There was a funny outtake from the Guardian’s Football Weekly at the last World Cup, a part of the show that was deemed too disturbing for broadcast. It was recorded the night before England played Italy in Manaus when, along with the Guardian’s then chief sports news reporter, I got a cab into town with some travelling England fans. Not long into a dark winding journey it became clear these weren’t everyday fans, but a small group of what appeared to be ageing “faces”, grizzly old semi-retired hoolie types, a bit wasted, out on the town, talking about pawdah and brasses, showing off and being self-consciously rowdy but still a bit disturbing on a dark night on the outskirts of the jungle.
In the middle of which, as scheduled, James Richardson from the Guardian’s award-winning football podcast phoned for a chat about England’s chances at the Arena Amazônia, a conversation that took place against a back drop of Mal and Gav and Dave shouting: “Fack off, you slag,” “This bloke’s a ponce, give me the phone mate,” and so on while playfully rabbit-punching me with enormous concrete fists. Through this your correspondent continued to talk in measured tones about tactics and formations and the chance of seeing Raheem Sterling in the No10 role, a kind of Partridge meets the Sex Pistols scenario. Eventually we got into downtown Manaus. At which point my colleague and I made our excuses and ran away.
It never made the airwaves, apparently out of a sudden nervousness that we might actually have been, yeah, kidnapped or something, whatever. But it did seem like an interesting point of contrast wandering around among the England fans in Dortmund on Wednesday afternoon. Looking back, the boys from Manaus really were quite old. They felt dated, on the way out. If the charge of the roided-up Russians in Marseille is proof of anything it is that the old guard, always ready, often the aggressors, really have shuffled off, grown old or simply been banned from taking part.
England’s fans have already been widely condemned for singing boneheadedly inappropriate songs at Signal Iduna Park, behaviour that was completely at odds with the occasion, in the stadium and at home. It was an embarrassing drone throughout the game. The German anthem was booed and hissed. Ten German Bombers got an airing, interestingly not far from where a large force of British soldiers were stationed during the cold war, a presence still warmly recalled by locals. Have you ever seen a German win a war? England’s support asked, a reading that rightly overlooks the Franco-Prussian war, which technically took place before Germany as a unified single entity existed, and which in any case dissolved into uneasy stasis thereafter. So fair play to the lads there.
Fuck the Pope! Fuck the IRA! War, war, war! Germans. RAF pilots. Why are 20-something blokes from northern towns, the Midlands, the Medway singing this stuff? And not just singing it but bringing it back, proudly ramping up the volume on songs that have always been there but seem to have been rebooted and enthusiastically re-embraced by a younger generation in recent months, like Victorians reviving the art of Morris dancing,
They are younger, too. Despite pictorial evidence of an enduring hard core of flabby, bald middle-aged survivors – hi guys! – among the fans in Dortmund, the experience of wandering around among England’s travelling support in northern France last year and in Germany this week is that it is a changing demographic. This is just my own observation. Perhaps it’s a bit like police officers. You know you’re getting old when even the football fans look like kids. But the crowd singing Please Don’t Take Me Home late into night in the town square in Lille at Euro 2016 was strikingly youthful, some of them quite young teenagers.
The vibe is different, too. Those loud travelling groups are often pretty wasted but not aggressively so, more in a blissed-out, pilled-up kind of way, the kind of young men who might be out clubbing if they weren’t doing their England football fan thing. On the train into Dortmund the England fans packed in among the commuters sang God Save the Queen and stuff about bombers and wars, but again they weren’t really threatening.
In fact the local people in my carriage were laughing and watching with some curiosity a show being put on for their benefit. There is an air of knowing retro tribute in all this, kids wearing the gear, doing the moves, singing the songs, like a particularly dull version of the 1980s mod revival.
They can also seem quite unworldly. One of the new songs is about going to Russia and having no idea how you’re going to get there. You can believe it, too. These are in many cases some fairly callow untravelled youths, like a slightly tougher version of the blokes from The Inbetweeners. England away trips: a gap year for the Brexit generation. At times you half expect to look around and spot some angry red and green Twitter eggs in among the crowd, baiting the IRA, the Pope, “biased journo nonces”.
It is quite interesting in itself that the England football team will continue to carry this lot around with them. Certainly the contrast with the basic feeling of happiness around German football at Signal Iduna Park was striking. There were Mexican waves and roars for the retiring Poldi as a youthful, untroubled, cheerful crowd watched a genuinely youthful Germany team. Jogi Löw has called up 20 players aged 24 or under in the past six months. Leroy Sané, somehow still only 21, looked wonderfully mature and composed on the right wing. The feeling of a working, functional machine is tangible.
Just as it’s easy too draw overly simplistic parallels, it is also hard not to see some echoes here between the people beyond the pitch and the players on it: a group of elite but almost entirely home-based English footballers still coming to terms with Gareth Southgate’s “island nation”, still trying to forget the old songs and rhythms, natives of a sporting world where playing a back three is still seen as a radical revolutionary statement.
Leading up to this game Löw had described England as “a team in transition”. No kidding. The search for a style, a culture, an identity: this is in effect England’s identity. And yet they were pretty good in Dortmund. Southgate picked an interesting team. Adam Lallana confirmed his status as a player of real sophistication. Michael Keane played the most high‑profile game of his career against the world champions in a new formation and nailed it. Jake Livermore fought his corner and survived against the cosseted college boy and all-round Euro princeling Toni Kroos.
The message still feels as if it comes from the same place. England as a football nation are tentative travellers but change is always possible on both fronts. On the pitch this was a cautiously hopeful affair. Off it the songs need to stop or evolve. One of these days someone will be offended, even if Germany didn’t seem to care too much on Wednesday night. The answer as always lies in opening out, engagement, new forms. And for all the negative reports the spirit, if not the playlist, was on the whole pretty friendly in Dortmund.