During Euro ’96, it was quite possible to write about football without understanding it

I should know.

NS

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I missed Radio 4’s The Reunion the other day, but was pleased when someone said afterwards that I should have been on it. The subject was Euro ’96 – the football championships with that memorable theme song about “football’s coming home”, in which England lost to Germany in the semi-final, and we all got so upset that we shut ourselves in the cupboard under the stairs.

I find it easy to remember the effect of Euro ’96 on my own life. Twenty years ago, you see, in May 1996, I was invited to lunch by two chaps from the sports section of the Times, which was a surprise, to say the least. I was the TV critic of the paper. But sport? The only time I’d ever written on the subject, it was to say in an opinion piece that a woman should, by rights, always be charged less for a newspaper, as half of it (the sports bit) was destined for the bin.

Now that football is so huge in the culture, it’s hard to credit that it used to be niche. But trust me, it was. True, by 1996, we’d already had Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, but football was still a back-page subject, and it was certainly possible to get by without knowing about it.

At my lunch with the sports chaps I was specifically asked if I knew what Euro ’96 was, and I replied, cautiously, that just judging from the circumstantial evidence, was it something in the sporting line? Had I heard of Alan Shearer, they asked. No. No, never. Paul Gascoigne? Ooh, yes. Tony Adams? Teddy Sheringham? Darren Anderton? No, no, and no. What about Terry Venables? Oh, yes, I said; wasn’t he a sort of crook?

Obviously, as a meeting of minds, this was not going swimmingly – until I cunningly turned the tables and asked some questions of my own, such as whether Euro ’96 was played every year, and always took place in England. It was at this point, I believe, that my fate was sealed. They had been hoping to find me stupid about football, but they had never dreamed they would find anyone as stupid as this.

I was hired forthwith. My role was to spend Euro ’96 learning to care about football, and reporting back to Times readers. And it certainly worked. By the time we were knocked out by Germany, I was so obviously in bits with anxiety that Libby Purves phoned me at half-time to say, “Lynne, remember: it’s only a game.”

For the next four years, I wrote about sport, continuing to monitor my own helpless descent into sports bore. And I often needed to remember that meeting where (for example) the name “Tony Adams” had meant nothing to me. “ADAMS IN TALKS”, said the headline one day. Oh good, I thought – and then was genuinely baffled when the story turned out to be something trivial about Northern Ireland, and not about Arsenal, as I had naturally assumed.

This article appears in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism