Tom's Column - August/September 21
‘It’s Coming Home’ Was About Far More Than Football by Tom Beasley
We needed this, right? After 18 months of being mostly confined to our homes watching Line of Duty and trying to avoid ordering takeaways just for the novelty of seeing another person, what we all needed was the collective joy of England going deep into an international football tournament.
There's something about a summer of “it's coming home” that breaks down the horrific tribalism that dominates so much of our discussion in this country. The nastiness surrounding the England players' decision to take a knee before their games threatened to overtake any positive chatter about what was happening on the pitch before a ball had even been kicked. Suddenly, the likes of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane were not working class heroes, but “cultural Marxists” – whatever that means.
Thankfully, as soon as Sterling and Kane found their scoring boots, the pre-match booing seemed to subside and was replaced by the familiar strains of Baddiel, Skinner and The Lightning Seeds' semi-ironic ode to the decades of hurt England has endured on the pitch since the triumph of 1966. A nervy goalless draw with Scotland in the group stages felt like the beginning of the inevitable slide we're all so used to, but dominant wins over the Czech Republic, Germany – yes, Germany! – and Ukraine in the knockout stage changed the national mood. Certainly, when the goals started flying in against the last of those opponents en route to a 4-0 victory, an entire country started to believe.
Things were a bit tighter against Denmark in the semi-finals and then, of course, it was a penalty shootout that brought things to an end as an excellent Italy side bested us under the floodlights at Wembley. But we took one of the best international teams on the planet right to the limit. If Marcus Rashford's penalty had been delivered a couple of inches to the right, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka's high-pressure kicks might have also been scored and the conversation would've been very different. For a few weeks, the euphoria of England actually being pretty good at football was a delight to experience.
There was something of this feeling, of course, in 2018. Gareth Southgate's waistcoats and Harry Kane's penalties inspired England to the semi-finals of the World Cup and, for a fleeting few days, we actually thought it might be coming home. In the midst of a balmy heatwave, and with a particularly exciting series of Love Island also rumbling on, it really felt like a summer of bona fide collective joy for a country bitterly divided by the tumult of the Brexit process. Leave or Remain didn't matter for a few weeks. There was only the fortunes of 20 or so young men who appeared to have the world at their feet.
This time, it felt even sweeter. This England team is pretty inarguably the strongest squad since the so-called “golden generation” of Beckham, Gerrard, etc and there's a real chance that they will one day return to England with a major trophy in their hands – possibly as soon as next year's World Cup. If the likes of Sancho, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden are only good enough for off-the-bench cameo appearances, we must be doing something right.
But there's more to it than football. COVID-19 has exposed plenty of divisions in recent months, whether it's the scary and dangerous anti-vax movement or the anger on both sides of the debate about wearing face masks. As I write this, Boris Johnson has announced the end to compulsory mask-wearing in late July and, after a year of supreme caution, I am finding myself increasingly anxious at the prospect of sitting on a crowded train amid dozens of non-masked people. All of these divisions and concerns, though, disappear when the referee blows that whistle on match day.
It doesn't matter which political stances we hold, or where we stand in our role as backseat epidemiologists, the Three Lions were the top priority this summer. Hopefully, when the confetti falls after the next tournament for England's new golden generation, we'll have even more to celebrate. In Southgate, we trust.
© 2021 Tom Beasley
The opinions expressed in this article are personal to Tom Beasley. Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at email@example.com.