Club versus country has always been a divisive issue for football fans. Supporters invest so much time, money and emotion into following their club – watching the matches, reading reviews and previews, absorbing news stories and transfer speculation, discussing it endlessly with friends or on social media – that the national side feels like an after-thought. International fixtures often feel like an irritant – a two week break from the Premiership that feels unwanted and untimely.
It’s particular true with England. It seemed to be at its worst after the millennium, when Sven Goran Eriksson took charge. There was an immediate objection to having a foreign coach in charge of the national team and faith and confidence in the team was a low ebb after the disastrous Kevin Keegan era. When England thrashed Germany 5-1, it felt like a turning point and their performances in the 2002 World Cup and the 2004 European Championship were both fairly positive.
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Then came 2006 and the fabled golden generation. This was to be England’s big chance to shine, with the best squad they’d had since 1966. As it turned out, they were atrocious, stuttering though to a quarter final, before adhering to tradition and getting knocked out on penalties. More than their dismal form though, more than the fact they looked terrified on the biggest stage, was the fact that were players in the squad that fans simply struggled to support.
John Terry. Ashley Cole. Steven Gerrard. Jamie Carragher. Hardly the most likeable group. For non-United fans, supporting Wayne Rooney and Gary Neville was a tough ask. Even the players felt it: the squad was essentially split into groups, players from United eating at one table, players from Liverpool at another, Arsenal players somewhere else. It was a squad already infused with division and differences: it was no surprise to see that replicated in the fan base.
It became a question: club or country, as if they were mutually exclusive things. Personally, I’ve always supported England, particularly at tournaments, with (almost) as much passion and fervour as I support United, but I can understand why fans find it difficult to feel the same way about the national team as they do with their club. The miserable reigns of Capello and Hodgson did nothing to change this situation. Allardyce doesn’t even deserve a mention.
But somehow, miraculously, this current England team, Southgate’s England, have transformed that attitude. The skepticism and disdain for the national team have subsided, and the fans feel more united than they ever have before.
They have performed very well at this World Cup, but it started long before the tournament. Southgate came in and immediately made strong, positive decisions, discarding the old guard of Rooney and Joe Hart with minimum fuss, to make way for a younger, hungrier group of players, and encouraged them to play modern, enterprising football.
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It’s not the most talented squad, and certainly not the most high-profile. But that low-key nature has helped swing the mood of the nation. Young players, not bagged down by failures of the past, playing with passion, composure and confidence. It’s been refreshing to watch, and easy to support; Southgate has assembled the most likeable England squad in decades. The manager himself has not put a foot wrong either, and the way he has dealt with the media, supported the players, and enthused the fans has been flawless.
For United fans, it’s been rewarding to see some of United’s unsung heroes – Jessie Lingard and Ashley Young – get their time in the spotlight. Both have been excellent. It’s a pity Rashford hasn’t had more time on the pitch, but his time will come.
When the Premiership starts again in a month’s time, tribalism and rivalry will resume once more, as they should. But hopefully England’s resurgence will help rescind the club or country debate. Why can’t we have both?