Why I hate watching England in the Pub
There are certain invitations that I have come to recognise as likely to result in a thoroughly unpleasant experience. One is when a friend suggests going out for a ‘big night’; the other is when someone suggests an England fixture is of enough significance to warrant a trip to the pub. You know the one, a crunch qualifier, or a world cup match against decent opposition, there’s always someone that says, “we’ll definitely have to get down the pub for that one.” Why, when you know what’s waiting for you?
It’s important to state that I love the pub. I love its straightforward approach to English social habits. The main product is alcohol, served with minimal fuss. No continental table service, no fancy snacks; just drinking and the murmur of conversation. So, why does it all turn to shit when England are playing football on TV?
First of all, you’ll be lucky if you can see the game. There are two options; you get there two hours early to get a good seat, then just before kick off an enormous meat head stands in front of you. You can ask him politely to move, but he’ll shoot you a look that says “fuck off” and that’ll be that. The alternative is to roll up nearer to kick off and spend the entire game getting prodded and asked to move, until you realise the only viewing position that doesn’t offend any other punters is to stand directly underneath the screen.
Fancy a half time pint? Fine, but you’ll have to participate in an impromptu game of rugby first, and your beer is increasingly likely to be served in a plastic pint glass.
If you’re fortunate enough to have an unaffected view of the game, that doesn’t mean your troubles are over. You’ve still got to contend with some of the most soul destroying life forms known to humanity: other England fans.
Their observations – the like of which will reach previously uncharted levels of ignorance – will fill the air for the next couple of hours. Some of them will try to pontificate about tactics; others will repeatedly shout the most abusive language they can in a manner that bears no relationship to what’s happening on the pitch. If it’s a big game, forget it, everyone who’s discovered that football exists will be thrusting their opinions upon the rest of the pub, and there’s nothing you can about it (although you may have to suppress some violent fantasies at this point.)
Ok, so you could argue that all of the above might apply to other televised football matches in the pub, not just England matches. But, if you’re really unfortunate, you might get the added Three Lions bonus of casual xenophobia with an undertone of menace.
I had a ticket for the recent England friendly with Ghana and before the game I met a friend at a pub near Baker Street tube – in the words of Fabio Cappello, big mistake. I gather this is a traditional meeting point for England fans before hopping on the Jubilee line up to Wembley. Some might have described the pub as having a bit of ‘atmosphere’, but I would describe it as a gathering of braying wide boys who were screaming, “no surrender to the Taliban” in my ear, and at anyone unfortunate enough to be passing by. We also had a few tuneless choruses of “ten German bombers” for good measure.
I’m afraid this is where it starts to go a bit wrong for me. To the un-initiated this might have looked suspiciously like some sort of fascist rally. The menacing, nationalist fervour whipped up with flags and songs about wartime exploits? Hello, this doesn’t look good. My sensitivities on this issue haven’t been helped by reading a novel by the late JG Ballard, in which the residents of an M25 satellite town are gradually indoctrinated into a fascist movement that takes the St George’s cross as its emblem. It doesn’t end well. Growing up in Hertfordshire, this was a bit close to home for me.
In fact, I can remember being in one of the pubs in my middle-class, commuter belt town to watch an England game during France ’98, and being treated to a vociferous burst of “no surrender to the IRA”. What has that got to do with England v Tunisia? Fuck all, but the clientele were proudly belting it out.
England using football to boast about military exploits is nothing new of course; the record of English tabloids during Euro ’96 being a prime example (Stuart Pearce and Gazza in WW2 helmets with “Achtung! Surrender!” in the headline), but depressingly it seems to be the default position for a lot of England supporters, particularly in pubs. I don’t know how soldiers who served in Afghanistan would feel about drunken idiots chanting ‘no surrender’ before a football match. I doubt very much the drunken idiots have stopped to consider them, though.
I’ve watched Italy matches in bars in Soho with crowds of Italians; they would drink and shout at the TV, but there was no real menace. I watched USA v Ghana in London during the last world cup in a venue packed full of American fans. It was a spirited crowd, but again, no menace. And I’ve watched Ireland in a packed Irish pub that doubled as the Leeds Celtic Supporters Club. The landlord served complimentary bacon sandwiches at half time – no plastic glasses for his customers.
Encouragingly, inside Wembley Stadium at the Ghana game the atmosphere was different, mainly thanks to the incredible Ghana fans. It looked like a massive party was going at the other end of the stadium and we weren’t invited.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. I like England and I want them to do well, I want to enjoy supporting them like those other nations I just mentioned. Unfortunately, we can’t choose who we share the country with, or the pub.