English gladiators

Despite the perfectly good behaviour of the majority of England supporters in Italy, Paul Kelso feels that the occasion was ruined by a select few

There are, we now know, two types of travelling England fan, and they are so distinct that it’s a wonder we didn’t spot it earlier. On the one hand there is the harmless, decent, patriot who likes nothing better than to paint his (or her) face, sing his (or her) heart out for the lads, and wear a replica shirt for four days straight.

And on the other there’s the snarling, bigoted, patriot, whose idea of a good time is to stand outside a bar spitting abuse at passers-by, and occasionally, just to break the monotony of drinking and swearing, to hurl bits of occasional furniture at anyone that moves. (Confusingly this fan also likes to wear a replica shirt for four days straight, but likes a touch of blood to brighten it up. Call it the Paul Ince look.)

We can be so sure about these two species because, in the aftermath of the violence that did so much to overshadow events on the pitch in the Stadio Olimpico, it was the one thing everyone agreed on. Banks, Mellor, Kelly and the rest spoke as one. They could have been talking about the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad: of course there were some bad apples out there who can have no complaint at the carabinieri’s robust tactics, but that’s no reason for the innocent, decent sorts to be tarred with the same brush and to suffer accordingly. That, they huffed and puffed in unison, is not acceptable.

Now I find this rare consensus somewhat confusing, not to mention patronizing. I was in Rome. So were 12 of my friends. So was my girlfriend and her best friend. So was my boss and his wife. While a few have followed England from Monterrey to Rotterdam in the last ten years, some of our number had never seen England play at all, and for at least two it was the first time they’d seen a professional football match full stop. None of them wore a replica England shirt, and there wasn’t a drop of facepaint (or blood) in sight.

None of us fit either of the stereotypes that were so neatly wheeled out to explain in part why several hundred carabinieri and England fans decided to reconstruct scenes from the miners strike. The truth about England’s travelling support, as ever, isn’t that simple.

I would contend that as well as the 20-odd people that I know who went to Rome, a significant proportion of the estimated 10,000 who made the trip lie somewhere between these two strains of Homo Ingerlundus. Herein lies the problem for anyone trying to neatly deconstruct the nature of the travelling England fan. Of course some of these ‘in-betweeners’ are the cash-rich arrivistes, more Eurostar than Intercity firm, who are so beloved of the Premiership’s marketing men. More than likely they will have left Italy appalled by their treatment at the hands of the Italian authorities and vowed to stick to their executive boxes in future.

But I suspect in the main the bulk of those supporters were, like me, devoted followers of the game, regulars at their club beguiled into making the trip by the prospect of seeing two of the best sides in the world play in a great stadium. That’s certainly why I travelled.The prospect of Italy away, in the Stadio Olimpico, with a World Cup place at stake was enough to induce goose pimples two months ahead of the game. But the thing that really sets in-betweeners apart from the accepted stereotypes is the notion of patriotism. I was in Rome to support England in much the same way as I support Tottenham: I’m interested in the performance of the team, not in the nationalistic baggage. If, as was the case at Wembley in February, I see England outplayed by superior opposition it is merely a reflection on the players, not a slight to national pride. So when I sang in Rome it was to support the players, not to make some fatuous point about the supremacy of Queen and country. Thus I was both thrilled at being part of the choir that silenced the Italian support, and appalled at having to listen to choruses of that stunningly irrelevant hymn to ignorance, ‘No Surrender to the IRA’, which sadly seems to be returning to the terrace repertoire. When Moldova came to Wembley in September this was ringing out almost before the tributary strains of ‘Candle in the Wind’ had faded.

Which brings me round to my abiding memory of what was, despite everything, a wonderful weekend. Sadly it’s not of the cacophonous, exhilarating chants of ‘Italia, Italia’ that echoed around the stadium as we approached the ground. Neither is it of Paul Ince, bandaged, bleeding, and so wired on adrenalin that the suggestion from the bloke behind me that he probably had a hard-on didn’t seem far-fetched. No. The sight I’m destined to recall in my dotage is of one particular England fan in his replica shirt. I doubt that if I travel to every match England play for the rest of my life I will ever see a more graphic example of the confusion and bigotry that a football match can cause.

His was no ordinary replica shirt you see. Three lions were obviously not enough for this little Johnny Bull. His remarkable garment bore the legend ‘Diana, Princess of Wales’ across the back, and underneath where the number usually goes, ‘Pride of England’. For a moment I wondered if this was a joke, or a deliberate mistake. I might even have asked him had he not been half way through ‘Rule Britannia’.

I don’t know if he was the fighting type, but I do know that if his is the sole face of English support, then foreign police will continue to over-react, and the fans who were truly sinned against will never get the sympathy – and action –they deserve from the FA and the government. Without that, England really will be left with just two kinds of supporter, or worse, just the one.

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month