Alex Massie

Anyone But England?

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Happily, I couldn't find a photo of Steve Nicol's miss against Uruguay in 1986.

Could there be anything dafter, yet still wearisomely predictable, than the news that the polis have warned an Aberdeen shop that dares to sell "Anyone But England" t-shirts* in the run-up to this year's World Cup finals that said items might be considered "racist"? Quiet times in the Granite City, one trusts, if this is how the constabulary is keeping busy.

It's inevitable that we'l hear much more on this front as the tournament draws nearer (just ask Andy Murray). So, for the record, this blog's Official England World Cup Position is this: I'd like England to do well but they can do well without actually winning the damn thing. Then again, while there are some teams I'd support against England (Italy, Argentina) there are others I'd be quite happy to see England beat (Brazil).

James Hamilton - an Englishman now living in Scotland - considers some of the rules of the ABE stance:

The number of Scots who express ABE in anger is vanishingly small, and any discussion of ABE on talkboards will attract comment from Scots who disagree with it and dislike it as a childish hangover and a block on Scottish development.

The golden rule about ABE is that it must be expressed in a humorous tone. Serious use of ABE is considered de trop. But so is energetic argument against it from an Englishman, which is why the wearing of an England shirt in a Scottish pub, whilst unlikely to inspire anything worse than brief comment, is seen as inappropriate, a misjudgement of the situation. That shirt, there, is such an energetic argument.

You are highly unlikely to meet anyone who wants to press the ABE point  even amongst those Scots for whom ABE is an important fact of life. The conversation always moves on. There are other things to talk about, and this is especially so when it comes to football.

This is pretty accurate even if, characteristically, James is erring on the side of generosity. There is some genuine animus but it's also the case that the more seriously someone takes the ABE thing then, generally speaking, the more embarrassing it is for everyone else. In the end, lads, it's just a game no matter how annoying Clive Tyldsley is. (There'd be vastly less irritation with the whole England hoopla if Scotland received RTE's coverage rather than the BBC-ITV two headed monster.)

It can cut both ways, mind you. Some of the English rugby players who developed a dislike of all things Scottish in the early 1990s weren't put off by the (over the top) animosity of the crowd at Murrayfield in those days. No, it was the sight of some of the Scotland players attending the 1991 World Cup Final wearing Australian jerseys that dismayed them. These were guys they'd be on a Lions tour with just two years previously. Pace James, this was a misjudgement of the situation, even a provocation. And I think that wearing an Anyone But England shirt in an English pub while England were playing Algeria might be considered rude too.

Still, James is right to argue:

Much ABE isn’t about England at all. It’s not about hating the elderly in their freezing deckchairs at Morecambe, for goodness’ sake,  or a playground of children in Gateshead or a Leytonstone mum struggling to stretch her pennies. And there’s always a note of regret behind the humour, a sorrow that Scotland isn’t better than she is, an indefinable if-only..

The expression of a small measure of ABE is expected of you if you are Scottish and part of a group of fans whose teams have made contact with the auld enemy. But you don’t actually have to believe it. And you are, remember, expected to use inverted commas as you say it. Fail that test and it isn’t ABE at all, but something more serious, something nastier that Scottish football is keen to leave in the past.

Most of the time it is a joke but there are always those who take it too far or for whom it's never actually a mere piece of joshing. And that's sad.

Alex Salmond once said that he'd know Scotland was a fully mature place when we could look at the newspaper and say "Oh, England won yesterday. How nice for them." We've not quite reached that point but while the media will doubtless hype the ABE thing, the truth is that most people don't care about it very much at all and for those who do, even a little, part of it is a kind of pantomime joke in which everyone knows the rules and shouts the lines expected of them. It shouldn't be taken too seriously even if the prejudices of some will try and persuade everyone to do just that.

Silly? Maybe. But it's really just about sport, not politics.


Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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