My son’s girl-friend is English and every so often she expresses bewilderment and just a touch of irritation at the attitude of Irish – and Scottish and Welsh – people when England are playing football. “If Ireland or any of the other home countries were playing, we would be supporting them completely” she says.
So why, as the sun comes up on a morning when England could be sent limping home in disgrace from the World Cup, do so many Irish people want to see Slovenia succeed?
In part it’s the English media. Give them a sporting centimetre and they’ll take 10,000 metres. If England succeed today, it’s only a matter of time before we begin to hear the drum being banged about England as potential finalists and maybe World Cup winners. But if we’re honest it’s not just the media. There are other reasons why we love to see England get kicked in the groin (metaphorically speaking).
One is that England (OK, Britain, but we all know it’s really England) have over 5,000 heavily-armed troops here. If there was a poll tomorrow I’d say at least 70% – maybe much higher – of Irish people would say they want these troops off their soil. Part of Ireland’s hostility to England in sporting fixtures comes back to a distaste for the unwanted military presence of England in Ireland.
Another reason is that England/Britain rules the north-east part of Ireland. To say that this is accepted by all Irish people in the Good Friday Agreement doesn’t change the fact that an awful lot of Irish people resent strangulated pronouncements from the likes of Owen Paterson while he holds onto the real political power over the six counties of the north.
A third and final reason links directly to the history of relations between Ireland and England – and between Scotland and England, and Wales and England. English people like to think of the United Kingdom as a friendly coming-together of people who share values and live close to one another. In fact the union came about through the bludgeoning of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. That’s a polite word for the ruthless use of force in making sure that Scotland, Wales and Ireland acceded to Britain’s wishes on the matter. So while the smaller countries may be incapable of mounting military or political resistance, they can at least jeer from the sidelines when they see England’s vaunted power receive a thrashing on the field of play. So that’s why I tell my son’s girl-friend ‘It’s to do with history’. She doesn’t look as though she believes me.
Today, though, I’ll be hoping for an England victory. Going down in a side-show match is really not good enough. What’s needed is a big stage, a big trophy within touching distance. Then let them fail.