Nobody ever told my eight-year-old self that there was any question about whether I could be English.
It was the first pressing national question that I ever became aware of: would Kevin Keegan be fit enough to play at the World Cup that summer? The country was transfixed in the build-up to Espana ’82. I followed every twist and turn of the saga. The local newsagent kept a reserved copy of Shoot! magazine for me every week. Captain Keegan got on the plane without being fit to play. He missed England’s early matches. But then he did come on for a crunch game against the Spanish hosts. The ball came across the goal, Keegan flicked that famous perm, and headed the ball wide. I had been allowed to stay up well past my bedtime but to no avail. England were out.
Apparently, “Kevin Keegan” were two of the very first words I knew, if my Mum is to be believed on this topic. That must have been her idea too. My Dad, having grown up in India, was cricket-mad. My mum, who came here from Ireland, was not a big sports fan at all. But she must have had a hunch that knowing who Kevin Keegan was, the England captain and sporting superstar of the era, would be a good idea in the playground. Once I had the football kit, shorts, socks, Panini sticker albums, and seemed to live and breathe football, she might have regretted how well she succeeded.
I don’t think it had ever occurred to me to consider not supporting England until I was sixteen, when Norman Tebbit tried to make it compulsory. My problem with his ‘cricket test’ was that I passed it – though my Dad certainly didn’t. I still remember him running around the lounge in a demented state when minnows India somehow beat the invincible West Indies to win the World Cup in 1983. I was really pleased that his team had won such a famous underdog victory. It was fun watching our different teams play each other – until that somehow seemed to get mixed up into something political. We both appreciated Sunil Gavaskar’s skills with the bat but David Gower was my man, rather more than Ian Botham. Who Dad cheered for didn’t seem to me to call into question his loyalty to this country, or to diminish his decades working for the NHS.
So I have never been a fan of loyalty tests in sport – not least because I could feel how they can deter the thing that they would like to achieve. It was far too late for me to think about switching sides in protest – but I did consider whether I should cheer a bit less loudly.
And I didn’t only support England. What true sports fan does? I was very much gutted for Kevin Keegan – but I couldn’t believe it either when Zico’s brilliant Brazil team got knocked out of the World Cup too. Once England had got knocked out, the occasional holiday romance with Platini’s France or the great Dutch team of Ruud Gullit didn’t seem so unfaithful. But I might not have wanted Norman Tebbit to know how thrilling that great West Indian side were when they whitewashed England five Tests to nil one summer. I became a Somerset fan for a while –the great Viv Richards and Joel Garner played for them – probably imagining Somerset to be some great sporting metropolis, before I had ever set eyes on Yeovil.
Of course, I also found out that not everybody was as sure that I was English as I had always been. Getting called a “Paki” is one way to find that out. Fortunately, I had total zinger of a response – or, at least, my fourteen-year- old self thought so, being a five-foot-nothing Asian kid with quite a squeaky scouse accent and a taste for sarcasm. “Why don’t you get an atlas, dickhead? That’s just like me calling you and your dad French”. Perhaps the playground racists found that confusing. Somehow, I never actually got beaten up.
It was mainly football that introduced me to much more visceral public racism – but also to efforts to tackle racism too. It was not a great time to be an Asian Evertonian when Liverpool signed John Barnes and I found myself supporting the team whose fans were throwing bananas. In those days, I wouldn’t have gone to watch England play: I never saw them live until I was at university. For one thing, when I was growing up, near Chester, they played a couple of hundred miles away. I wouldn’t have known if it was safe. By reputation, the National Front had quite a presence at England games, especially away from home. They sang the wrong score if John Barnes scored a goal – to make the point that “black goals don’t count” – or marauded around Europe singing “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts”. All of that aggro was enough to put off anybody who just wanted to enjoy the game.
Fans worked hard to change that culture. I took part in the ‘Raise the Flag’ initiative at England games, which involved turning up several hours early, putting out cards to make up a giant St George’s Cross, with a positive message too, also rather sportingly laying down their national flag for the opposing fans at the other end of the ground. The only catch was having to stay behind at the ground afterwards to help clear them up. I remember where I was when Kevin Keegan resigned as England manager, after England lost at Wembley to Germany, because I was at the other end of the ground, picking up the discarded red and white cards.
I never felt more confident about England than during that glorious summer of Euro ‘96. The great Baddiel and Skinner anthem “Football’s Coming Home” sent the message that we were hosting the party. The St George’s flag replaced the Union Jacks, and fluttered in the Wembley breeze, and the team can rarely have played better than the night they played Holland off the park. England didn’t win the tournament, losing to Germany – on penalties, of course.
But the sporting summers that bring us together have never been about who wins the trophy. Many people who aren’t big sports fans join in too for a couple of weeks. We end up with a stock of shared memories – of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma as the soundtrack to Gazza’s tears; of those moments of hope when a Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney bursts on to the scene before the usual hard luck story of an injury, a red card or those penalty kicks leave us all wondering what might have been – until the next tournament comes around.
That might be why British Future’s new research shows that people see the England football team uniting people of all races and faiths more than any other symbol of England, be it our flag, our patron saint’s day or even just ‘calling yourself English’.
This week we launch the #WeAreAllEngland campaign, in the month leading up to Euro 2016, to build on that shared sense of inclusive pride and patriotism that people do celebrate, especially when there is a big tournament on. By asking people to share a photo of themselves showing their support for England, tagged #WeAreAllEngland, we hope to present a picture of the modern, diverse nation supporting the England team as it heads off to compete in France.
As we cheer together for Roy Hodgson’s team this summer, perhaps it will help us to build a stronger confidence that an inclusive sense of English pride can bring us together beyond sport too.