`The crowd seemed purged of the usual run of England followers: the flotsam with their bad hair, big bellies and small minds'

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The Independent Online
Midway through the second half of England's game against Uruguay on Wednesday, it occurred to me why the fans were booing John Barnes. At its inception, the habit was clearly racially motivated, initiated by the odious vermin who follow England abroad and used to wait at the airport for the team to arrive specifically to heckle the player. And no doubt some of the booers at Wembley continued with the tradition for that reason: gutless, brainless, nasty.

But around me, in the section behind the goal (that's the white frame with the net strapped on to it, by the way, Teddy) the fans were quiet, orderly, lots of fathers with children, a group about as threatening as you might encounter in the playground on a Sunday morning. And, judging by the reception they extended to Andy Cole when he came on, cheering him to the Olympic Gallery, they were not of the loathsome breed who object to seeing a black man in the white of England. Yet, they booed Barnes in a routine, mechanical sort of way from the moment it became clear that England were giving the sort of witless performance which we hoped had gone with Graham Taylor (after about 10 minutes).

It was not because Barnes was playing any worse than his colleagues, just that as a player widely reckoned to be 10 caps past his sell-by date, he serves as a useful scapegoat. Round me, they were exercising the right to make a critical statement; this was booing as a value judgement.

It may seem perverse, but after Dublin, to be able to report that on Wednesday the crowd were not insulting Barnes because he is black, but because England were crap, is something of a triumph.

Indeed the whole experience of going to Wembley was the diametric opposite to the grim mayhem of Lansdowne Road. Maybe because it was such an insignificant game, the crowd seemed purged of the usual run of England followers: the flotsam from Chippenham and Swindon with their bad hair, big bellies and small minds. Instead, Wembley Way was ankle deep in crocodiles of children, a huge proportion of which were Asian, which meant one of two things. Either young Asians are passing the Tebbit test in droves and have taken to England in a big way, or local schools were given free tickets in order to simulate a crowd.

Children are the kind of followers a football organisation really wants to attract, because they usually come attached to the wallet of their parent. And, when England met Uruguay at Wembley (or to give the occasion its proper title, The First Green Flag International between Team England and Uruguay at the Venue of Legends, beneath the twin towers of Wembley Stadium) you would have needed a full wallet to satisfy the memorabilia habits of the average eight-year-old souvenir junkie. Face painting cost £3.50, flags £25, the match programme £3.50. And fish and chips (the Great British Invention, apparently) were also £3.50. Except when I tried to buy some, the woman behind the counter informed me they had run out of fish.

But what does the England the FA would like the world to become acquainted with - football marketed as a leisure alternative to Alton Towers - do when it meets the old England - football as an opportunity to behave antisocially.

Up in the corner of the ground near where I was sitting, the answer was played out in a little cameo. A group of about 15 lubricated youths started, towards the end of the first half, to alleviate their boredom at the awful nonsense on the pitch by singing. They bawled out that chant which begins "Fight, fight, wherever you may be/We are the drunk and disorderly", inappropriately sung to the tune of the hymn "Lord of the Dance".

It includes liberal use of swear words, and, after about 10 minutes solid airing, becomes significantly less amusing than its perpetrators imagine it to be. At half-time, as I was wandering through the refreshment areas, I happened across a man animatedly complaining about the noise-making to a steward.

"I've got a party of 50 kids with me," the man said, "you've got to do something about it." The steward wanted to know the nature of the man's complaint: was the chanting of a racial nature?

"No, no, it's the language. They're right above us. It's spoiling it for the kids. Something has to be done about it." At the beginning of the second half, something was done. Though it seemed from where I was sitting that the youths were guilty of nothing more than being boisterous in a seated area, the police moved in among them and systematically removed all of them from the ground.

This, then, is the future face of England football: antiseptic, safe, merchandise-driven, where standing up is an ejectable offence. After the hideous performance in Dublin, however, few would suggest it is not a more attractive one.

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