My Three Lions Dilemma

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As a teacher, I’ve always had an interest in tracking the football loyalties of the boys I teach. (Before I’m accused of being sexist, I’ll state that I work in an all-boys school in which the most knowledgeable and dedicated football fan by some distance is a Cliftonville & Arsenal-loving female teacher.)

I can recall a time when a smattering of Blackburn and Leeds United fans were counted amongst the pupils assembled before me, but they have been replaced by supporters of the blue half of Manchester in today’s classrooms.

For the most part, classrooms remain filled with fans of England’s original 21st century Big Four teams (Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal) with Glasgow Celtic also heavily represented, and I’ve little reason to believe that the picture differs greatly in schools across the tracks here, save for the substitution of Glasgow’s blue for green.

Sporting loyalties are a bit like religion: an inheritance foist upon the innocent and unsuspecting by fathers at an age before rebellion defines the father-son relationship, with enough time, energy and emotions invested in sharing support to prevent adolescent insolence from destroying the common bond of sporting affiliation.

I have written before about my experiences of bringing my 6-year old to Cliftonville games over the past 18 months and watching his love for, and knowledge of, the game develop before my eyes.

This is his first World Cup, and to say he has been having a ball would be quite the understatement. The nightly routine has consisted of watching football, learning of new countries and hearing names he immediately recognises from his ever-expanding Match Attax cards collection. I’ll say little on the matter of the lad’s bedtime routine as to elaborate upon that theme may leave me vulnerable in my professional capacity as vice-principal to the charge of hypocrisy….

I can still recall vividly my own first World Cup memory.

Sitting on a hard floor in our 18th Street and Bethany Home Road abode in Phoenix with my then 5 year old brother- I was seven-, both attired in a Northern Ireland kit bought for us by an adoring uncle just back from Belfast (he’d also brought us hats emblazoned with the words ‘West Ham’ and ‘Liverpool,’ which utterly perplexed us at the time.)  The television was tuned in to the Spanish language channel favoured by the Hispanic population of the city, and we were watching the Northern Ireland – Spain game. I can’t recall if it was live or repeated, nor do I recall any real moments from the game other than talk afterwards of the impressive nature of the victory by adults in the room.

We didn’t have any real sense of affiliation with any team but were absolutely enthralled by the ability of the commentators to pronounce the word ‘goal’ (or ‘gol’) in a way that made it last for what seemed like a full minute each time.

Schools are a great place to be during major sporting tournaments. Classrooms are bedecked with flag displays of all the Nations involved and children spend their break time tactically swapping Match Attax cards. Teachers are naturally creative and resourceful, and they waste little time in capitalising on the opportunity presented by the World Cup to teach themes related to Numeracy, Literacy and the World Around Us (Science, History and Geography in old money) using the World Cup as a context to excite the children.

Our own school mini-World Cup concluded yesterday afternoon in the baking north Belfast heat with a 3-2 triumph by Mexico over their North American arch rivals, the USA.

But back to sporting loyalties…..

My son’s first love is Glasgow Celtic. It helps that they appear regularly on Sky Sports and ESPN during this formative phase of his soccer affiliation life, and their success ensured by their current status as the only big fish in the small SPL bowl has meant that he has become accustomed to watching his team win, something which clearly helps attract and retain support for the big teams in any sporting code.

But it is no surprise that his sporting loyalties match those of my own. I grew up supporting and attending Celtic and Cliftonville matches, but my first love was the Republic of Ireland team.

My most cherished sporting memories are of attending Republic matches during the halcyon Charlton era with school friends and of watching the afternoon kick offs at home with my father and brother.

My son attended his first Republic match earlier this season (the first game of the O’Neill era) but it is with Celtic that his heart lies.

International football can be confusing for a 6-year old, and a lot of time had to be invested into explaining why it was possible to play for two different teams (club and country.) But as the penny dropped (albeit at an agonisingly slow pace), his eyes lit up with the revelation that a number of players from his beloved Glasgow Celtic would be participating for their National sides in the World Cup.

The more discerning amongst you will have worked out by now where this is going……

And so it came to pass that his allegiances for the duration of this World Cup would be found with the teams counting amongst their number players plying their trade in the east end of Glasgow: Greece (Georgios Samaras), Honduras (Emilio Izaguirre), Nigeria (Efe Ambrose) and….. England (Fraser Foster.)

Given that he passionately believes that Georgios Samaras is the fourth best player in the world (I’m told repeatedly in car journeys, walks to Tesco and at bedtime that only ‘Lee-o-mel’ Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez are currently in front of  the big Greek in international rankings), supporting Greece was a no-brainer.

Similarly, Izaguirre has a permanent place etched in his heart as it was the Honduras international who provided him with his first Celtic Match Attax card. Ambrose was a bit of a surprise to him and love for Nigeria does appear to be somewhat forced.

But Fraser Foster is one of his favourite Celtic players, and news that he would be in the World Cup has brought about a genuine love for the team sporting the Three Lions that has left me with a bit of a challenge.

I quite like the idea of watching the boy develop his own sporting affiliations and loyalties, and the simple logic of determining support based on wanting his team’s players to do well is utterly compelling. A republican friend of mine has always supported England on the basis that he finds it absurd that he is supposed to cheer for players in their red shirts at Old Trafford but jeer for them in white when at Wembley.

For me to suggest that, instead of cheering when Wayne Rooney equalised, that he share in the widely held sense of schadenfraude at the sight of England suffering yet another World Cup meltdown would be to introduce a negative element to his identity formation, a mistake we too often make in this society.

So I forced myself to cheer along, concealing my glee as Suarez rammed the winner home. I’m even getting used to him playing as England on the Xbox each night during game intervals. My life as a reluctant England fan has but one more game to endure….if I’m lucky.

The price we pay for peace eh……

 

  • iluvni

    Why not be honest with the boy and tell him you are bitter as gall?

  • Kevsterino

    As it relates to sports teams of all varieties, it ain’t bitterness, but a flavor of hatred. Neither is it political in any respect.

    Judging by the avatar, just ask Chris how he feels about my Cardinals. ;o)

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com John Mooney

    I think its fairly easy to tell a mans age by the team he supports.
    Manchester United for me….inherited of course.
    But Tottenham Hotspur seem a serious team for sllightly younger men.
    I remember Liverpool getting promoted (Arrowsmith Melia etc) so their fans seem to be at least five years younger than me.
    West Ham, Chelsea, Leeds, Everton….younger still.
    And briefly Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa.

    Chelsea (again) and Man City ( never popular here) a lot of youngsters wearing those shirts.
    Arsenal…certainly a younger fan base here than Spurs.

    Its not just about inheritance although my sons and grandsons are Reds. Second son has chosen the difficult road with a Chelsea wife.
    But its as much as to which team enjoyed some dominace or just a Cup Final appearance in the 1960s and 1970s.
    The dislike for England is as much to do with Ingerland attitudes as any historic optimism but nobody in our house had any great problem enjoying Costa Rica putting a nail in the coffin.

    But to be honest, I always get a good feeling when I see someone wearing an unlikely football top in the Shopping Centre.
    I mean the man in Sainsburys who wears the Scunthorpe shirt.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Iluvni
    Tut tut. You should let some of that hate out.

    Kev
    Spot on. Despise your Cards. Content to support the Cubs & their rich legacy of failure…;)

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m not sure the schadenfreude is as wide as it once was, and I would suggest several reasons for saying so:

    - 1, Euro 96 was England’s coming out as England (rather than ‘little Britain’);

    - 2, Hodgson seems to have tamed the red top sports gorillas;

    - 3, England are now playing their very own England A team (with the best EPL players distributed across better teams).

    Personally I look at England and wonder just when we will EVER see another Irish team make the finals again.

    I suspect your boy Chris is rather unselfconsciously coming to the same conclusion and deciding that England is going to be the best we on this archipelago produce in soccer terms for a very long time to come.

    Out of the mouths of babes…

  • Floreat Ultonia

    “England are now playing their very own England A team”

    Nope. England have four effective A teams, none of which were good enough to qualify.

    “England is going to be the best we on this archipelago produce in soccer terms for a very long time to come”

    Nothing new there. England have reached the QF or better in a major tournament 18 times. Compare with the South three (1964, 1988, 1990), NI twice (1958, 1982), Wales ditto (1958, 1976) and Scotland once in 1992.

  • Republic of Connaught

    England need a great manager and they’d do a lot better. Let nobody tell you Costa Rica have a superior team to England. Yet the Costa boys will probably beat England and win the group. Roy Hodgson is just a journeyman without a clue.

    Ireland have our worst group of players I have seen in my lifetime. Martin O’Neill will do well to get them to the Euros. We need academies in Ireland to educate our own players, like in rugby. Of course because of the money available in England, this is near impossible.

  • Valenciano

    When I worked in Asia last year I’d ask people who they supported and the answer was depressingly predictable: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man Utd, Chelsea in 90% of cases. Most of the rest were Liverpool or Arsenal, with the odd Bayern or Man City glory hunter. It was sad that none of them cared about their own teams.

    Incidentally Chris, I reckon there’s a 1 in 5 chance that Celtic and Cliftonville get paired up again in Monday’s Champions league qualifying draw.

    Mick, re Irish qualification, just leave it to Platini and Blatter who are trying to outbid each other in offering more qualifying places for the world cup. I honestly think that within the next 20 years we’ll see a 40 or 48 team world cup, hosted in several countries instead of one.

  • Floreat Ultonia

    If CR win the game and thus nine points to England’s none then pretty much by definition they are a better team. Even if England’s players all earn a few million extra.

    Hodgson is a decent enough coach,he is a wee bit unlcky. Even more he is a shrewd businessman, still earning a huge contract when plenty of the other coaches will be jobless in August.

    Other nearby countries develop good players despite the EPL money.

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com John Mooney

    Oh I dont think so Mick.
    Id probably think that with Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and John Connelly in the 1966 England squad, Id have felt a certain identity. I was after all 14 years old.
    back then of course Norn Ireland was “Ireland” (Best, Gregg etc)
    And Ireland was “Eire” (Cantwell, Dunne, Brennan etc).
    Just check the old pre-Panini Chewing Gum cards.

    But I think young Master Donnelly is only 6 years old and not overly bothered about the archipelgo.
    To be honest my 6 year old grandson has difficulty telling Manchester United and Liverpool apart.
    On the other hand he will grow out of it.
    My 11 year old grandson is fully supportive of Rooney, Wellbeck, Smalling, Jones….but not in the England shirt.
    Oddly he was delighted that Balotelli of all people scored against England.
    He was much more annoyed about Mata and De Gea losing with Spain.
    And I think he has now enthusiastically following Van Persie, Evra, Nani.
    So what do we assume from this? That at 6 years old History and Politics dont mean much….but with careful coaching of fathers and grandfathers and of course teachers and peers….these things can matter a lot at 11 years old.
    Next World Cup, Young Master Donnelly and my own 6 year old grandson should be in the great years of Football Supporting.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Chris
    I’ve been a closet England fan since watching then win in 66. I was a seven year old, football mad kid at that time. I worshipped Alan Ball. I dreamed of playing for England for years. As I had an English grandfather I hoped that it would qualify me for the team. The lack of talent didn’t come into it.
    When I watched my first NI game at 12 I tried to put England out of my mind. Not sure if I have.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Mick
    I’m pretty sure the lad’s just applying the basic rule of wanting to follow his team and its players wherever they go.

    I ended up a 49ers & Redskins fan in my youth along with my dad as we both were primarily interested in Notre Dame, which sent its two great quarterbacks of that era to San Francisco and Washington respectively (the two Joes, Montana and Theismann.)

    It’s kinda refreshing to see tbh. Don’t expect it to last. Peer pressure has a way of hardening kids. He’d not dream of engaging in a ‘slagging’ match with friends who support different teams, but that’ll come.

    On qualification prospects, I think you’re being unduly pessimistic. England have underachieved yet again in this tournament, but they will always have a great pool of talent so stand above their Celtic neighbours in rightly expecting to qualify.

    I think one of Scotland or the Republic of Ireland will qualify for the Euros this time around, but Wales and NI remain some way off contending for a place in a major tournament.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Alan
    Thanks for that.

    Always loved the poetry of Jack Charlton, ’66 England World Cup winner, being the saviour of Irish soccer.

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com John Mooney

    Without Manchester United in the Champions League, it might be conceivable that my six year old grandson will feel an affinity with say Manchester City. But I doubt it.
    Id think we will be cheering on Celtic, Barcelona or just about anyone else.
    The 6 year old may not get it.
    But the 11 year old will.

  • Mick Fealty

    FU, NI 86, RoI 94 (and Saipan?).

    Maybe it’s just me, but I really cannot get up the energy to dislike/resent them for reasons laid out above (and that 5 goal hammering of the Republic by a mediocre Portugal increases a strong sense of drift.

    Not enough of our domestic players are getting matches in the top flight. For comparison I go back to the 79 FA Cup Final, Rice, Jennings, Brady, Stapleton, O’Leary, McIlroy (missing one).

    Who am I missing? Who are their equivalents today? These were good players crafted into better teams that often did more than just qualify.

  • MonkDeWallyDeHonk

    Mick

    Left out Jimmy Nicholl for Utd

  • Tochais Síoraí

    And Sammy Nelson.

    Come on Ghana!

  • Floreat Ultonia

    “NI 86, RoI 94 (and Saipan?)”

    All failed to make the quarters.

  • JR

    I have to say I have never got the whole supporting Manchester, liverpool, Birmingham, London Barcelona, Amsterdam etc clubs.

    I just don’t get it. I enjoy the world cup but otherwise i find it hard to watch soccer. I have tried, for a while, for the sake of social interaction but eventually gave up.

  • Master McGrath

    As a child I always supported Cliftonville. My family always seemed to support the Reds and I went along regularly to see the Amateurs lose virtually every match I attended.
    I have fond memories wandering about the almost deserted ground as the match went on – but then I was not a natural football player or spectator but rather an imaginative explorer of spaces wheere I felt safe.
    At half time I would be taken in to the Board Room (my Uncle was well know to the Club) and view the pictures of teams that had known more success that the club had in the 50′s and 60′s.
    These were the days when yearly re-election to the League was necessary for a team that always finished bottom of the league and the belief was that change to professional status was impossible because of the legal burdens on the ground.
    For years after when pressed by people to say where my football loyalties lay I would cause confusion by saying that I supported Cliftonville and they would go away and leave me alone.
    I became saddened and pleased in equal measure (nearly) as success and sectarianism came to the club (not in that order).
    I am too old now to take any real interest in football but in some ways I am saddened to realise that I will never re-visit this ground where so many Saturdays were spent looking for an elusive goal, never mind a draw or a magical win.
    I somehow pine for the days of my childhood when Cliftonville was the team everyone expected to beat rather than now where Cliftonville are the sectarian mirror of Linfield and Glentoran – I supported a losing team without sectarian baggage then. I could my kids to see a game of football still then without the baggage that burdens the game today. Sometime I feel that people confuse change with improvement.

  • Master McGrath

    As a child I always supported Cliftonville. My family always seemed to support the Reds and I went along regularly to see the Amateurs lose virtually every match I attended.
    I have fond memories wandering about the almost deserted ground as the match went on – but then I was not a natural football player or spectator but rather an imaginative explorer of spaces where I felt safe.
    At half time I would be taken in to the Board Room (my Uncle was well know to the Club) and view the pictures of teams that had known more success that the club had in the 50′s and 60′s.
    These were the days when yearly re-election to the League was necessary for a team that always finished bottom of the league and the belief was that change to professional status was impossible because of the legal burdens on the ground.
    For years after when pressed by people to say where my football loyalties lay I would cause confusion by saying that I supported Cliftonville and they would go away and leave me alone.
    I became saddened and pleased in equal measure (nearly) as success and sectarianism came to the club (not in that order).
    I am too old now to take any real interest in football but in some ways I am saddened to realise that I will never re-visit this ground where so many Saturdays were spent looking for an elusive goal, never mind a draw or a magical win.
    I somehow pine for the days of my childhood when Cliftonville was the team everyone expected to beat rather than now where Cliftonville are the sectarian mirror of Linfield and Glentoran – I supported a losing team without sectarian baggage then. I could my kids to see a game of football still then without the baggage that burdens the game today. Sometime I feel that people confuse change with improvement.

  • redstar2011

    Absolutely brilliant piece Chris and good luck to the young fella whoever he decides to support as he grows up

  • http://backonthecorneragain.wordpress.com chrisbrowne28

    Why do we always have this fuss where we try to justify supporting England to ourselves?

    If you want to support them – do it; if not – do not.

    If your reasons for not supporting are plainly because you are anti-English and wish to demonstrate this – then you are narrow-minded and probably a hypocrite.

    If it is because you plainly aren’t interested in support that group of players – then fine.

    The point is – we don’t all need to know about it or have it justified to us. But I suppose that is where we come from.

    Neither Irish team will ever be in direct competition with England in football, so as far as I see it – no reason not to wish them well.

    Oh, and, it’s just a game.

  • Son of Strongbow

    Ignoring, for the moment, the ‘Perfidious Albion’ mindset that exists and results in a hatred of everything English, the England team suffers from what could be called ’1966 Syndrome’.

    1966 Syndrome sees the England team enter competitions like the World Cup with almost an entitlement to succeed. The responsibility for this may not be the team’s fault and could be more fairly left on the English media’s doorstep. However it does sometimes incite others to have a go when the team fails in gaining what is ‘expected’ of them.

    The team is trying to mitigate this animus by good works. The English footballing stars visited a Brazilian orphanage before beginning the journey home. A quote about the visit was made available to the media.

    “It was heartbreaking to see their sad little faces without a shred of hope for the future” said Felipe, age 9.

  • Taoiseach

    I support Spurs because I used to read the Hotspur comic and I liked the name. And didn’t want to support my brothers’ teams (Man Utd and Leeds Utd). Discovered they were in Division 2 which was a bit of a set back but stuck with them and they got promoted first season and its’s been many long years of deep sighs and rolling eyes.

  • Kensei

    Chris

    The biggest disservice you are doing your child here is allowing your child to believe that the players are anything other than mercenaries that will move for the cash. You follow the team, not the players, so the argument of “I support them most of the year…” doesn’t make sense. A bit of local rivalry is healthy in football, politics or whatever else not withstanding, and the English attitude of supporting Scotland / Ireland if they make it to a tournament bugs the life out of me as the ultimate insult. They don’t support Wales or Ireland in rugby, oddly.

    Mick

    Undue pessimism. How many Costa Rican players can you name? Does the USA or Algeria have any World class players? Ireland qualified for Euro 2012 in a tough group, and there is always room for one or two additional European teams along with the big boys – good organisation and the stars aligning with players and Ireland have a decent shout. Smaller nations always wax and wane, and either Ireland were not particularly blessed with amazing qualification records. Scotland has been hit harder, but I’d say that’s more due to the decline of their own league.

    England recently have walked their qualifying groups (helped by seeding, of course) and if they cut out a few mistakes have a completely different narrative. They do have too many foreigners to be good for the National team, but it’s honestly not as bad as all that.