They said Monday’s parade of heroes had brought down the curtain on Britain’s greatest sporting summer, but in fact they were 12 hours out, Andy Murray’s exhausting, absorbing, exhilarating victory over Novak Djokovic in New York acting as the coda for the finest symphony of sporting endeavour likely to be seen in a lifetime on these shores.
But with the leaves strewn across London’s streets beginning to brown, and a certain chill creeping into the air, seasonal change is upon us. As summer’s warm glow dissipates, and Mo and Wiggo take their leave of the mainstream sporting stage, gold medals clutched to their chests, Tuesday night at Wembley provided a reminder of what sustains us through the autumn and into the winter and spring: football, with all its flaws and frustration.
After a summer of relentless positivity, of uplifting life stories and charming interviews with wide-eyed sport ingénues, England’s 1-1 draw with Ukraine represented a relapse to the mean. In fact the process had already begun, Seb Coe publicly admonishing newspapers for “reverting to type” when featuring a 5-0 win over Moldova on the back pages on Saturday morning, pushing the news streaming out of one of the final days of the Paralympics to the inside.
But after a glorious, dreamy summer, British and English sport needed a comedown, and football has undoubtedly provided it.
While England scraped a point at home to Ukraine thanks to a late penalty, Scotland were being held at Hampden by Macedonia, recriminations ringing around the ears of Craig Levein for his negative approach, Wales were being humiliated in a 6-1 defeat in Serbia and Northern Ireland were being forced to settle for a 1-1 draw at home to part-timers Luxembourg.
Ineptitude and disappointment across the board, but a timely reminder of what usually constitutes the sporting experience in this corner of the world. By its very nature, sport – which demands one winner – usually comes flavoured with disappointment for the vast majority. This summer was a wonderful anomaly, a fleeting period of sustained excellence, the likes of which we may never see again.
In his programme notes, England manager Roy Hodgson wrote of his hopes that football could not only absorb some of the Olympic feel-good factor by osmosis, but that his squad could help prolong British sport’s golden feeling.
“It has been an amazing Olympic summer here and, like everyone, I have been borne along on the wind of support that our athletes have received and the enthusiasm shown for the many British successes during the games,” he said. “I would like to think that we, as a football team, could provide our public with a similar reason to be proud of us and that we might also benefit from the incredible level of support and interest that the Olympics engendered.”
But, despite making tickets available to Olympic and Paralympic volunteers for a knockdown price of £20.12, Wembley was still over 20,000 short of capacity for the visit of Ukraine. The whole upper tier of one side of the pitch was left untouched by supporters, a stark sight in a stadium that is more often than not pretty much full to the brim. Club England seats ringing the ground were also sparsely filled. Defying Hodgson’s hopes, there was none of the bristling enthusiasm reserved for the Olympic Park in recent weeks.
Was this evidence of football losing its lustre, our national sport being eaten into by the surging popularity of cycling and athletics? Unlikely. The cost of a day out at Wembley in a recession is a more probable contributing factor after a summer that has drained the finances of all sporting fans. England fans will return in their tens of thousands, they always do.
Hodgson was right about the Olympian “wind of support” though: one of the biggest cheers of the night from the 68,102 in attendance was reserved for half-time when 17 Olympians and Paralympians were paraded in front of the crowd as David Bowie’s ubiquitous ‘Heroes’ played over the PA system. The generous reception began to peter out as England’s players returned to the turf for the second half.
The Wembley crowd has not always been so welcoming. In the years following a rain-sodden November night in 2007 when England’s Euro 2008 qualification hopes were washed away by Croatia, many players have been the victims of boos invading the north-west London air, though Frank Lampard had already been singled out before that particular national trauma. David Bentley was abused for turning down an Under-21 call; Ashley Cole for committing an error against Kazakhstan; even Joleon Lescott was not spared in a friendly against Slovenia in 2009 as he the crowd registered its apparent disgust at the offence of signing for Manchester City.
It is a strange quirk that a sport that is unassailably the nation’s favourite attracts such criticism from so many and so regularly, but that comes with the intense scrutiny that fleeting, sporadic interest in athletics or swimming does not provoke. In an event like the Olympics that comes only once every four years, transparent optimism is the order of the day, not weary cynicism.
In any case, there was no such vitriol on Tuesday. This was merely an underwhelming performance from England on a night that made adequate space for tension and frustration. In short: what sport on these shores usually feels like.