Southgate, Redemption & Coming Home

Today, I went to Chorley. Nothing particularly noteworthy or even relevant in that, on this day of all days, you might think. In fairness, you’d be right – unless you’re aware of then significance it has to me.

What’s the tale? Okay, ‘long story short(er)’ version: It’s Euro ‘96. I’ve managed to get corporate tickets to Old Trafford for the first semi-final (France v Czech Republic) which went to penalties and even then ‘sudden death’ penalties. Eventually, the Czechs managed to win, which meant we had less than an hour to get in front of a TV to watch the other semi – England v Germany – from Wembley.

I decided to eschew my lift back to the nice Cheshire hotel which had been our earlier rendezvous, calculating that to get there would mean missing the first 20 minutes, and take my chances in getting a tram into Manchester. I joined the hordes thronging around Old Trafford (cricket ground) station and, soon enough found my way on the Metrolink into town.

Only days beforehand, Manchester city centre had been attacked by the IRA and all the way from Deansgate station there were boarded up windows and a sense of being in a war zone. I chose to get off at Piccadilly Gardens and find a pub showing the match.

It was still the mid-nineties so not every hostelry was equipped with a television, although it was easy to spot those that weren’t – they were empty. Conversely, the rest were jam-packed. After trying a few – and with kick-off approaching – I decided I’d have to cram myself into the next available bar, which I did in a place my failing memory tells me might have been called the Brunswick Tavern. As I squeezed my way in, the place erupted. Alan Shearer has scored in the first minute.

As you’ll almost certainly know, the next couple of hours consisted of a German equaliser, numerous agonisingly close chances for an England winner and a penalty shoot-out that was lost when a young centre-half called Gareth Southgate had his kick saved. It’s written deep into English footballing folklore.

As the game had worn on and tensions had increased, the dozens of random strangers had begun to forge a bond and, once poor Gareth had enshrined his place in Pizza Hut ad ignominy, the numbers had shrunk such that those that remained were now buying each other drinks and communally crying into them. I have no idea now who I was commiserating with but, more to the point, at that juncture, filled with numbness, I had no idea (or interest) what time it was.

Of course the important temporal issue was that of the last train home (to Wigan) and by the time I got to Piccadilly Station, it became apparent that I’d missed it. The only alternative to a night on Manchester’s streets or an embarrassing call to my parents was the last service to Blackpool, which stopped at Chorley.

Quickly sobering up, I caught the Blackpool train and managed to stay awake to alight at Chorley – where I realised I had nowhere near enough money to get a taxi home.

Filled with the fatalistic hubris of alcohol and existential angst, I decided to sod everything and walk the seven or so miles home. It took me three hours and I only got to bed at about four o’clock (in the daylight) with sore feet, a degree of dehydration and a heavy heart. Despite the years and the inebriation, I still remember much of walk home.

I remembered today, as I drove past Birkacre Garden Centre the (probably long-departed) guard dog that barked at me as I trudged haplessly past its domain 22 years ago. I remembered my frustration and empathy for Southgate, knowing he would be portrayed as a villain of the piece but, even then, knowing that he was one of football’s good guys and ill-deserving of his inevitable notoriety.

Today, en route to Chorley and, in particular, as I drove past Chorley Station, I reflected on Gareth’s redemption, his reassuring example that nice guys don’t always finish last and hoped that, this time, England’s semi-final would end in easy victory, not in unedifying dismay.

In the end, it was neither. Clearly, victory has eluded Gareth (and the rest of us) again but this time, abject desolation in defeat has been replaced by dignity and optimism. It may be another four years of ‘hurt’ but it’s an interlude that has given the nation a prevailing sense hope rather than scorn. Above all, it has vindicated Southgate, resurrected him from the grip of those dark days and left us wanting him to be the man to inherit the mantle of Alf Ramsey – as with Sir Alf, a knighthood has already been suggested.

England fans don’t expect to win tournaments – we just would rather not be significantly disappointed. We tend not to set our sights too high, usually settling for quarter-finals as our ‘par’ score. In reaching the semis, you could say we’ve gloriously over-achieved. That didn’t feel particularly true in our home tournament in 1996 but it is now. Above all, I hope we can find the stability to give these players – and the manager – the chance to do this again and perhaps fulfil the fleeting promise they gave to go even further.

It didn’t feel like much fun at the time but that long walk home is now a cherished memory – and I’d happily walk further, if it was as a consequence of winning a semi-final.

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