Didn't the England fans do well?

It was not just the team that did the country proud in the tournament, the support made great strides too, writes Matt Tench
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The Independent Online
Strolling up Wembley Way an hour before England's third match of Euro 96 it was clear that only one set of fans felt at home. The Dutch. Luxuriously decked out in their team's colours, they marched on the twin towers with the nonchalance of those who belonged. They even managed to make lurid orange wigs appear the epitome of European chic.

The English, by contrast, were like teenagers at their first disco. Wide- eyed and gauche, they displayed none of the sang-froid of the visitors.

Two hours later these memories made England's victory all the sweeter. As the Dutch watched in disbelief, the home following exploded in raucous, unthreatening celebration, and a remarkable transformation was nearing completion. The England fans were finding a new identity.

Where once their collective image was one of tattooed machismo and white- knuckle hatred, at this tournament it had become flag-waving and endless choruses of "Football's Coming Home". For nearly three weeks the nation has become increasingly overtaken by the feel-good factor, one that found its cradle at Wembley. On the pitch, certainly, where England's players have competed with the best and shown themselves to be the most enterprising side in Europe. But also in the stands. Here too England's fans have demonstrated that stereotypes need alteration. I know. I was there.

Such an upbeat conclusion may attract derision this morning after the wearyingly familiar images of violence that have returned to our screens in the last few days. Certainly they are a depressing reminder that football, particularly when allied to alcohol, has not lost its capacity to inspire viciousness. But what has happened needs to be put in context. These were sporadic incidents, very few of which involved either sets of supporters at Wembley on Wednesday night.

In assessing the behaviour of the England fans over the duration of the tournament, it is worth pointing out that before it began organised hooliganism was widely expected, particularly from the home following. It simply did not happen. So that while it would be foolish to be too positive - the real test will come abroad - it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that England's fans emerge from Euro 96 with as much credit as their team.

This had not always seemed very likely. On the tube to the Switzerland game, we were quickly joined by a small but vocal group whose deafening cries of "In-Ger-Land" demonstrated all the consideration for their fellow- travellers for which football fans are so widely known.

On the platform at Baker Street the Ingerlanders spotted four middle- aged Swiss, faces painted, attempting with no success to fade into the background. A stout thirtysomething who barely fitted into his England shirt and casual shorts, made straight for them, and with the tournament still a couple of hours from its kick-off the first outbreak of mindless violence seemed imminent.

"How are you? How long are you here for?" the stout one asked, as he offered his hand and a smile.

The Swiss responded with bewildered reserve, but the stout one was not to be denied.

"Are you having a good time? What do you think your chances are?"

It was a happy moment, but the rest of the journey did little to alleviate a sense of foreboding. True it soon became clear that most English fans regarded the Swiss as, well, neutral, but that was only because the were reserving their real spite for the Scots.

The songs were a strange mix. To hear "We Are Ron's Twenty-Two", the 1982 World Cup song was bizarre; to then get the national anthem was warming and chilling at the same time; but "No Surrender To The IRA" was just chilling.

The latter proved the favourite and sitting on the tube on that first day, cocooned among a mob of Chelsea fans, it was easy to be depressed. "It's like the last five years in the Premiership didn't exist," my brother said, and looking around all you could see were white males, mostly between the ages of 16 and 30. In fact this sample proved completely misleading, and over the five games there was a broader spectrum supporting England than at the average Premiership game, and certainly a lot more women.

Once inside Wembley the fans passed the first test by managing not to boo the Swiss national anthem. The atmosphere was supportive if hardly rapturous. An early goal helped but as England lost the plot, so did the support.

"Come on England, you're just like watching City," a blue-shirted onlooker in a nearby row screamed.

"They're not that bad," his mate replied.

In the second half, as collective torpor engulfed team and fans, the two Mancunians tried in vain to exhort their neighbours into a more animated support. "It's true what they say," the first concluded. "Shit stadium, no fans."

As we trooped away that baking summer evening, Venables' men were not the only ones to have made an uncertain start. Consolation was found in focusing on the next match, and the virulence of the chanting suggested a bloodbath, particularly as it was difficult to envisage the Scots backing out of the challenge that was being promised.

As things turned out the game proved a turning point, on and off the field. There was precariously little policing outside, but there did not need to be. The atmosphere was robust, but good-humoured. Plenty of baiting, but little battling.

Once inside, the Scottish fans were brilliant. Outnumbered, they were never outshouted and maintained a stupendous level of support even after the cause had been lost. They exuded a marvellous sense of communal lunacy, suitably demonstrated by their rendition of "Rocking All Over the World" at half-time, which remains one of the highlights of the tournament.

It was difficult not to envy their sense of nationality. A disparate bunch, they were united by one common notion: that to be Scottish is to be better than anything else in the world, a belief that their passionate endorsement for a toothless football team only served to enhance.

In watching the Scots that day I think the English drew inspiration. A realisation, perhaps, that letting your hair down was not only permitted on these occasions, but made them more enjoyable. Certainly the atmosphere at the Scotland game surpassed that of the Swiss, and the Dutch game was better still.

By now "Three Lions" had established itself as the national football anthem, each airing attracting more support than the last. Strange song this. Unaided by the public address system it proved impossible to link the "Coming home, football's coming home", segment to the verse, "Three lions on the shirt". As a result the fans simply stuck with "Coming home, football's coming home", a refreshingly non-partisan sentiment, that was in keeping with the growing atmosphere of exuberant celebration.

The joyous rendition of the song at the end of the Spain game was the best moment of a tense and slightly deflating afternoon. As we finished it for the second time the middle-aged women in the row behind me could hold herself back no longer and began crying uncontrollably.

And so to the semi-final, and the apparently inevitably clash with the Germans. Once again fears were expressed about how the two sets of fans would react, but walking back along Wembley Way the theme seemed to be one of irony. The vast majority of the crowd were English, but an outbreak of booing signalled a pocket of Germans. Closer inspection revealed that it was the Germans booing their hosts. Seconds later a group of identically clad teenage girls strode the other way, all sporting Coca-Cola T-shirts, with the smallest screaming at her puzzled onlookers, "Get your tits out, get your tits out..." Presumably it was irony.

The match itself was as enthralling and passionate as any club game I have been to, Cup finals included, the support as committed and intense. It seemed a wonderful night until the end, and I hope when it crystallises in the memory it is the many positive aspects that will prevail. Like the chanting of "One Gareth Southgate" that echoed within seconds of the finale.

Likewise the competition itself. There were negative images, not least of Wembley stadium which remains a decaying and dated edifice whose prime rationale appears to be to rip off its most loyal customers. And not all my memories of fans are good ones. There was the unnecessary heckling of a good-natured Spanish trio before that game, and a few nutters searching (in vain, I think) for Germans after the semi.

But most of them are, and most of all there was a feeling that English supporters might, just might, have found a middle way between the self- conscious passivity with which they began Euro 96 and the mindless boorishness for which they are famed. That like the Scots, the Dutch, and even, for goodness sake the Swiss, they have found a way to express their nationalism without becoming a national embarrassment.

If so, whatever happened on Wednesday night, the tournament can be declared a success.