The England-Scotland game was the best advert for the union you’ll ever see

The evidence suggests that England alone can’t mix it with the big boys. Scotland punch their weight, just about, but it’s not their fault it’s a light one

Tom Peck@tompeck
Saturday 19 June 2021 09:00
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Scots watch Euro 2020 match against England

On Whatsapp, the atmosphere built all afternoon. Not since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic can so many of the same videos have been forwarded so many times.

The days when the world moved indoors, its meaning reduced to little more than changing shapes and colours on screens, are passing now, but they’re not gone yet. The most certain barometer of rising national tension is still the rising volume of Whatsapp notifications.

In this patiently anticipated, set-piece moment of national cultural reality, what reveals more about who or what we are? Is it really some mumbled anthems in the grim June rain? Is it Che Adams watching destiny fly upwards in the wrong direction off his outstretched shin?

Or is it a slightly fat, very drunk and not hugely competent breakdancing Scotsman in a kilt and absolutely nothing more, diving to the floor of a Jubilee line carriage to perform the worm, to the delight of his phone-waggling friends? Truly, it brings me no pleasure to report that more than one worm was clearly visible.

Once upon a time these things were described as “not safe for work”, but no one goes to the office anymore, so if you want to get your friends to video you pressing absolutely all of your flesh against the speckled linoleum flooring of the London Underground then it’s probably fine on almost every level.

A year of madness has almost dimmed the glare of the unsettled times in which we live. To be discombobulated is normal, to the extent that there was almost nothing strange about watching the news channels broadcast live from glorious sun-dappled fan zones in Glasgow parks while Glaswegians performed Klinsmann dives through the epic puddles of a flooded Leicester Square.

There was more tension on the pitch than on the phone, in the end, not least as Scotland should have won.

Cynics might have noted, as the tension mounted, that the rather underwhelming almost-everyone’s-a-winner 24 team format decimated what was really at stake here. Absurdly, it is still far too early to tell whether win, lose or draw was the most advantageous result for England in this historic fixture, though such ambiguity was around for their opponents.

Last week, Gareth Southgate wrote an article about what playing for England means, and its first paragraph speaks of the unique opportunity to create moments that a nation remembers forever. Southgate is English but the sentiment is universal. We can remember where we were when Gazza flicked the ball over Colin Hendrie’s head, so the theory goes.

Personally, having seen the clip somewhere in the range of 10,000 times in the last week, the original’s been wiped from my mind. When the brain replays a memory it doesn’t play the original but the last time it replayed it, and then overlays it with that version. Which is why, if you happen to still be good pals with your schoolmates, the memories from back then play out in your mind’s eye with the faces of 40-year-olds and the actual photographs retain the power to shock.

Had Reece James not wisely placed his head between the ball and the England goal, Lyndon Dykes might have spent an ensuing lifetime willingly spread eagled beneath the conscience of a nation, to be basted for evermore with infinite layers of that sweet, sweet lacquer of nostalgia. But it didn’t and he won’t.

The auld enemies really are enemies these days. England voted for Brexit. Scotland didn’t. And because of it, Scotland might yet do an exit of its own. There is little point pretending our problems with each other are really very friendly anymore. I can’t say as I’d much noticed the words of the third verse of Oh Flower of Scotland before. “Those days are passed now, and in the past they must remain.” For a fair few hundred years they did, but not anymore.

At the end of an exciting but ultimately underwhelming evening for all concerned, does one dare even type that football is the greatest advert for the union you’ll ever find? TeamGB came second at the last Olympics, while the accumulated evidence of half a century is that England alone can’t mix it with the big boys. Scotland can punch their weight, just about, but it’s not their fault it’s a light one.

Most European World Cup wins have happened because one of the great European club sides has transposed their identity onto the national team of the day. Juventus won two World Cups in the 1930s. Bayern Munich did the same in 1974. It was Barcelona’s philosophy (albeit the gift of a Dutchman) that conquered all in 2010. Ajax have never won but they played in two finals in the 1970s.

Great Britain’s great clubs have never quite managed it. They’ve always been a Kenny Dalglish or a Ryan Giggs short. The greatest of them all, Manchester United, has just five men immortalised in bronze around their stadium, all of them British, but just one of them English.

What glorious summer memories might Best, Law and Charlton have gifted the nation, given the chance? What might Sir Alex or Sir Matt have done with a glittering pack of world-class talent from every corner of the kingdom? Would Liverpool’s all-conquering Celts of the 1980s have conquered the world in red, white and blue? We’ll never know. Dare one think it’s a shame it has to be this way?

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