Flora Watkins

The return of English patriotism

The return of English patriotism
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Back in the summer of 2015 as I awaited the birth of my second son, when people asked me about my burgeoning bump — as they are wont to do of heavily-pregnant women — I kept receiving the same, curious response. ‘Oh you haven’t timed that well,’ random strangers would say. ‘August babies don’t do so well at school — and they never become Premiership footballers.’ As I smiled politely and thanked them for their unsolicited advice, I thought again and again, ‘What right-thinking mother would want their son to be a Premiership footballer?’ The sleaze, the moral corruption, the obscene salaries and conspicuous consumption. Tabloid-fodder, hooligans with credit cards, the underwhelming performance on the national stage — predestined to crash out of every tournament on penalties. The game had become a circus, football secondary to the sideshow of the entourage, the lascivious lifestyle. 

This week, as I shepherded two sleepy little boys to school (still feeling the effects of their late night watching Wednesday’s historic semi-final), something rather wonderful has happened. My August baby is having a football-themed sixth birthday party. He jabbers excitedly with his brother about Kane and Southgate, repeating their names like a talisman. This England team and their manager are an example to us all. People who have never knowingly kicked, thrown or caught a ball have been drawn to England in these European Championships, feeling proud and heartened by the performance and behaviour of the team. Their team. 

‘Still can’t believe I watched the football last night,’ tweeted the writer Damian Barr, author of Maggie and Me, a memoir of growing up gay in Glasgow. ‘I like Harry Kane’s old-fashioned looks and manner,’ he mused… ‘I imagine him as a very tender World War II stepfather, possibly with an interest in pigeons.’ The decency and tolerance conveyed by this rainbow-wearing, free school meals-advocating team may be alien to football’s past culture but it strikes a chord because it goes hand in hand with hard work and humility.

Gareth Southgate has spoken of how important it is to have a team that represents modern Britain. But increasingly this is as much about work ethic as it is about values; the England team shows off Gen Z’s good side with aplomb. As rising star Bukayo Saka said after the game against Czech Republic: ‘It's always up to the manager [whether I play]. I can only give my best while I’m on the pitch.’ A far cry from the jostling footballing egos of past decades. 

Mason Mount has spoken movingly of his own sense of patriotism when putting on an England shirt: 'Ever since I made my first game with England at under-16 level, my dad said that whenever I get the opportunity to sing the national anthem, sing it loud and proud,' Mount told The Telegraph. 'And that’s what I’ve always tried to do. It’s such a special moment.' He and his team mates have given a new generation permission to be patriotic after an era in which both English football and English patriotism at times carried an air of disrepute. 

Who wouldn’t want to champion the efforts of these young players to widen the reach of the game and give us all something to be proud of? 

‘Great to hear you enjoyed the game as you should,’ Jordan Henderson replied to a young trans man who tweeted him after the semi-final. ‘No one should be afraid to go and support their club or country because football is for everyone, no matter what.’ Too often, these sorts of remarks from players are dismissed as nothing more than on-trend wokery. But the truth is there is now a gaping dissonance between our England team and the thuggery and racism that has scarred football for decades. 

It is more than 40 years since Cyrille Regis was greeted at West Brom with bananas thrown on the pitch, but, shamefully, many England players are still experiencing racial abuse — not just online and on the pitch but in person. When Southgate and his players take the knee, they aren’t kow-towing to Marxism, but showing solidarity in a world where Raheem Sterling — perhaps the hardest-working man on the pitch — can be assaulted outside Manchester City’s training ground by an idiot using racist language. The one-man boycott of England by a Tory MP called Lee Anderson over their knee-taking has never looked more asinine. 

Gareth Southgate has cheered us all up after 16 miserable months of Covid - not with drama but with a patient industriousness that pervades the whole squad. But his greatest achievement yet might be creating a team we can all look up to — and making the little boy’s ambition of playing in the Premier League a noble one.