It’s currently the international break, which is often a source of frustration for domestic mens football fans who miss the Premier League and Football League programmes. The September break is particularly annoying as the season has only just got underway and fans find themselves without their usual weekend escapism following their football team. As a staunch England supporter, it has never caused me quite that level of annoyance. I am happy to follow the fortunes of both club and country as the fixtures are interspersed throughout the calendar.
The club v country row seems to rear up almost every international break, as fans nail their colours, usually to the mast of their club. Perry Groves raised the issues once most last week on TalkSPORT, when he suggested that he would rather Arsenal finish in the top four of the Premier League and achieve Champions League football, than see England win next summer’s European Championships.
It is by definition a ‘non-argument’. There is no choice that needs to be made as international and club football are entirely non conflicting entities. The question seems to be more a case of people deciding where their priorities lie and grappling with that.
Football fandom is a recognised tribal instinct, which has roots in locality, family and social groups. The club we support is often chosen for us. Most people may not even remember the exact time that they became a fan of their club. I’d guess that none of us have sat down and weighed up a list of pros and cons for a shortlist of clubs to decide which one we would dedicate our lives to.
As such our club becomes part of us. I often say that ‘Aston Villa fan’ is one of the first things friends and acquaintances will know about me and possibly the most enduring aspects that they will associate me with. That is not because I have little else in my life, but it has become almost part of demography in the modern world. Maybe one day it might supersede religion on the census?
Supporting England is more complicated. There are quite unsavoury labels attached to the England football shirt, the three lions and what it means to support the team, particularly abroad. We are all away of the right-wing chanting that can occur in large groups of England supporters and it is once again becoming commonplace to see footage of antisocial behaviour from fans in European cities when the team travel.
Maybe this is part of the problem for some. Being a proud England supporter is too readily linked to other nationalistic ideologies which are seen as unpalatable, or indeed football hooliganism. It would seem that the England shirt and three lions itself has been commandeered by these groups and has become more a symbol of xenophobia and violence than being a football fan.
The only time where this is not true seems to be around every other summer when England compete in a tournament. This is when England football shirt sales rocket and supporting the England team becomes a joyous, if slightly too drunken, national obsession.
We could debate endlessly about the rights and wrongs of this situation. As an England fan I find discussing the unsavoury connotations of wearing an England shirt very uncomfortable. However maybe this is part of the answer to the club over country debate. Maybe it just feels better to identify closer with a club, as that layer of negativity isn’t there.
Generally, football fans spend most of their time watching, talking about, worrying over and tweeting about their club. Even during the summer off season, the business of football never truly closes and fans’ interest is sparked by topics such as recruitment and kit reveals. It is only during World Cup or European Championship summers that the international game really drags people in and it becomes life or death! Certainly the 2018 World Cup had that effect, in combination with a two month heatwave, as Southgate’s young team crashed their way through to the semi finals, beyond anyone’s expectations.
In this current era where UEFA have seen fit to make it harder to not qualify for the Euros, meaningless friendlies have been replaced by meaningless qualifiers. So far England have played three qualification matches, winning 3 and scoring 14 goals. Whilst it is marvellous to see England destroying opposition, the stark lack of competition certainly reduces any potential excitement even for the most dyed in the wool England fan.
The nature of football business and the huge finances within the club game, particularly in Europe, has led to club football in the big European leagues and the Champions League becoming the pinnacle of the football pyramid. In contrast to other sports like Rugby Union and Cricket, the international element has become an added extra and whilst players obviously take great pride in playing for their country, it has maybe become less attractive than competing in the Premier League or Champions League.
From my own standpoint, I would not be choosy about Aston Villa or England winning anything. Having never seen England lift a major trophy and only witnessed Villa win two League cups, any major honour would be gratefully received and duly celebrated. However having experienced the sheer elation of Villa’s playoff final win in May, the acute sense of pride and emotion is unparalleled in my sporting lifetime. That sense of “this is my team, from my town, who my grandad and dad introduced me to” just would not be there if.... IF..... England win the Euros next summer.
In that case the feeling would be of a united nation coming together to celebrate and take pride in a once in a lifetime achievement. At tournament time people with no regular interest in football or club affiliation jump on board and add to the atmosphere, making it extra special. I support England because I’m English, which can be more of a burden than a pleasure at times, but it means something which is hard to describe.
Currently we are fortunate as England fans to have such a likeable England setup. From manager Gareth Southgate, himself a principled and articulate leader, the mainstays of the team Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and in particular Raheem Sterling are not only great players, but also excellent role models and rounded personalities who stand for more than just sporting achievement.
In answer to Perry Groves, everyone feels how they feel. Whilst I personally could not choose what I would prefer between Villa or England success, I understand both viewpoints. I simply don’t see the need to make the choice. Between August and May I am heavily invested in Aston Villa, but in June and July the claret and blue will stay in the wardrobe and I’ll be pleading for football to finally come home! I’m guessing most people will be similar.