’ll win. We’ll be in a world cup final.

I know if we score now I’ll probably have a heart attack and die, but that will be okay, because we’ll have done it.

I’ll take the hit.

But they’re getting chances. They’re supposed to be tired but they refuse to give up.

The ball comes in. I see Mandzucic come towards it but he’s not scored all tournament and surely he’s not going to –

Goal.

Croatia have scored. It’s 2-1.

England have a few more minutes to save their World Cup.

***

In my lifetime, England have never reached a World Cup semi final.

Last time was Italia ’90, two years before I would come into this world. We’re the favourites against Sweden. Should beat them but I expect a tough game.

In the end I we don’t get one.

Sweden don’t turn up and we saunter to a 2-0 victory. It’s been so easy. We spend our time singing football’s coming home, and we mean it. We know it.

England are going to win the World Cup.

***

It’s all over.

The final whistle goes and England are going home. The seat reserved for football will remain untaken.

I feel a bottomless pit of despair open within me. I might cry, but I don’t.

Behind me, bottles scatter across the floor. I look around to see the stoic face of James, fists clenched, staring ahead. Beside him, Emma picks up the fallen bottles.

I want to lash out. To kick at the table. It’s all the tables fault. Or the lack of a chair. If I’d had a chair we’d have won, surely.

The pub is silent. Everyone is processing then…

Applause. We all rise and clap our team. We thank the boys who have worked so hard to take us to the World Cup semi-final.

We clap out hands and we filter out. I hug James at the door and we go our separate ways. Back home to process what has happened.

Football isn’t coming home.

***

Except, in a way it is.

I heard a football journalist – can’t remember who – talking about the terminology of ‘football’s coming home’ before the Croatia game and talking about how the country has come together behind the team and with each other. How a nation of fans have cheered and laughed and partied together since this World Cup began.

What he says makes sense.

Since I got into football I don’t remember a time when so many people have come behind the team. When they could come home with our heads held high. With no shame.

It doesn’t matter than we didn’t play any of the top dogs. It didn’t matter that we should have beaten Croatia.

What this tournament did was spark hope and joy in all of us.

And long may it continue.

Football’s coming home.

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International worst selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). Recently he is taking the internet by storm with his Man vs Bookshelf Challenge where he aims to read the 210 books on his bookshelf in 210 weeks, reviewing them on his blog and Goodreads along the way. He is also publishing books on Amazon, his most recent being the family suspense novel, Poor Choices, which you can find here.

Posted by Mark Ayre

International worst selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). Recently he is taking the internet by storm with his Man vs Bookshelf Challenge where he aims to read the 210 books on his bookshelf in 210 weeks, reviewing them on his blog and Goodreads along the way. He is also publishing books on Amazon, his most recent being the family suspense novel, Poor Choices, which you can find here.

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