England: A rubbish drunken football team*

*At least that's what they said until yesterday
There was a spring in the step of Englishmen and women everywhere yesterday after the success of their no-hope, drunken, burnt-out football team.

While generous amounts of humble pie were guzzled by the pundits, the rest of the country was enjoying that most rare of pleasures, a thumping great win over Holland and the prospect of more to come.

For weeks, during drunken binges in Hong Kong and in-flight television- smashing exploits, we had been drilled to expect the worst. "A Bunch of Has-Beens Show up a Bunch of Wannabes" roared the Daily Mail after England's 1-0 victory over a drab Hong Kong team in the run-up to Euro 96.

Then there were the pictures of Paul Gascoigne, Teddy Sheringham and Steve McManaman the worse for drink, their shirts torn, in a Hong Kong bar. Worse still were pictures of Gascoigne and Sheringham strapped into the bar's antique dentist's chair while booze was poured down their throats.

That, coupled with England's 1-1 draw with Switzerland on the opening day of the tournament, gave the pundits enough rope - and one or two duly hanged themselves.

The commentator who has the most difficult task of justifying what he has written is the Mail's Jeff Powell. He dared say what other pundits may have been thinking after the Switzerland match - that Gazza was unfit and should be dropped.

Under the headline "Gazza must Go . . . the Guzzler dries up to leave coach Venables no option", he wrote: "England must sling out Paul Gascoigne on his earring. They must devise a way to play without this playboy relic of what once might have been a great playmaker."

He was unavailable for comment yesterday, but in his column, under the headline "The best since 1966", he wrote: "Gazza, perhaps inevitably, wore the broadest smile of all . . . This, not the isolated flash of goalscoring genius against Scotland, was his full match redemption."

But a football critic's life is not easy, and so Mr Powell was not alone. John Sadler, writing under a Sun strapline reading "John Sadler warns Tel's Euro flops" after the Switzerland game, wrote: "I have been saying for the past two years or more that we would not know what kind of team Venables had created until we saw them in genuine competition.

"The initial evidence was frightening. Not because of the result, but the manner in which it was achieved." The Sun led the way with banner headlines and pictures of the infamous drinking binge. It and the Star shared the headline "Out of Gaz" after the Swiss game.

Yesterday, however, was a different story. "Our Finest Hour" declared the Sun. "And now they've GOT to believe it!" wrote Sadler. "England DO have a team capable of competing with anybody. They DO have the players who can win this tournament." Mr Sadler was not available for comment yesterday.

The Daily Mirror has already swallowed humble pie. After victory over the Scots last Saturday, and in the wake of a blistering editorial referring to "sporting morons", it ran a front page "apology" to Gascoigne on Monday. And a spokesman pointed out last night that there was "a world of difference between Venables' business dealings or trashing a plane and the way the team performed. Our sportswriters are on record as being supportive and several of them tipped England to win."

Away from the vagaries of punditry, the good behaviour of fans continued. Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm George, the man responsible for policing at Euro 96, said: "I don't want to tempt fate and we certainly aren't relaxing yet, but with 20 matches out of 31 over, we're delighted.

"If you exclude the relatively high number of arrests during the England v Scotland game - which were mainly for drunkenness and ticket touting rather than violence - then the average number of arrests at each game is just 16."

The reason for that, a new kind of international camaraderie, was in evidence during a brief, drunken encounter in the West End of London after the Holland match on Tuesday. Sitting on a kerb were three supporters from England, Holland and Scotland with their arms around each other.

One wore the white shirt of England, one the orange of Holland, and the third a crumpled business suit. Only his accent betrayed his nationality.

These were the nationalities the police had worried about, and yet here they were drunken, happy and sad in unison. The Englishman was apologising to the Dutchman for the 4-1 defeat, and the latter was in turn apologising to the Scotsman for taking their place in the quarter-finals.

It sounded like a joke and, with more than a week of football to go, it may yet have a violent punchline. But the scene was indicative of the peaceful nature in which the championships have passed off so far.

Leading article, page 15