Fifty-Five Years of Hurt: A Whole Life Waiting for England to Win

I am fifty-five years old and I am English. These are the salient facts about me. Just like yours, my life to date has had highs and lows, joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats.

The same is true of following the beautiful game. That truth was captured self-deprecatingly in the sometimes maligned and misunderstood Three Lions, England’s team song for Euro ’96, which coined the phrase ‘thirty years of hurt’. Twenty-five years later, we’ve experienced a lot more hurt and limited success. Those of us born in the year Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy don’t need to do a calculation in our heads about how long the hurt has persisted; we just need to remember how long we’ve been alive.

This year, the Three Lions’ surprisingly strong showing at the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 has caused me to question what exactly we mean by ‘hurt’. Which parts of life hurt the most, and can football teach us anything useful? I think so. Here are three examples.

First, injustice. Have you ever been wronged, cheated, used, abused, lied to? Of course you have; and so have I. There are few things in life that hurt more than someone cheating at your expense and getting away with it. Imagine then, how Bobby Robson’s players felt in Mexico in 1986 when, having navigated the group stage and the round of 16, their daunting quarter-final against Argentina was blighted by Maradona’s infamous ‘hand of God’ goal, perhaps the most famous hand-ball in football history. Even now, it’s haunting to watch film of the England players surrounding the referee, pointing frantically at their hands, only to be waved away.

Was the sense of injustice felt by Robson and his players lessened by Maradona scoring one of the World Cup’s great goals only four minutes later? I doubt it. And yet, four years later in Italy, Robson and team were back again, their determination to do better propelling them all the way to the semi-finals.

Secondly, sorrow. Have you ever been distraught, crushed, disconsolate, depressed, bereaved? Of course you have; and so have I. Which brings me back to Italia ’90. After the disappointment of Mexico ’86 and the disaster of Euro ’88, England enjoyed its best run in many years at the 1990 World Cup, seeing off Belgium and Cameroon before landing a semi-final in Turin against Germany for the prize of meeting Argentina in the final. Although there had been only twenty-four years of hurt at this point, nevertheless we started to dream. Was this our year?

For many commentators, the emerging stars of Italia ’90 were Roger Milla of Cameroon and Paul Gascogine of England. Gazza, arguably England’s most naturally gifted player (discuss), was everywhere: he worked harder, ran further, fell over, got up again and showed flashes of brilliance more than just about any other player at the tournament. I could sense, even as a spectator on a far-flung portable TV in a south London flat, that he wanted it more than anyone else. He gave his all in the semi-final, but his tackle on Germany’s Thomas Berthold was deemed worthy of a yellow card, his second of the tournament. And two yellows meant a suspension from the next match: even if England made the final against Argentina, Gazza would not play.

Of course, thanks to a failed penalty shoot-out, England didn’t make the final, adding insult to Gazza’s injury. But at the moment the fateful yellow card was waved, we saw his composure begin to crumble. In a famous moment captured by the TV cameras, captain Gary Lineker turns to Robson and mouths “have a word with him”. At the final whistle, when England’s exit was confirmed, Gazza – having held it together just about for the remainder of the game – collapsed into floods of tears before being escorted off the pitch by Terry Butcher, whose huge arm around the shoulders made Gascoigne look like a lost child.

Six years later, in a Euro ’96 group game against Scotland at Wembley, Gascoigne chipped the ball over Colin Hendry, ran around him and volleyed it home, for one of the most brilliant and audacious goals ever scored at the Euros. In the celebration that followed, when his team mates pursued Gazza across the pitch and squirted water into his face, I wonder if he sensed that moment was all the sweeter because of his suffering in Turin. I like to think so.

Thirdly, shame. Have you ever been ashamed, embarrassed, regretful? Have you ever wished with all your might that you could step back in time and have a second go at what just happened? Of course you have. So have I. And so has Gareth Southgate.

Which brings us back to Euro ’96. With Three Lions ringing in our ears, we topped our group, for once, including a wonderful 4-1 romp against the mighty Netherlands, and then knocked out Spain on penalties in the quarter-final. What had seemed unlikely suddenly started to feel real: after thirty years of hurt, had our time finally come?

There was just one problem: Germany in the semi-final. But the Czechs had just knocked out France in the other semi. If we could get to the final, we could beat the Czechs at Wembley, couldn’t we? Perhaps this really was our year.

Of course, after a hard-fought 1-1 draw with Germany, we faced the dreaded penalty shoot-out once again. The five initial penalties were perfect on both sides, so the shootout entered its sudden death phase. Next up for England was our brave young central defender, Gareth Southgate, who passed the ball rather sheepishly to the left, where it was collected easily by German keeper, Andreas Kopke. Andreas Moller stepped up for Germany, scored confidently, and our dream of another Wembley final was over.

In the twenty-five years since 1996, Southgate has been interviewed many times about that moment. Up to and including his two strong runs at World Cup 2018 and Euro 2020, whenever Southgate talks about that penalty miss, there is always a poignancy in his voice; a sense that the incident haunts him just as much today as it ever did. And yet, despite that weight hanging over him, and despite a limited managerial career before taking on the national job, he is rapidly becoming one of the most successful England managers in many years, presiding over a semi-final run in 2018 and now a final in Euro 2020. Despite another penalty shootout loss today, and with the World Cup only a year away, it’s only a matter of time before Southgate trades in his OBE for a knighthood, following in the footsteps of only Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson.

If there’s a moral to this story, perhaps it’s this: it gets better. Today’s sorrow doesn’t preclude tomorrow’s joy. Even if there’s shame now, there might be glory later.

Just like life, football is full of both hurt and happiness. Our national team and its supporters have experienced both over the past fifty-five years. Here’s to many more.

Photo by Alberto Frías on Unsplash

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