Ah, an international break is upon us. Joy.
Just as we had gotten used to the Premier League back on our HDTV screens and the sight of Robin van Persie in a Manchester United shirt, it is heartlessly snatched away from us. While many detest the disruption when the season has only just begun, for most United fans it seems that the international break is not just a break from domestic affairs but football altogether. The club versus country debate not only applies to players but fans too and when it is United versus England the decision is seemingly easy enough. Is it simply indifference or something more than that?
There once was a halcyon age when rival fans could sit next to each other and United fans could openly cheer the likes of Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles just as much in their native red as in the white of England. Clearly, something changed. Perhaps it was the fact that Bryan Robson always used to return from international duty broken. Or the twisted, sinister sight of effigies of David Beckham burning in the late summer of 1998 and the continued abuse aimed at the Neville Brothers. During the late 90s, ‘Stand up if you hate Man U’ was the chant du jour and if there was a choice between club and country it was not a difficult one.
The animosity was audibly clear when Beckham would take corner kicks within spitting distance of verbal sewage from the likes of West Ham and Leicester City fans. The same could even be said of Phil Neville who would face chants of ‘If Neville can play for England so can I’ to the point of considering early retirement from international football. Few can comprehend the abuse but then you get the impression that few at Old Trafford would admit to even a passing interest in the national team. What was arguably a feeling of indifference soon mutated into an ‘us against them’ mentality.
Goading England fans became an amusing pastime as chants of ‘Argentina, Argentina’ were heard long before the signing of Gabriel Heinze. As England’s stock dipped after France ’98 United were enjoying a period of unparalleled success, much to the envy of ‘Ingerlund’ fans. Jealousy was a factor and ‘gloryhunting’ was evident but while the relative levels of success could be compared, so could the entertainment factor. In this case it was a question of why would you want to watch a lower standard of football? Smug it may well be but the argument remains, especially when United’s own were enduring such abuse.
For Beckham in 1998, there’s Philip Neville in 2000 and arguably both Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006. Yet if anything, the criticism seems beneficial to United. Arguably Beckham’s best season followed that ill-fated World Cup while Rooney and Ronaldo formed a partnership that brought back the league title. Perhaps the antagonism acted as an added motivation as United certainly benefitted from the blame game at England’s exit.
England’s poor form has coincided with a golden period for United. Kevin Keegan’s time at the helm was a notable nadir yet England have not got past a quarter final since 1996. Little has changed in the past decade or so yet every two years it can become tempting to be drawn into the national fervour of hope which quickly dispels into despair at the mere hint of another penalty shootout. Whether borne out of boredom, as a United fan I find it pretty easy to withdraw myself from it all. Despite the invitations to the pub and mates houses it still seems like just another football match even if the whole country is watching and praying.
While it is relatively easy not to become emotionally involved watching England there is the bonus of seeing burgeoning talent flourish on the international stage. Who else feels a tinge of pride seeing Phil Jones and Chris Smalling build on their partnership from last summers European Championships? Or Danny Wellbeck’s winner against Sweden or Tom Cleverley’s increasingly impressive performances in England’s midfield? Here it is less a case of wanting to see England do well, rather seeing United’s talent continue to shine and develop, albeit in a different team.
Perhaps due to the fact that I have now been in Australia for nearly a year but I simply did not know that England were playing on Friday night. While it is always nice to wake up to a favourable result, albeit against Moldova, if this was United I’d have been distraught. Knowingly missing the game due to having to be up early is one thing but not even knowing what day the game is kicking off is quite another. However, within a few seconds I, probably like many others, realised it was only England anyway. Fear not, the international break is nearly over.