Attending a football match never felt so good but like most of us who follow our team around the country week in week out it is something that we now take for granted. Prior to the pandemic it had got to a stage where I would think ‘Do I really want to go to Derby away again?’ not sure why I’ve singled out Derby which is a great away day every time we go but you understand the sentiment. There was nothing new in what we were doing and the grounds we were attending, my main focus for many years now has been the cup draws and the hope we drew a team whose ground I haven’t yet been, with the sole aim of joining the 92 club following 1 team
Preparing for the game
The game on Sunday felt that little bit different though, I was excited, nervous, and intrigued as to what the ‘new normal’ would be. This wasn’t a standard match either this was a match that the fans in attendance had been waiting for since 2018. The emotional rollercoaster we have all endured just gain a ticket has been laughable. For those unaware (sometimes I wish I was in your shoes) as to the debacle that has been the ticketing policy for the matches, I can only look at you in envy. March 2019 me and my pals secured tickets to every England game in the tournament, this was due to be the easiest stress-free tournament since we started doing this. 7 tickets secured, majority of games at Wembley and nice trips lined up to Dublin and Rome should all go to plan!
What transpired was months of uncertainty and the unknown. I appreciate the world is in a pandemic and there are more important things going on than football, I am not naïve to that at all. However, from having ALL tickets to every game we were advised that we would have to return these tickets and enter a ballot based on a reduced capacity within the stadiums. A refund would be issued, and we would have no more than a weeks’ notice with regards to if we were attending or not. The summer of fun we had planned in 2020, the tournament that was meant to be easy now became the hardest of them all!
I think this is why Sunday’s game meant so much. The lads I attend the match with all struggled to sleep the night before (myself included) we were excited, I mean really excited about the game. But as people who go to the match regularly, we know that football is more than just the 90 minutes of football, it’s the relationships and friendships that you make along the way. People you only see at the game, you don’t see them any other time. England is no exception, we are lucky to attend the game with Albion supporters, Reading fans have become friends and our pals up in Boro are honorary Blues fans now! We were on the cusp of normality or something that felt like normality, it was that sense of life as we know it returning which I think meant the most.
The day arrived
A lateral flow test done, negative test recorded, and we were on the 8.42am Chiltern train towards Wembley. The train was heaving which made the day seem more authentic, when have we ever attended a London away game when the train isn’t? What was great was everyone had that same excitement level as we did, conversations were constant, and people were chuffed to just be doing what they loved again. I spent the whole journey with 2 Blues fans who started following England 7 years ago, yet this was their 1st tournament game. They had always followed England on cricket tours, before deciding to follow the football team back in 2014 after the World Cup. Both in their 50s and both beyond excited for the day ahead but more importantly both wanting to know just what made tournament games so different and why 17 years on I was still this excited. The only thing I could say to them was come 1.57pm when the anthem kicks in they would know for themselves.
Of the train an onto a pre-arranged pub 5 tube stops from Wembley to meet up with the lads from around the country. What’s great is that it didn’t take long for things to get back to how they have always been. Conversations were different this time, gone were those conversation of the away games attended the few weeks prior to the game and in their place were actual conversations about people’s lives! Although old habits soon kick in and trips down memory lane become apparent with everyone having a different story about the same trip. That’s what is so great about England, everyone has a story unique to their group.
3 hours later and for once we all wanted to get to the ground in good time and maybe even see the kick-off! The walk to the ground was bizarre, due to the limited numbers you had pockets of supporters walking towards the ground, other groups looking for a pub to watch the game in and families doing their weekly shop. Was this really the opening game at Wembley in a major tournament? It all felt so surreal but as the arch appeared the reality of the game soon kicked back in, this was football, this felt normal.
If you read my previous blog, then you would know what I predicted re the line up and the game. We know we what get with Southgate and it will never be the most expansive football in the world, but it will be effective, and Sunday was exactly that. England won the game 1-0 without having to get out of 2nd gear really. We played in spells taking the heat into consideration, conserved energy when needed and never at any point looked like losing the game. It was an accomplished performance from a team that believes in themselves and that they could win this, something I don’t think England teams in the past have ever allowed themselves to believe.
The match mirrored the atmosphere, Wembley never looked so big and the spaces between groups of fans meant it was difficult to really generate an atmosphere that went around the ground and all 4 stands. It was loud in spells but at times had the atmosphere of a pre-season friendly! This wasn’t how it was meant to be, this was meant to be this Wembley’s Euro 96 moment, the moments that a generation of fans still talk about. We still see the footage of those games every time a major tournament arrives, every time I am envious that I am not in attendance, this game and atmosphere won’t be 1 for the archives!
England won, Bellingham played and Grealish didn’t, as a Birmingham fan the day couldn’t have gone any better! As a football fan you sit back and hope that what we experienced Sunday doesn’t become the new normal. The day itself was fantastic but as I’ve said above football days are more than just the 90 minutes on the pitch. If we were to reflect on the match experience, then it wasn’t what we all dreamed it to be.
Football was back on Sunday, but it wasn’t quite back as we all know it!
Watch out for more to come from our Blues fan on International duty.