In the debate over club v country we often hear managers of club teams in opposition with international managers. We also hear about players who say that playing for their country is the pinnacle of any professional’s career. What we don’t tend to hear much about is the club v country battle for the fans. I have no scientific basis for this assumption but I have a strong belief that fans of the more “glamorous” clubs tend to be bigger fans of England than the likes of Sunderland fans. It’s an odd thing international football. We are asked to put aside all the taunting and rivalry and come together in unison to support a bunch of players who generally don’t play for our club. It’s all in the name of identity and national pride. Drums band and trumpets blow as “England till I die” belts out.
Whilst the England match was on the other night I asked ALS to put a poll out to gauge how connected Sunderland fans were to England it was clear that whilst many thought it makes the summer more interesting there was a huge proportion who said that Sunderland were all that matters. Everything in context though. I remember when Phillips, Gray and McCann were in the England squad I suddenly garnered an interest. Perhaps that exclusion of the smaller clubs has contributed to a lack of real interest in the national team beyond major tournaments. Indeed, I can’t remember taking much interest in Northern Ireland’s results until Phil Gray signed for us and the same for Wales with Melville and then Collins.
All of this though neglects what first got me into football. As a child in South Africa I watched David Platt rifle in a hooked volley with seconds to go in extra time against Belgium and I suddenly got it. It pains me in many ways to say it but England got me into football. Italia 90 was a watershed moment where I discovered the joy of football. My first match on my return from South Africa was against Spurs where I got the chance to see Gazza and Lineker. Somewhere along the line things changed though. England no longer represented me or my identity. It was all about Sunderland. I think we all probably feel that a bit. Sunderland offer the opportunity to unite people from our city and to watch players represent us. When away fans mock our team or our city they are mocking us.
For those who have been to an away match, you will know that feeling of being part of what you belong to. Most of you will know the joy of either hugging a stranger or being bear hugged by a bloke stinking of beer as Sunderland score a key goal. Sunderland unites us while England seems that step further away from our identity. England are about the media or about the Man Utd’s or Arsenal’s of the world. My dawn of realisation about this came whilst sat in a bar in Greece watching England play Germany. Shearer scored. I cheered. Instantly I felt shame. My “Get in” was immediately followed by “you black and white bastard”. I sat back down drinking my Mythos in shame. I had betrayed my club. Supporting England comes at a cost. You have to put aside everything that you believe in to support players that you would usually be vocally abusing. With Pickford and Henderson we have a couple of familiar faces to be proud of, but ultimately it’s not Sunderland. If you feel guilty about not getting too worried about England’s progression this summer then don’t. We have bigger fish to fry, League One fixtures come out soon. Until the season starts we have a pleasant distraction in the World Cup.