Sven-Göran Eriksson’s team are top of their qualifying table and heading home to a shiny new stadium next year – but, as Philip Cornwall writes, the fans don’t seem to have much to sing about

It’s 9.52am and my train is at journey’s end – in a year or so’s time. As a kid on my way home from London I always felt a thrill just here, long before I first walked up close to the Twin Towers (FA Trophy final, 1982) and went inside what was clearly to me then the home of football, English or otherwise. On winter nights I would press my face up against the windows to negate the reflections, peer out, longingly, then pull back as we rattled through Wembley Central and see the impression my forehead had made on the glass.

But I grew older. I started wondering when the glass had last been cleaned and what the commuters might think of me. And in time I became something of a regular at the ground itself and could reflect that in many ways I was better off on the train. The seats, if you got one, were not torture devices and those driven to stand did not force you up every couple of minutes. Everyone had a decent view (at least of their newspaper), even if the window seats had a certain advantage. British Rail, in most of its guises, had better food and it was a close run thing when it came to the toilets. By 2000 I would gladly have propelled a wrecking ball through the symbol I had once dreamed of, because of the endless frustrations endured there at the staging of England football matches at a rundown, if large, greyhound stadium.

Enough people agreed with me that one of several train loads of England fans, accompanied for the journey by some bemused others, is now heading up to Manchester. But the roadshow, that has taken us to Old Trafford more than anywhere else but also Portman Road, St Mary’s, Pride Park, the Walkers, the Stadium of Light, the Riverside and others, is coming to an end. If I was a schoolboy rather than a 37-year-old sharing office gossip, I could now stare out the window at the arch that is the symbol of the new Wembley, a state-of-the-art stadium that will be ready for the national team some time in 2006.

Of late, few have called Sven-Göran Eriksson’s team state of the art. No Manchester United fan would regard the Reds as anything other than superior to Old Trafford’s other home team and there are plenty who agree with them. Eriksson never made any friends in the press in the conventional manner, taking people into his confidence, having dinners and drinks and feeding the egos with stories. Those who were against him in the first place, on “principle”, have been joined by many who backed him after the successive debacles of Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan. The breath of fresh air has gone stale on two quarter-final exits, in 2002 and 2004; being top of a qualifying group is now taken for granted.

Eriksson, who has never taken charge of an England side at Wembley, recognises a specific problem with the media this week, that with matches against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan he cannot win: struggle and that’s a disaster, stroll and that just proves the inadequacy of the opposition. Much of the support seems broadly to agree: England should be top of their group regardless and dropping two points in Austria was a national disaster, to judge by the screaming faces and the vitriol faced by David James and others in Vienna. Few in press box and stand are guaranteed to be smiling at day’s end.

Which is not the case for the green hordes in Piccadilly Gardens and around. Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying are negligible and the odds favour a landslide ahead of a shock, but you couldn’t tell that from these faces and the green wigs on top of them. Or perhaps you can: these are carefree football fans, aware that they are condemned to failure and resigned to that, but unwilling to go out without a party. The reigning British champions, the World Cup qualifiers of 1982 and 1986 (who came to Wembley to draw 0-0 and edge out Romania for that last tournament) are here to support their team, regardless of the result. England fans are, away from the main green knot, more visible. Like the Irish they are a great mix, with plenty of women and families and no sense of the menace that used to be standard and can recur (for the visit of Turkey to Sunderland, for instance). But they are far less vocal and it is to stay that way.

In part Lawrie Sanchez is aided by the long run of poor results that preceded his appointment. A precipitous decline since almost reaching Euro 96 embraced a goalless qualifying campaign for Euro 2004: drawing 2-2 in Wales and 3-3 at home to Austria represent a recovery on the scale of Eriksson’s early promise with England. Finishing second in this scaled-down British championship may not be as great an achievement for the visitors as winning the last Home International title in 1984, but will be more than was expected and is now a realistic ambition – and one that cannot be dented by events at Old Trafford.

Not only is there next to nothing to argue about over football, the two sets of fans have little to argue about elsewhere, especially the unwanted England hardcore who drag other people’s politics with them. There are hundreds of crosses of St George with the red hand of Ulster today. Union flags, too, with the words of Rule Britannia embroidered along with the name of the away team. A handful of lads from both sides, before the game, advocate sexual congress towards His Holiness the Pope and the Irish Republican Army. The stadium stands as one for the same national anthem. There is nothing for the England boo-boys to do and, as it turns out, nothing for anyone else to sing, either. From first whistle to last, one side is in control on the pitch and the other off it.

England are stuffed with high-quality Premiership regulars; the Irish have one man who falls into that category, Maik Taylor, and the Birmingham goalkeeper keeps his side level, if not really in the game, for the first 45. In the stands, the peaceful massacre has begun. The green mass above me actually sing about football, too: “We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland.” “Lawrie Sanchez’s green and white army.” Even Away in a Manger gets an outing: “The stars in the bright sky looked down where Heeeealy! Heeeealy! Heeeealy!” From England: nothing.

There is no distinctive verse for the home fans to sing that the visitors might not join in with, except “Are you Scotland in disguise?” which is a negative line about the opposition, not a hymn to the home team. “Rooney! Rooney!” and other one-word repetitions do not count and anyway they cannot be sustained. There is no sense of humour, of self-awareness, that something as simple as shirts with “Norn Iron” on the back indicates. We’re not funny and we take it all too seriously – faults that the English hurl so easily at the Germans while not looking in the mirror.

At last, moments after half-time, the Irish defence cracks and Joe Cole capitalises on Tony Capaldi’s error. “Two-one – we’re gonna win two-one,” sing the visitors. Michael Owen finds the back of the net for the one time in a week that shows his rustiness. “Three-two – we’re gonna win three-two.” The only thing the Irish get wrong is to accuse us of singing when we’re winning; we might celebrate, once more as Owen is credited with Chris Baird’s own goal, but only briefly. Likewise when the unfortunate Taylor sees Frank Lampard’s shot deflected past him. All that does is allow the visitors, as added time approaches, to claim they’re going to win 5-4.

England’s nationwide tour, bringing in new fans, and the work done by supporters’ groups have helped take much of the poison out of the atmosphere at the games. Most people are there to enjoy themselves, home or away. But while the negatives have been attacked they have not been eradicated and during the game we have nothing positive to put in their place, as is shown again on Wednesday when the band beats out the rhythm for Ten German Bombers, a tedious nursery rhyme for history-obsessed xenophobes.

Changing this will be part of the challenge at the new Wembley, a ground that, for all the joys of the tour, most are looking forward to. As someone who joined the train north at Stoke puts it on Saturday: “It’s going to be brilliant, I just wish it wasn’t in bloody London.” The closest I hear to a positive home song at either game is waiting to get into St James’ Park: “We’re the famous Eng-er-land and we’re going to Wem-ber-lee.”

At 8.43pm on the Saturday, three points to the good and as happy as I could be on a train with an alcohol ban, I press my forehead to the, vaguely clean, train window. I can see the shape of the arch, picked out in part by the aircraft warning lights, and the outline of the building site below. The dream of a new home for football is almost a reality.

The 4-0 triumph is Eriksson’s easiest, largest win in a competitive home game: every previous one and, as it turns out, Wednesday’s match at Newcastle against Azerbaijan, has ended with two goals to his charges, usually to nil, once to one, once in a 2-2 draw. But it doesn’t make life easier for him – combined with Poland’s crushing of Azerbaijan, it simply leads to calls for a St James’ Park massacre. Qualification, not yet assured, is assumed.

The earliest date that Eriksson can hope for a positive reassessment by the press and, increasingly, the public remains June 30 next year. That day the first of the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals takes place in Berlin, followed by games in Hamburg and, the next day, Frankfurt and Gelsenkirchen. The Swede must surely win one of those and maybe a semi, too, if he is to join me at the new Wembley for more than perhaps a fleeting farewell.

From WSC 219 May 2005. What was happening this month

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