When I was a child, asserting as children are sometimes inclined that I was right and everybody else was wrong, my mother used to tell me the story of a boy she called little Willy, who was indulged by his mother in his belief that everyone was wrong except him. Anyway, little Willy grew up and joined the army and was marching in a parade one day, watched by his proud mother, who turned to her neighbour and said: "Isn't it marvellous? Everyone's out of step except my Willy."
John O'Neill brought little Willy to mind, by which I don't mean to insult the manhood of the Australian Rugby Union's alpha male and chief executive, although he's quite welcome to take offence where none is meant. Actually, what I mean is that his provocative one-liner – "it doesn't matter whether it's cricket, rugby union, rugby league, we all hate England" – is perhaps worth taking seriously. Could it be, amid all the airy dismissals of O'Neill's jibe even by the Australian players themselves, that what he says is fundamentally true? That it's not the rest of the sporting world with a chip on its shoulder? That we, in short, are the little Willies in the parade?
It's a notion at least worth considering. I've spent long enough amongst Scots, some of them sentient, to know that their hatred of England in a sporting context is real and unequivocal. Obviously, this does not apply to all or even most Scots. But where it exists, in all those Glaswegians and Dundonians shouting for Argentina or Germany against the England football team, or indeed this afternoon for the Wallabies, it is fuelled by their perception of the English as irredeemably arrogant.
I have a better perspective on this phenomenon than I did before 2002, when my family and I moved out of London to rural north Herefordshire. In the subsequent five years, I have experienced that provincial disenfranchisement of which Scots have traditionally complained. It is manifest, for example, in the assumption of many in the national media that London is synonymous with Britain, and that they have little or no obligation to serve the interests of anyone foolish enough to live outside the M25. My own pet beef, to which I return so often that the beef is practically air-dried, is that at least 90 per cent of restaurants reviewed in national newspapers are in the capital. When I lived in the capital myself, of course, the ratio seemed commendable.
None of which has anything to do with sport, but it's part and parcel of the same phenomenon. To say that when Tim Henman was doing well at Wimbledon he was hailed as English, and when Andy Murray does well, he is British, is no less true for having become a cliché.
I can also discern some truth in the charge that we English feel a kind of divine right to succeed in the sports we invented. Nothing winds up the Scots as much as the English assumption that a place in every major football tournament is ours to squander, and that our glorious footballing heritage, which hasn't actually known much in the way of glory since the year Margaret and Brian McClaren's little lad Stephen started at infant school, entitles us to a collective harrumph of abject disappointment if we don't progress further than the quarter-finals.
A further charge from those who "hate" us, is that when we do register a rare success on the big sporting stage, winning the Webb Ellis Trophy four years ago or the Ashes in 2005, we go ballistic with self-congratulation, hanging MBEs round big strong necks and thronging Trafalgar Square as if it were VE Day all over again. But this is where our detractors can't have it both ways. Either we have an arrogant sense of innate superiority, or we indulge in absurd, disproportionate triumphalism on the few occasions when everything goes right. If we were as arrogant as they say, surely we should swagger rather than skip to the podium. Besides, I can't think of two sporting figureheads less arrogant than Martin Johnson and Michael Vaughan, the men who lifted those two yearned-for trophies, except possibly the late Bobby Moore.
In the end, the most complex perception of the English comes from the English themselves. About three weeks before we moved out of London, the Turkish football team beat Senegal in the quarter-final of the World Cup. That night, I drove my kids through Wood Green, where there is a large Turkish population, and we joined a high-fiving, horn-tooting carnival. It was wonderful. Yet when England's cricketers won the Ashes, thrilled as I was, I watched the carnival in Trafalgar Square, and in particular some of the players unable to walk or speak in a straight line after their all-night hooley, with a slight air of embarrassment.
All that said, to paraphrase that most emotionally honest of Englishmen, Kevin Keegan, I will love it if we somehow beat Australia this afternoon, love it. And love, as I think even John O'Neill might agree if pressed, is so very much healthier than hate.
Who I like this week...
The Everton manager David Moyes, with due apologies for one Evertonian's blatant partisanship. But even those who are not Toffeemen, with the possible exception of a few Liverpool fans mulling over the previous night's defeat by Marseilles, must have enjoyed the spectacle of Moyes cock-a-hoop in Ukraine on Thursday, when it had looked as if, for the second time in two years, Everton's European adventure might end practically before it had begun. Moreover, it was Moyes' substitutions that turned the Uefa Cup tie in his team's favour, so now is not the time to dwell on the worrying thought that Victor Anichebe, who cost nothing, did far more to beat Metalist Kharkiv than the £20m duo of Andy Johnson and Yakubu. The latter is beginning to remind me of James Beattie, which can't be a good thing.
And who I don't
The New York Knicks basketball team, several of whose players and coaching staff are not exactly paragons of liberated thinking, gender-wise. Nor are many players and coaches in almost any male sporting environment you care to mention, but the difference is that the Knicks have been found out. The team was ordered to pay $11.6m (£5.7m) to its former head of marketing for subjecting her to sustained sexual harrassment.Reuse content