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From a Portakabin in Ely to the Avenue of the Giants: a lifetime of tournament woes | Max Rushden


Euro 96 was where it started in a meaningful way or truly feeling the hope and the anguish. The BBC montage splicing together Darren Anderton off the post, Gazza’s studs and Gareth Southgate’s penalty to Walkaway by Cast. Des Lynam presumably delivered something understated but poignant, and the bluesy guitar started pinging away. The montage maker must have been working on two edits. We will never know the upbeat one – a roll of tape just gathering dust in a vault or used as insulation for a two-bed apartment in W1A.

Once in your lifetime. Isn’t that the hope for England fans? To see the men’s side do it just once. This isn’t the hubristic arrogance that forgets that other countries also play football in the weeks leading up to a tournament. It isn’t calling Southgate a failure if we lose on penalties in the semi-finals to France. It isn’t yelling “Oh not faakin’ Bowen” at a big screen in an overcrowded sticky-floored pub as he prepares to come on with eight minutes left to try to break the deadlock against Slovenia. We’re not looking for a dynasty, just one tournament to go in off our collective English backside.

So far it’s a lifetime (or hopefully just half of one) punctuated with biennial disappointment. World Cups and Euros merging into one as life has trundled along. Summer after summer of different players in the same shirt applauding through tears to the fans, or weeping on their haunches. Roll your own England failure story – see where it takes you.

There are hazy childhood memories before ’96. A garden party my parents lugged me to on 12 June 1988 (age nine). Ray Houghton’s header surrounded scones and wasps. I couldn’t tell you if I watched Mexico 86 (age seven) Italia 90 (age 11), or even Euro 92 (age 13) live; I’ve just seen those moments over and over that it’s impossible to separate real life from goals videos on VHS and YouTube. The perplexing Barnes, England have done it, in the last minute of extra time, Keown at left-back, Lineker subbed. USA 94 (age 15) n/a.

So then 1996 (age 17). A restricted view ticket for the Scotland game I bought off a mate from sixth-form college who charged me double – 20 or 40 quid. Front row behind David Seaman’s goal. The advertising hoardings were so high I couldn’t see Tony Adams take out Gordon Durie. Gary McAllister’s penalty got just enough air to see big Yorkshire hands fend it away. Versus the Netherlands, 20 mates crammed into my folks’ living room. Teddy Sheringham’s pass to Alan Shearer, then a game of 100-a-side on Parker’s Piece in Cambridge well into the night. Maybe you played in it.

1998 (age 19) Queensland. England 2-0 Tunisia. 10pm kick-off. Covered in face paint, I fell off a wall at a Koala’s Backpackers in Noosa. The defeat to Argentina in a youth hostel at 5am in Airlie Beach, celebrating that Sol Campbell header so much I had no idea it was disallowed until turning bemused to the TV wondering why Anderton was clearing one off the line.

Kim Milton Nielsen shows England’s David Beckham (left) the red card at France 98. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA

2000 (age 21) generic university flat. Shearer’s header. 1-0. 2002 (age 23), working in data entry in a Portakabin in Ely with railwaymen who maintained the track. Day games with level crossing supervisors, night games with mates in London. The age of queuing outside a massive bar hours before kick-off and ordering a thousand pints on entry. Shoeless Joes – the Box Park of it’s generation – for Beckham’s penalty against Argentina.The Brazil game was early, in a shared house in Finsbury Park, watching Owen and Ronaldinho – 6am cans of Grolsch never tasted so bad.

2004 (age 25). Grown men throwing pint glasses at a projector screen when that penalty shootout went awry against Portugal at the Vibe bar in east London. It was a vibe of sorts.

2006 (age 27). Tickets to England v Trinidad and Tobago in Nuremberg. Starstruck bumping into Danny Baker and Danny Kelly at a fan park. My first, depressingly grim, experience of travelling England fans. Racism in the stadium, racism outside. A group called us gay for playing cards in a bar. We even googled how long it would take to train to be a ninja so we could take them on. Quite a while, it turns out.

2008 (29) n/a. 2010 (31). England 1-1 USA. Caye Caulker, Belize sitting on a bar stool at 9am next to an American who looked like Gene Hackman. An electrical storm hit just as Clint Dempsey sent that pea-roller towards Rob Green. While everyone in the UK missed Steven Gerrard’s opener, we missed the equaliser. The signal returned with “1-1” in the corner of the screen. Gene and I had to wait until half-time to see a replay.

Then Germany 4-1 England. A cinema in Havana, Cuba. An odd place to watch football.Before the game, only the rustling of popcorn and whispering. It’s a cinema. That’s what happens in a cinema. An early German chance and half the room jumped to their feet. And they continued to jump to their feet. Lampard’s pre-VAR “IT’S A GOAL, IT’S A GOAL, IT’S GOAL” (credit Mark Saggers) still whirring around my head as my eyes adjusted to the daylight on the outside.

2012 (33). My first corporate gig, £10 to watch me host a special Euros event in a basement in east London. Garden chairs tied together.An organiser who promised pizza and realised there was no oven. No half-time analysis, instead some of the Soccer AM boys doing comedy sketches and games. We have all made mistakes – consider this article a voucher for a refund if you were there. Frankly, Pirlo rescued all of us.

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Dejected England players on their way to defeat against Uruguay in São Paolo. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

2014 (35). California. Forced Mrs Rushden to get up at 5am and drive for five hours to be in place at our next hotel for the Uruguay game. At least the Avenue of the Giants was spectacular at dawn.

2016 (37). England 1-2 Iceland. Have spent 24 hours trying to recall where I was, and nothing. It has been blanked from my own personal England history.

And then 2018 (39), 2021 (42), 2022 (43), all with Barry Glendenning in person or on zoom for Guardian Football Weekly. We dispute whether he Riverdanced in my face after Croatia won that semi-final. Three years later and there’s a video filmed by Barry in my flat as Bukayo Saka misses the final penalty. It scans from Producer Joel head in hands, to me head in hands, to my wife grinning, to Elis James with deceitful wry smile, to John Brewin staring at the sky. “Has Italy won?” asks my wife. “Oh my days … is everyone OK?” Barry: “Oh, I’m fucking fine.” Barry and Elis hugged in the car. He tweeted that evening: “I just came home, opened a bottle of red and am watching Max watch England lose on a loop. It is the high I didn’t know existed. Sling it crystal meth, there’s a new kid in town.” Bastard.

And finally Qatar 2022. Baby sleeping upstairs. Celebrating in silence, almost giving myself a hernia to keep it all in as Kane scored the penalty. Crumpling in silence as he missed the next one.

A lifetime then. And so here we are. London 2024 (45). Walkaway. Everybody Hurts. Dry Your Eyes. Or … Walking on Sunshine. Freed From Desire. Three Lions. Before writing this I thought I didn’t really care as much as I used to. But the pit of my stomach tells me I’m ready to be hurt again. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have to learn a new emotion.



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