THE climax of the Euros at Wembley on Sunday night was a major failure by the football authorities and may turn out to have been a disaster for those who make a fat living from football.
It’s not the fault of the players. There is no shame in losing a sporting contest. I am only puzzled by Marcus Rashford’s apology over missing a penalty, because he has nothing at all to say sorry for.
But football now has a string of problems that did start on the pitch and which might now turn into something difficult.
Let’s begin, shall we, with taking the knee. The assumption seems to be that all of us who think taking the knee is a bad idea are proven racists. This is reinforced by ITV putting ads in the papers showing kneeling England players, under a headline saying: ‘Together we will never lose.’
I know ITV likes to editorialise a bit these days, but the people united will never be defeated? Last time I heard that was probably the miners’ strike.
Then there’s Gary Neville, a former player who was never universally popular but who has made a career as a football pundit on Sky. Neville, whose knowledge of politics doesn’t rise above the man-in-the-pub level, seems to be turning into the Peter Finch character in Network. Sky allowed him to publicise his view that the Prime Minister’s attitude to taking the knee means Boris is promoting racism.
One of the England players, Tyrone Mings, went so far as to put out an angry social media post condemning Home Secretary Priti Patel – who said knee-taking was gesture politics – for stoking the fires of racism.
Tyrone Mings is as entitled to take a view and express it as you or I, and in many ways I admire him, both for his courage in breaking cover and for his determination to protect his colleagues.
But there is a hitch here. Do you remember the sainted Gareth Southgate defending knee-taking last month? ‘I think we have got a situation where some people seem to think it is a political stand that they don’t agree with. That is not the reason the players are doing it.’
Well it is now.
The reason I do not like to see players taking the knee is that the gesture is indelibly linked with Black Lives Matter, an American political movement with a bagful of deeply dislikeable revolutionary slogans. The movement is associated with, among others, the idea of defunding the police.
This sticks in the craw when taken up by footballers and football hangers-on. Let me put it this way: A number of years ago, I went to a match in London where there were some worries about potential hooliganism. It was a London derby and an anniversary of some kind, so the boot boys were expected to come out.
The match magazine celebrated the anniversary by reprinting an old programme, from the Edwardian era. It contained a lot of timeless stuff you would still read now, but what struck me was a paragraph addressed to unruly fans. It seems that in 1908 the club had suffered a series of pitch invasions and its administrators were very anxious that they should stop.
Essentially, professional football has depended on protection from the police for more than 100 years. Do you recall seeing the newsreels of the ‘white horse’ FA Cup Final of 1923, when the Football Association could not open its new stadium at Wembley without crowd disorder and needed the police to get its showpiece match played?
Football has now grown complacent about its gentrified crowds. It does not remember the not so far-off days of the 1980s, when in the wake of the Bradford City stadium fire the Sunday Times justly described it as ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up’.
Football does not remember that it was saved by a Right-wing media mogul, a judge and a literary success. Rupert Murdoch’s gamble in buying up the football for Sky, Lord Justice Taylor’s Hillsborough report that enforced all-seater stadiums free from the anarchy of the terraces, and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, if you have forgotten too.
On Sunday night the slum people were back. There was mayhem in the streets around Wembley and the mob burst into the stadium, bringing violence and intimidation on what the evidence suggests was a fairly large scale. The son of the Italian manager, it is reported, had to watch the match sitting on a step.
I would like to think this intensely damaging development may have been planned by the police. To rework a protest song almost as old as professional football, it would put them to the test if the police took a rest, then they’d know it’s the police that feeds them all.
However, given Metropolitan police chief Cressida Dick’s record, I fear it was just cock-up again.
A few hundred slum people sending vicious social media messages to players after a lost match is one thing. The return of routine hooliganism would be entirely another. Once these people get a foothold, they do not go away.
There seems to be a worry that because of the events of Sunday, England might lose the chance of hosting the 2030 World Cup. How about going back to the days when, following the murderous 1985 riot by Liverpool fans in Brussels, English clubs were banned from European competition for five years?
And if the boot boys do come back, I wonder whether Sky will continue to find it worthwhile to employ Gary Neville?