I don’t ‘get’ football. I’ve never followed a team, played it or spent much time thinking about it. I mean, I’ll watch England playing an international game, but I’ve never been overly emotionally invested in it. I’ve not really cared two hoots about whether or not the national teams get through or not, writing them off for most of the past two decades as over paid, over bred, preening stallions who fall over in a gust of wind and generally have ridiculous hair.
I don’t know if it was the change of mindset from the pandemic, the fact that there’s been a dearth of things to feel good about for fifteen months, or the fact that I’ve harboured a bit of a crush on Gareth Southgate since the 2018 World Cup, when he rocked up in a waistcoat and I was so impressed I wrote a waistcoat wearing hero, Charlie Thorpe, into my novel, A Place To Call Home, but something definitely changed this year. And so, I’m going to try to put my spin on the Euros, from the perspective of a writer of romantic fiction. And someone who still knows virtually nothing about the beautiful game.
The books I write sink or swim by how much my readers can relate to, like or even fall in love with my characters. If readers don’t get behind them, they don’t waste time finishing the book. They have to find some quality, some attractive feature in the people I’ve imagined, to follow their stories. They have to feel something for them. I think football must kind of be the same thing. It’s not just about the game play; it’s about the narrative, and the characters. Contemplating this was where my interest started to be piqued for the Euro 2020 (played in 2021, of course), football tournament. Suddenly, I was creating characters in my mind as I watched these players, and through those imaginative explorations, I started to care. I started to feel something for them.
Take Gareth Southgate, for example. At forty nine years old, and carrying the trauma of missing a penalty in the 1996 Euros with him for twenty five years, he’s got a lot of ‘romantic hero’ traits. Tall, dark, grizzled, brooding, calm, dignified, giving the impression of colossal emotion kept under rigid control but burning deep within, ready to erupt at a time and place of his choosing, and the wearer of very sharp suits, he’s a pretty good archetype. And throughout this tournament, he’s shown a huge amount of affection for his players, supporting them in their darker moments, celebrating with them when they’ve triumphed and seeming to be both father figure and mentor to them all. He appears to be respected by them, loved even, and he instinctively seems to know what makes them tick.
I was in a pub, in 1996, with my university friends, half cut and hopeful of an English victory, when he missed that penalty. Dad later joined us, driving from Bristol to York to pick me up, drank a pint or two and bought us all a curry before driving me home the next day. It was a proper moment. It stays in my mind for the crushing of hope as much as the great night we all had. At eighteen years old, you have the world at your feet, and for a few hours that evening, nothing mattered but the booze, the game and the laughs. But I still felt incredibly sad for Gareth that night.
So when he took over as England manager, I was programmed to have a bit of a soft spot for him, even though I hadn’t followed anything he’d done since that fateful night in July 1996. As I said, not a football fan. But seeing him with his team, bringing them on and supporting them, brought out the romantic writer in me, and I started to feel interested. Here was someone who had that perfect balance of calm and steel. And I still believe that. The minute I saw the much tweeted about ‘Southgate Hug’ in action for the first time (in Russia, at the World Cup in 2018, as the snapshot of him with Harry Kane shows), I realised that there was a physicality, belied by the restraint, that captured the essence of the man. And last night, that was on display once again, albeit under different, heartbreaking circumstances. Those consoling touches, that unselfconscious ability to make contact that seems so at odds with being English, but seems to be brought out on the football field by the extremes of the game, was there for all to see.
In fact, it graced a fair few front pages this morning as those who were drawn into the drama of the game tried to process it all. His comforting of the poor, distraught Bukayo Saka, who was so young to have to bear the outcome of the last penalty of the match, is a freeze frame of a moment that no one could deny was hugely emotional. And what makes it more poignant is that Gareth knows what that feels like to miss. That gesture reads as an attempt to protect the young player from what he knows is coming; the onslaught of scrutiny, criticism and hatred that, sadly inevitably, he would go on to face almost immediately the game had ended. It’s a gesture that’s both apologetic and protective, and thus emblematic of the relationship between manager and team.
But, interestingly, this time around, I’ve noticed some other romantic fiction archetypes on that pitch too. If Gareth made my heart flutter, my writer’s pulse beat a little faster for others, as well. Take the incomparable Jordan Pickford, for example. Two months ago, I’ve had said Jordan who? if asked. To be truthful, I still don’t have a clue who he plays for, apart from England. But, my goodness, what presence! Commanding, eruptive, wearing his heart on his sleeve and his emotions all over his face, he is an absolute force of nature. Lip reading Jordan Pickford’s words (mostly screamed, and mostly starting with ‘Harry!’) was such a pleasure during the Euros.
And then there’s Harry Maguire – who I joked, the first time I heard him speak, just needed a flat cap and a whippet and he could be the lead in some 1950s TV drama set in a cosy Yorkshire village. Presence, skill and a down to earth pragmatism that felt infinitely reassuring, he’s another type of romantic hero. Pure Sheffield Steel, as one commentator (I forget who), put it.
The other Harry, of course, Mr Kane, looks like some golden haired lead from an epic movie, exuding both calm like Gareth Southgate, and absolute skill in tantalising bursts of drama. Reminiscent, perhaps, of Taylor Swift’s ‘London Boy’, he’s a charismatic captain.
And then, the young bucks: the beautiful, elegant, incredibly accomplished Marcus Rashford, who I knew more about from his food and literacy campaigns than his footwork. What charisma, what passion, what presence! Raheem Sterling, another hugely gifted and charismatic man, with a smile to melt the hardest of hearts and, from what I can see with my inexperienced eye, footwork to match. Add the dancer-like elegance of Jack Grealish into the mix, and the youthful exuberance of Bukayo Saka, and their combination of youth, skill and indefatigable enthusiasm is completely infectious.
To my writer’s mind, this feels like a story that is entering its third act; if the World Cup in 2018 introduced us to this cast of characters, and the Euros established the characters and introduced the most painful of conflicts, then surely the World Cup in 2022 will be the thrilling final part of the story, but hopefully not the end. And, as a definite non-football fan, but a loving witness of this band of players and their manager, who have created an incredibly emotionally interesting, talented and cohesive team, I’ll be there, in the audience, to see them take the stage again.
But my heart, after last night, goes out to them all. The operatic tragedy of the game going right down to the last penalty could have been written for some tear jerking sporting movie, and it played out in all its glory and pain on screens around the country last night. The writer’s maxim, about having characters you love chased up a tree by a bear, and then having the bear throwing rocks at them, worked its way onscreen in the most dreadfully painful and engrossing way during that game. It was melodrama, it was the pinnacle of an exciting narrative, and it’s easy to try to analyse it as such. And I don’t even fully understand the game.
So tonight, twenty four hours on, I’m reflecting on the art is life perspective that I’ve had through this tournament, and trying to remember that these people are just that; that the fallout from the game has been horrendous for many of them, and that it will take a little time for them to recover. The drama has been intense, and exhausting, and I’m not surprised that Gareth Southgate said he needed a rest in the press conference he took today. But one thing’s for certain; I might not be much the wiser when it comes to the rules of the game, but I am completely hooked on the drama of international football; and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Fancy a new book to read? Click below to find out more about my Willowbury novels!