An unexpected aspect of the Euro 2020 football tournament — aside from England’s progression to the final — was the effort to define “English identity”. It’s a harmless pastime, but also impossible. Another strange feature was the arguments over whether England should be supported by non-English folk.
I plead guilty to improperly defining identity. At every Northern Ireland election study, we ask people to categorise themselves as British, or Irish, or Northern Irish etc. In using questionnaire surveys, a complex question is reduced to box-ticking.
That reductionism is needs-must. When we allowed open-ended replies, hundreds supplied essays about the complexity of their identity, some of book length. It took weeks (and lots of funding) to analyse the responses.
That, though, proves the point. Identity is multifaceted, not straightforward. And remember: Northern Ireland’s population is only 1.8 million. England’s is 30 times larger.
My first World Cup abroad supporting England was Italia 1990. Much human life was present, a sizeable chunk unpleasant.
Following England was a tough gig. The moron quota was high. During that Sardinian stay, one of our party flew back early, sickened at having seen only heads kicked, not balls. It was rough, white, male and often violent hooligan territory.
Fast-forward to Euro 2016 and England fans were again involved in violent clashes in France, while Northern Irish and Irish fans enjoyed themselves. It was tempting to conclude nothing had changed.
Yet beyond the mayhem in Marseille, it had. The proportion of idiots in the England fanbase was smaller. For every clown droning about the RAF downing German bombers, there were plenty just enjoying a drink and having fun. There were more families and greater diversity.
Backing England has always been complicated, reflecting the multiple identities than can make up Englishness. It also fluctuates.
Living in north-west England, enthusiastic support for “Ingerland” only emerges during major competitions. In Liverpool, the “Scouse not English” stuff tends to be displaced.
In Manchester, United fans are far more behind England than two decades ago, after David Beckham was scapegoated following his sending-off against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.
Ambiguity towards England has been replaced by the reinvigoration of latent support. Yet, for England fans of Irish descent or heritage, even slight — and that includes many from my part of the world — English identity and affiliation is not straightforward.
Two anecdotes highlight the point. Convivial drinks with Northern Ireland fans at the 2016 Euros, while watching Ireland versus Sweden, became a shade frostier when a handful in our group applauded James McClean’s entry as substitute.
And the Limerick barman serving us in a Belfast bar during the England versus Ukraine match earlier this month nearly dropped the pints in astonishment when one in our crowd, sporting an England shirt, jokingly regaled him with the republican ballad Sean South.
England fans, Irish republican section. As daft as Martin McGuinness loving the English cricket team. Except he did.
Some of the identity pieces during the Euros reflected positive evolutions in Englishness. Improved football helps — some of us watched England lose at Windsor Park in 2005 — but it is deeper.
The New York Times applauded the team “as a microcosm of a nation seemingly more enthusiastic about its evolving identity as a more tolerant, multiracial and multi-ethnic society than is often suggested”.
Nice stuff, even if racists did their worst after the penalties. But the newspaper’s references to “British fans” made me chuckle.
Greater inclusion does not mean goodbye to old sporting enmity. England could have fielded 11 candidates for sainthood and many Scots would still have revelled in Italy’s victory. Anyone understanding football and national rivalries appreciates that.
Some on social media spluttered with indignation over the Scottish independence-supporting The National’s front page on the day before the Euro final.
In desperation, it depicted Italy manager Roberto Mancini as Braveheart and pleaded for an Italian triumph. Yet, I do not know a single genuine football fan who took exception.
So, what if the Scots are neighbours? Liverpool and Manchester United are only 30 miles apart, but their fan bases — which are actually very similar — wish failure upon the other.
True, it was a bit small-time of The National. You cannot imagine the Liverpool Echo, or Manchester Evening News, devoting a front page to wish ill of clubs from rival cities, but I got what the Scottish paper was about.
And immediately after England’s penalty failures against Italy, my tweet about “every Irish nationalist enjoying their greatest Eleventh Night ever” did not exactly go down badly in areas not normally noted for revelry on that evening: 1,200 likes — including the SDLP leader — and counting by morning, many from people with Irish and Italian tricolours in their Twitter handle.
The historic culpability of Gareth Southgate in the partition of Ireland has clearly been understated.
For those of us long-embarrassed by associations of English identity with violence, or racism, or arrogance, I am glad things are changing.
But those characterisations had become one-dimensional. More nuance was needed.
England’s support contains many different personalities and identities. It includes the best and worst of society. Getting rid of flotsam is a slow work-in-progress, as violence at Wembley showed.
Northern Ireland provides a good example of what can be achieved, having shed the sectarian bigots who once infested Windsor Park.
Anyway, now the football is over, I’d love someone to take me to a GAA game, please?
Okay if I wear my England top?