October 9 1996 at Wembley

The event October 9 at Wembley England v Poland, World Cup qualifier

Result: England 2 Poland 1. Rothmans gives this as 2-0; was the Polish goal disallowed? Did it happen only in my imagination? Sadly, I am too apathetic ten years later to find out.

A friend of mine has an interesting global theory of weight loss: that you can lose weight, but someone else gets it. “Trust me,” she says, “It’s got to go somewhere.”

I was reminded of this interesting transference idea (which explains a lot, actually) on Thursday morning, when the burden of international football anxiety carried over from the night before proved so heavy I could hardly get out of bed. The displaced anguish of 75,000 cheering, flag-waving England fans still filled my head like a blizzard, mixed with such hubristic chants such as, “You’re not singing any more” and, “There’s only one Stuart Pearce”. Not enough overt worrying had gone on in this stadium, I felt, so I undertook the lot. People have always said I “worried for England”, incidentally, but somehow I never expected to do it literally.

The worrying started unnecessarily, in fact, on Tuesday night. Let’s call it a warm-up. Flicking proudly through my new cable channels at 10pm, I found an arresting picture and stopped. Hey, a line-up of England footballers on a big field in an empty stadium, muttering the usual “Hello mum” to “God Save the Queen”. That’s odd, I thought, glancing nervously at the date on the newspaper. That’s tomorrow, surely?

Unaware of the convention of under-21 internationals, I cast an anxious eye across the room to my precious Wembley ticket (which had cost 28 quid) and experienced a sort of icy grip at the back of my neck, while a series of panic-thoughts leap-frogged each other and I stopped breathing. “There’s nobody there! They’ve got the day wrong! What’s going on? Those players are complete unknowns! Glenn Hoddle has gone mad!”

So when the man next to me at Wembley on Wednesday night shouted encouragingly in my ear, “You ought to let yourself go,” during the eventful three-goal first half, I could only smile weakly and put my head back in my hand. I was the designated worrier, admittedly, but a strange thing had definitely happened to the pitch, especially after that early Polish goal: it had somehow tipped up at one end, so that red-suited Poles could roll freely downhill, while anyone in a white shirt travelling the other way was forced to walk and puff, and lean on a big stick.

“Why won’t they run?” I kept asking aloud. “Run, boys, run!” I developed an impatient gesture, using the back of the hand, trying to waft them. But despite some quite heroic ambulatory efforts (two resulting miraculously in snatched goals from Shearer), the force of gravity dragged them all back downhill again, with the result that so much action took place around Seaman’s goal (the end I was sitting) I’m quite sure that at one time the Polish goalkeeper was reading a magazine.

The sense of occasion was faultless, and the final result was of course a blessed relief, but the weakness of the England defence was ghastly to behold, like seeing an injured zebra in a wildlife film dragging its hind quarters across an African plain while gathering hyenas smack their lips and laugh. Knowing not much about football tactics, I thought it might be better in the circumstances to abandon defence completely (give it up as a bad job) and get everybody attacking instead, but evidently that’s not how it’s done. The bloke next to me blamed Gary Neville, which seemed reasonable. I’ve never warmed to him myself. Meanwhile the bloke’s friend called for Platt to be played (“Get Platty”), which encouraged me considerably, since that’s what I always say, too.

Would a few drinks beforehand have helped? I’m talking about the players. While I tirelessly wafted them up the pitch in the first half (“Go, go!”), and beckoned them furiously (“This way! This way!”) in the second, I kept thinking of my new friend’s advice about letting yourself go. “You ought to let yourselves go,” I wanted to yell, but ironically was too inhibited. Only in the fabulously exciting final minutes did the England side seem to warm up and enjoy themselves. They would get the ball, break ranks, and run.

McManaman and Pearce seemed to be the heroes of the night. Perhaps it’s just easy for a novice to spot what McManaman is doing (he races like stink), but the crowd loves him too. The big shout of “Yes” goes up for him, just as it goes up for Shearer and Gascoigne. And he is not (in a phrase my Nan used to use) backward in coming forward, which in Wednesday’s match was certainly a breath of fresh air. Apparently our defence was so weak because Poland had cunningly tricked us. “No, we will not be trying to score goals,” they announced beforehand, with their crossed fingers hidden behind their backs. “Goals are over-rated, in our opinion.” And we fell for it. Good grief.

On a more cheerful note, my Euro 96 pager (invaluable in June) was reactivated unexpectedly on Tuesday morning and scared the living daylights out of me. I heard its loud buzz from the mantelpiece, and jumped in the air. But the bliss of reunion was a great comfort. My little friend! I took it to the match on Wednesday and it kept me up with the English goals but not the Polish, which was a bit remiss, but considerate. I feel we have a very special bond, that pager and me. I feel it would say, “Hey, let yourself go, everybody”, if it could.

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