What sort of person is the average England football fan? First of all, it has to be said that if the worst thing those supporters do these days is boo one of their own players then, troubling though that might be, it is an improvement on eight years ago when England fans were rearranging the café tables and chairs in a Belgian town square during Euro 2000. They have stopped fighting but they remain a quarrelsome, awkward bunch whose relationship with the England team is as dysfunctional as ever.
The booing of Ashley Cole and the subsequent recriminations from the England players such as Rio Ferdinand, have disrupted the natural dynamic that normally exists between a club and its fans. Some believe that when it came to England it was never there anyway. The England support travels in enormous numbers – the 2,500 allocation for the World Cup qualifier here against Belarus tomorrow is sold out – and their reaction to the players in the Dinamo stadium will be under scrutiny like never before.
For the players, the private sentiment is that after the events of Saturday they soldier on, but that their supporters, or a section of them, are not making it any easier to be an England player. The fans themselves would snort at that kind of attitude from footballers whom they say inhabit a different reality to their own. The disparity in the earnings of a modern footballer and the ordinary Joe in the stands is never more evident than in the England team, when the usual loyalties and tolerances of club football do not exist. Yet after 42 years of failure these fans just keep on coming to games in their thousands.
After the Home Office banning orders that came into effect with legislation in September 2000, the average England fan is no longer the type who would trash the squares and fountains of pretty European cities. He is more likely to be the bloke in his forties in an England shirt who begged me for my team-sheet print-out outside Wembley on Saturday. How would we characterise him? A bit obsessive. A touch starstruck by the names in the England team. Likely to devote a lot of his annual leave to travelling to places like Minsk in the middle of a working week. And pretty harmless as well.
The Football Association's official supporters club, known as englandfans, has 34,968 members and those fans have already bought up the 6,800 tickets allocated for the friendly against Germany in Berlin next month. When, in airports and at stadiums, you encounter these supporters – mainly men – who rack up obscure foreign grounds as seriously as David Beckham does caps, they never strike you as the subversive types. But all of a sudden they seem to have seized the power in the relationship with the England team and everyone wonders what they will do next.
Away support is, by its very nature, more hardcore and, as a consequence, less fickle, so it is possible that tomorrow night will not give quite the same insight into the psyche of the supporters who booed Cole and have previously booed Owen Hargreaves, Peter Crouch, Frank Lampard and David Bentley. Against Andorra, in Barcelona, in March 2007, an away support swelled by plenty who were not vetted englandfans members turned on Steve McClaren in a vicious fashion. Tomorrow it will be different again.
It is a personal view that – at their worst – England fans are the closest representation of the inarticulate howls of rage that can be heard on the radio phone-ins. The fan who feels genuine disenfranchisement in modern football but is uncertain who to blame and lashes out at players, owners, the press and often the wrong administrative body for the complaint he has identified. The same individual would not dare to show such anger at Anfield or Old Trafford, but with England it is different. This is a fractured, occasional community and the self-policing is not quite so evident.
In Cole's case there are some England fans who cannot discern between the footballer and the man whose life is chronicled in the tabloids and, eventually, if all else fails, there is always the money he earns. The salaries of modern footballers are always the last resort for the frustrated supporter. The figures – real or imagined – are trotted out as if they alone should oblige the player to guarantee a minimum level of success. As if that is ever possible in sport.
Which is not to say England's support is not knowledgeable or patriotic – in the best sense of the word – but, even eight years on from the riots at Charleroi, many of them still seem too quick to obey the instincts of the mob. The FA, who have three full-time staff just to take care of their supporters, are understandably twitchy. They have a £341.5m mortgage on Wembley that relies on the fans. They also have a group of players who are falling out of love with those same supporters. It is a fissure that is opening up throughout football and, with the money in the game, it only seems to be getting worse. Trust England, the players, the FA and the fans to find themselves either side of the widest part of the gap.Reuse content