The post-mortems on the elimination of the England soccer team from the Euro 2012 tournament will begin. There will be little said that has not been said before. But when England play again, the fans will be there – even if it means turning up two nights in a row.
Wednesday, 21st November 1979 was a chill day, by the time it was dark, fog had begun to form across North London. Meeting a friend travelling from Brighton at Victoria Station, we caught the tube across to Saint Pancras station to meet friends coming in from Leeds, and then a Metropolitan line train up to Wembley Park. Being first term undergraduates, there was nothing that could possibly be a discouragement.
The fixture against Bulgaria was a qualification group match for the 1980 European Championships. Hardly a glamorous fixture, but there were reports that up to 85,000 tickets had been sold (the capacity for floodlit matches at the old Wembley was 92,000). The mood was cheerful and buoyant, as it was on any occasion at Wembley, and tens of thousands of fans milled around outside the stadium. It became apparent that the match was in doubt, the turnstiles had not been opened and the fog had grown so thick that the twin towers were barely visible.
Eventually, an announcement came that the match had been postponed because visibility was so poor; it would be played 24 hours later and tickets would be valid. There was a huge groan and much muttering and people turned to go home. There wasn’t much money around in 1979, my friends would return to their colleges in late trains and would be unable to return. It was hard to imagine that those who had travelled from distant points in England would get much use from their tickets.
The following day, I again caught the Metropolitan Line tube with four £2 terrace tickets in my hand; the three I didn’t need were sold, at face value, to people travelling to Wembley. The match went ahead without a hitch, Dave Watson and Glenn Hoddle scoring in a 2-0 win for England.
The fog certainly reduced the attendance, but for a re-scheduled match on a November Thursday evening in economically-depressed times there were 71,491 people in the crowd. The overwhelming majority of the crowd from the previous evening had managed to turn up on the second night; there were people from the corners of England would support their team, wherever and whenever it played.
Football was never about winning, anyway, it was about the experience. If it was about winning, then how would anyone explain crowds of over 20,000 for at least the top ten teams in the Championship – which is the second division, and where the only thing anyone wins is promotion to the division above? How would anyone explain the tens of thousands who attend the matches of lower league teams week in and week out? Journalists who sit in glass-fronted, heated press boxes with their paraphernalia all around them rarely understand what it’s about.
I have no memory of most of those England matches, no idea of most of the opponents, what mattered was being there. The fans tonight will have been disappointed, but when the white shirts are pulled on again, they will be there, because football is about more than winning. As Bill Shankly said when he was asked whether football was a matter of life and death, ‘It’s far more important than that’.
The casually interested will turn their attention elsewhere tomorrow and the hardcore supporters will start wondering about flights to Rio.