2007 - 2021

Three Lions

England lose on penalties. Niente cambia.

The crushing hype and massive over-concentration of a nation’s fragile broken psyche onto a post (ish) covid experience was too much for a talented young team. The swirling mass of post Brexit nationalism and a media un-restrained by editorial guidelines combined for a spectacular crash-and-burn for Gareth Southgate’s young team. In the unlikely scenario of Scotland reaching a tournament final would we have been burnt by such ridiculous over-expectations? Undoubtedly.  Would we have got wildly over-excited and piled our entire national hopes onto a singular event? Without a shadow of a doubt. The only difference is we wouldn’t have beamed the entire experience into our neighbour’s national broadcasting.

The spectacle had many forms, but here’s just three, we can call them the Three Lions. First the bruising weight of expectation, the regurgitation of the Baddiel-Skinner chat and the tragi-comic myth of “thirty years of hurt”; second the narrative that This England represent a kinder more progressive England; and third the outburst of ‘togetherness’ of a national stadium full despite covid raging harder than England fans in Leicester Square attacking each other with bottles like some kind of contemporary dance performance subtitled: take back control.

Taking each of these, the cringe of the thirty years of hurt gets routinely trundled out now but rarely examined. It’s based on a bizarre sense of entitlement that cradles much of English expectation and leads to such inevitable crashing disappointment. This exceptionalism is rampant and rich fodder for Boris Johnson and an English nationalism that, while loud and crazed never seems to fulfill it’s own levels of emotional angst and rage. It always seems to dissipate into a sort of nothingness. The thirty years of hurt myth is based on the notion that England lost in 1970 to (then) West Germany, failed to qualify for 1974, failed to qualify for 1978, and then lost penalty shoot-outs so many times it’s a bit of a blur. The idea is based on some notion that they somehow deserved to do much better, they somehow just deserve to win international tournaments despite, well, despite not really being very good. This myth also neatly side-steps the extraordinary situation of England being given home advantage both in 1966 and in 2021.

The second myth is that of the Southgate’s England team representing a new and different England. It’s partly true. The antipathy of Scotland fans to the England team has been altered by the nature and tone of Southgate’s management style, his messaging and the sheer talent of his team littered with talented young black players. It’s also true that there are many ‘England’s’ – and we should resist crude singular caricature. It’s also true that this English team feels different to the England team of ten years ago. As Ian Dunt has written: “…10 years ago, England was still recovering from losing 4-1 to Germany in the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup. John Terry was captain. He’d previously been stripped of the position after reports of an affair with team-mate Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend, then had it reinstated, then lost it again after shouting racist abuse to Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand. Even five years ago, it still felt like Terry’s England team: macho, brutal and hopeless. At the 2016 Euros, fans chanted “Fuck off Europe, we all voted out”.

Southgate’s team are anything but ‘macho, brutal and hopeless’, they are, strangely, full of hope. But they are weighed down by the wildly unrealistic expectation of a nation both broken by and emboldened by their self-inflicted Brexit experience, a sort of national hallucination. But there’s a new element to England’s tortuous ongoing football pantomime. Now, the English team is not just to be the carrier of the nation’s hope and expectations, it’s also to be the recipient of the projected hopes of the Not Brexit England, the carrier of the England that hates Boris and Patel and all. Like a hunchback with two humps the English team is now to be both the Right and the Left back, the progressive and the regressive England.

This is difficult. In a context where the government pop-up to say it’s ok to boo our own players it’s difficult to then control the routine outbursts of thuggery and racism that have plagued English football culture for decades. It’s not just that the government’s response to racism is inadequate, they cultivate it for their own political advantage in the petri-dish that is Anglo Populist Nationalism.

The need to overstate the progressive element of Southgate’s England is overwhelming, Andrew Rawnsley has written : “Marcus Rashford is a powerful campaigner for an end to child hunger and has twice forced a retreat on the government over free school meals. Raheem Sterling has displayed moral leadership in the fight against racism. Harry Kane wore a rainbow-coloured armband to mark Pride month during the match against Germany. Their manager, Gareth Southgate, published a superbly crafted “Dear England” letter just before the tournament began. He gave eloquent expression to his belief in an England united not in an angry and ugly nativism, but a positive patriotism at ease with and enriched by the country’s diversity.”

All of which is true but completely misses the point.

Marcus Rashford earns over £9 million a year. His conduct and his campaign have been exemplary and inspiring but they are nevertheless a sign of political failure, not of success. To live in a country where a few hundred men get paid astonishing amounts of money while others suffer disfiguring poverty and hunger isn’t something to celebrate. Kane wearing a rainbow-coloured armband to mark Pride month is such a low-bar of performative celebrity ‘activism’ it’s hilarious. Welcome to the world of ‘social activism’ and celebrity-led endorsements, here Coca-Cola, there a rainbow armband.

Notional millionaire celebrity actions and social media moments are not agents of change. This is not radical. An obsession with celebrity is a sign of a broken political system and a failure of the left.

The second problem about mythologising Southgate’s progressive England is that it dissolves under examination. The immediate aftermath of England’s loss saw Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who failed to score their spot-kicks in the penalty shootout, being targeted for racist abuse. The FA were forced to issues the following statement:



The mural of Marcus Rashford in Withington was vandalised last night, apparently within an hour of the penalty shootout ending.

The Third Lion is the one we’ve all been asked to wish-away. Wembley was packed to the rafters. If we have narrowly escaped the perfect storm of national liberation (sic), Freedom Day and footballing glory – we have entered a new moment of anger humiliation and racism. Britain is ‘led’ by a grubby escapologist who has declared an end to all restrictions and is surrounded by ministers declaring they won’t wear masks any longer.  They have neatly abandoned a collective endeavor and transferred responsibility from them to us framing the response to a global pandemic and national health emergency as ‘personal responsibility’. This is a warm-up for what’s coming next: the end of furlough and an Everyone for Themself ‘post’-corona society. If you want a glimpse of what this will feel like – check the scenes of the ‘high-spirited’ supporters in Leicester Square. Politicians are wishing-away the virus because it’s politically convenient to. We’re complicit in this and what comes next will be brutal.

For all the talk of “leveling up” and “building back better” the reality is a society coming out of lockdown already disfigured by poverty and years of austerity led by a political elite characterized by opportunism and contempt. As Rafael Behr has written: “There is something of the mafia protection racket about this dynamic. The Tories break things up and then saunter around the vandalised site, full of feigned sympathy and slippery charm steeped in menace, announcing that the way to avoid such distress in the future is to pay tribute to the Johnson syndicate.”

As English fans attack each other and the normalised post-apocalyptic scenes of violence and mayhem ensued it’s difficult to square this with the quietly desperate projection of Southgate’s progressive force.



The obsession with footballing success is an excuse and cradle for male violence and a crude displacement activity. It is the Hunger Games that allows the government we didn’t elect to continue with ‘our’ gaze diverted and our minds transfixed.



The BBC’s Chris Hollins told us on the state broadcaster that this was “a moment the whole nation has been waiting for since 1966”. It’s a manifestation of spectacular levels of self-delusion and the ongoing Corona Brexit phenomenon that seems to have no end.

Comments (45)

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  1. Ariel says:

    Someone, somewhere, might think the greatest health and economic crisis in generations might have prompted a societal rethink of the importance and constant platforming of men’s play and games with their balls – during nearly every single news bulletin, nearly every single half hour, almost everywhere, every day. That this has in no way happened is profoundly depressing and unsurprising. Coming just days after Met policeman apparently dubbed ‘rapist’ by colleagues got away with his own exposure play repeatedly before actually raping and murdering a woman, the expectation of a massive rise in domestic violence and now serious bodily harm to all the women and girls those irresponsible football fans will go on to infect, with women some 5 times more likely to suffer the longterm debilitating harms of Long Covid, sadly our society is no closer to full reflection and improvement, partly because of profound gender concentration of power. It augurs badly for humanity’s prospects for even beginning to tackle the oncoming horrors of climate change – now with two apparent ‘black swan’ events two years in a roa (Australian Fire Apocalypse 2020 & now Canada hotter than Dubai) – it’s not unlikely we’re looking at multi-continental climate and food chain disaster by 2030 and hard to really have hope for the prospects of the real change we need to survive.

    Dear god.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Well put Ariel. The fact they seemingly can’t wait to jump on a plane abroad for their full English epitomises that nothing is going to change. I often think the world would be a much better place if we only had women politicians. Sure you can point to scum like Thatcher & Patel as a counter argument but maybe their excesses would be tempered by an all woman party. Westminster isn’t devoid of the type of men who become homicidal because of trivia like football. As Mo Mowlam would’ve said “I tell you what, boys. Let’s start this meeting again. Only this time, no c0cks on the table.”

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        Edit: Politics for Westminster.

    2. Colin Robinson says:

      Bread and circuses, Ariel; bread and circuses.

  2. Tom Ultuous says:

    Covid’s coming home.

    Good article Mike.

  3. Colin Robinson says:

    Although Southgate’s England is undoubtedly progressive in purely footballing terms. I reckon the England national team is currently in a good place.

  4. Glasgow Clincher says:

    An excellent article. I would just point out that in 1978 Scotland were ‘adopted’ as Britain’s representatives and our matches were beamed into homes in the rest of the UK in just the way you deplore this time. Difference was, we proceeded to make right fannies of ourselves by losing to Peru after the most absurd triumphalism epitomised by Ally McLeod.

    1. Papko says:

      That’s what I was going to say.
      Scotland’s arrogance in 1978 was something to behold.
      And we were rightly undone by Peru.

      The fact it was the best team Scotland ever had since is also forgotten.
      I thought England were going to win at one point,they had done well to get to the final and were steadily improving with every game.
      The fact they missed out on playing Spain, France and Belgium suggests to me they will never get a route to the final like that again.
      But fair play to Southgate and his team they showed humility and character and entertained us for a month.

    2. We did make right fannies of ourselves, it’s true. Though neither then nor now does Scotland have broadcasting autonomy, so we didn’t beam anything into anywhere at any time.

    3. Hamish100 says:

      England had its own commentators in 78 as ours weren’t deemed good enough or maybe English enough to broadcast direct to Elephant and castle.
      Maybe they couldn’t risk hearing Scots voices supporting a Scotland team.

      Thought you would know that. Oh, of course you did.

      1. Papko says:

        “England had its own commentators in 78 as ours weren’t deemed good enough or maybe English enough to broadcast direct to Elephant and castle.
        Maybe they couldn’t risk hearing Scots voices supporting a Scotland team.

        Thought you would know that. Oh, of course you did.”

        I was never aware of that.
        The fact that English accents commentated on Scotland’s games in 1978, and Scotland did not have Broadcasting autonomy at the time.
        Does extenuate the overweening pride that Scots felt when they gathered at Hamden to see the team off.
        Did Andy Cameron not compose a catchy ditty -which I remember singing at the time.

        Did we really believe we were going to shake them up when we won the World Cup?

        1. Scotland doesn’t have broadcasting autonomy now – nor did it then. It’s a reserved power.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Since the advent of the WWW, we all have broadcasting autonomy. Bella’s an example of that.

        2. Hamish100 says:


          Are you a bot. In Glasgow in polite areas it is also called an erse!!

          Of course there was hype, supported by the same press that then hounded Scotland. Some hype was believed such as the fact some tartan army fans had hired a submarine. Nobody questioned why a boat wasn’t an option.
          It was fun while it lasted.

          1. Colin Robinson says:


            Anyway, I’ve always found it ironic that the home of Scottish football was named after the Englishman, John Hampden, who fought for Parliament in the English Civil War.

  5. Daniel Raphael says:

    Excellent. Sending along to the Usual Suspects.

  6. Paul Rowland says:

    So, no hard feelings then about England’s successful Euro 2020 campaign. Nice one, Mike.

    By the way, and while we’re on the subject of self-delusion – congratulations on your glorious nil-nil victory over the English the other night.


    1. England did really great, they were deserved finalists. The team is full of young talented players.

      It would be great to respond to the substantive points in the article?

  7. SleepingDog says:

    I broadly agree with the social commentary, but the additional point about the character of the match commentary and punditry was caused by the England team being rather boring while efficiently grinding out results. You can see that Italy created twice as many chances in their 7 games as England did, even if by-and-large English chances were better goal-scoring opportunities on average: https://www.uefa.com/uefaeuro-2020/statistics/teams/attempts/?sortBy=attempts

    This led to tense and nervy game commentary where a lot of historical rubble was used as infill in the voids between English attempts on goal, and rather strained half-time analysis. Exacerbating this was the tendency of England’s attacking players (Sterling, Kane and Mount) to cheat and dive (simulation). I don’t think any were any bookings for this, which encouraged the practice. Sterling should have been booked several times for trying to get penalties, including against Scotland. This does not look good if you are trying to make a stand for social justice. But to be fair, Sterling did seem to throw off this habit in the second half against Italy, where he could have gone down a couple of times in penalty box runs but refrained.

    The lack of England chances also fed through to their supporters in the crowd, who were left less united as a result. While Scottish fans were united in anguish as their team missed chance after chance. I am not criticising Gareth Southgate’s grind tactics, but some of the reactions to the games were predictable, as they were not as exciting and unifying as they could have been; his strategy of swapping of those elements for success very nearly paid off.

    1. Mouse says:

      I thought 1-1 was a fair result for both teams.

      It was better than watching the Scottish lads and wondering if they would ever score a goal. In the whole tournament. A great improvement on when they used to go ‘oh no it’s Iceland – they’re quite good’. Wish the manager would cheer up, though – he’s even more miserable than Andy Murray.

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        A fair result my @rse. England were totally outplayed (39% possession) and were fortunate to get the sob story of a penalty defeat.

  8. Mouse says:

    ‘The only difference is we wouldn’t have beamed the entire experience into our neighbour’s national broadcasting.’

    We did. Twice. Welsh pundits did it three times. Get real, and get over it instead of spouting rubbish.

    Not interested in reading political bollocks about ball games. Could ask why the whole Scottish team play in England… And the manager is also from an English team…. Must be a reflection of the state of the game in Scotland. No two ways about that.

    1. My someone’s triggered.

      We didn’t.

      “Scotland was the only nation competing at Euro 2020 that did not have its own end-to-end national broadcasting set-up” :

      The whole Scottish team don’t play in England.
      ” And the manager is also from an English team …”. Do you mean Kilmarnock?

      Watch your tone.

    2. James Mills says:

      Mouse : Making comments about things when you do not have a grasp of the facts is not a good look !

      Must be a reflection of the state of your research . No two ways about that !

    3. Iain MacLean says:

      Having lived in England, Scotland, Scottish life, politics, sport or culture is seldom covered or a talking point in the English (uk) press or tv. The ignorance or lack of interest displayed in Scotland is staggering! However, we in Scotland do not have the option to be ignorant or disinterested in England, it’s omnipresent on our TVs and papers!

      Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, you have no examples or grounds to state the coverage is on par with that of England’s, be it quantity or quality. In Scotland, prior to Scotland’s elimination from the Euros, living in Scotland you will have received more press and tv about England than Scotland!

      This chimes with bbc coverage of Scottish football in general, Scottish football in Scotland receives inferior coverage to that of English football in Scotland! Scottish football coverage in Scotland on a Saturday or Sunday follows coverage of English football on Scottish screens! One could almost conclude the bbc are determined to undermine opportunities for Scotland to rally behind a cause, the exact opposite of the bbc’s actions towards England!

      Politics is now engrained in every aspect of life, the tories culture war will exacerbate this situation, so whether you are interested or not, it’s happened and in Scotland.and it’s unionism that is pushing this agenda. Unionism jumps to criticise Scotland’s performance or fans, whilst robustly defending England. A strange position to take, a position you seem to have adopted!

      The whole of the Scottish football team does not play in England!

      The manger is not from an English team, he took the Scotland job whilst at Kilmarnock!

      As others have commented, best do some research before commenting on topics you have little knowledge on!

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        ‘Having lived in England, Scotland, Scottish life, politics, sport or culture is seldom covered or a talking point in the English (uk) press or tv.’

        Why would it, Iain? Folk in the different regions of England are more interested in their own local life, politics, sport, and culture than in ours. Accordingly, they have their own local content, just like we do.

        And before you start: it’s not for the BBC to give us our own independent ‘national’ output; that’s for us to get together and produce for ourselves (the clue’s in the word ‘independent’).

        If we aspire to independence, we really have to surpass our dependence on institutions like the BBC.

        1. BSA says:

          What a fatuous comment.
          I take it you will expect England to take the same DIY approach to their broadcasting.

    4. BSA says:

      The BBC Networks across all programmes cater exclusively for England and BBC Scotland is a token. That was never more obvious than in the Euros and there is nothing apparently that we can do about it except stop paying the Licence.

  9. Niemand says:

    It’s 55 years of ‘hurt’, not 30.

    What strikes me is that it all hinges on what you focus on and how much weight you give it.

    Yes, you can focus on the racist incidents committed by a handful of racists and extrapolate major claims about a nation’s psyche from that. You can attack the government for being hypocrites (agreed).

    Or you could focus on the very obvious shift in support for England to be miles more inclusive than ever before. This is obvious from the coverage and ethnic
    minorities speaking up.

    What is at stake here is that changing, broadening of support is part of the important question of what it means to be English, a category that is no longer simply the ethnic white person. This is very significant, yet here it is claimed this is ‘overstated’. England is a ‘broken’ nation, and yet it is no more broken than Scotland is. Rawnsley is not ‘completely missing’ the point, he just isn’t making the point you want. A researcher on the radio today said his research had shown 10% of people in England think you have to be white to be English. A very small percentage of those will be the racists. Yet we focus on the 10% and the racists (and the government hypocrites) and say look at how bad it is. It is a skewed analysis that is ignorant of key things that are actually going on.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      “Or you could focus on the very obvious shift in support for England to be miles more inclusive than ever before. This is obvious from the coverage and ethnic
      minorities speaking up.”

      Is it? You only see / hear what the media wants you to see.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        No, Tom; you only see and hear what you use the media to see and hear. The trouble is that too many people use it passively and trustingly rather than actively and judiciously.

        1. Tom Ultuous says:

          “The trouble is that too many people use it passively and trustingly rather than actively and judiciously.”

          Yip, and I’m saying in this case Niemand is either one of those people or is quite happy to propagate shit that backs his case.

    2. It’s not. It’s 30. Its from the song. Here’s the chorus:
      (It’s coming home) Three lions on a shirt
      (It’s coming home, it’s coming) Jules Rimet still gleaming
      (Football’s coming home
      It’s coming home) Thirty years of hurt

      My point about Rawnsley is that the kind of gestural celebrity politics gets over-hyped because of these superstars status. I don’t think it’s a sign of great success that a man who gets paid £9m+ is more effective at being the opposition than the opposition.

      I applaud a more inclusive idea of Englishness, though it is 2021. I’m note sure this is a very high bar.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Yes, I agree, Mike. The use of celebrity to raise awareness about injustices in our society and globally does get overhyped. It’s a thorough unsatisfactory way of motivating the public to pressure the government for change. Superstars like Rashford should just keep their mouths shut about stuff like child poverty.

        1. Clearly not. That will be why I said “His conduct and his campaign have been exemplary and inspiring”. But pretending performative gestural stances can replace social movements is clearly ridiculous.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Clearly ridiculous it is.

            But try telling that to all those who from time to time indulge in ‘performative gestural stances’ like taking a knee, or marching for independence, or raising a clenched fist when being sworn in as an MSP.

          2. The point isn’t to denigrate all gestural actions but to suggest that there is a problem if they become the primary rather than the secondary face of action and revolt/struggle.

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            That would indeed be a problem. But I still think that celebrity actions and social media moments are agents of change insofar as they shape our consciousness around issues like disability, poverty, racism, misogyny, etc.

          4. Colin Robinson says:

            I think Tyrone Mings got the value of ‘performative gestural stances’ exactly right in his statement this morning in response to Priti Patel’s equally dismissive comment about them.

            (I also found Marcus Rashford’s most recent statement eloquent and profoundly moving when I heard it performed by an actor this morning. I think these guys are doing sterling work in helping to change society’s perception of racism – and ‘Britishness’.)

    3. Drew Anderson says:

      Anyone who uses skin colour as an absolute criterion for inclusion within a national group is a racist. How you can claim only “a small percentage” are actually racist beggars belief.

      Some of them might not be out and out white supremacists, but being pig-ignorant doesn’t absolve them of racism; even if they’re casually so.

  10. SleepingDog says:

    I would add that sometimes representation in some fields (like sport) can be a result of lack of opportunities elsewhere. Racism features some of the criticisms about the England Women’s team selection. Ex-England forward Eni Aluko has suggested that an increasing elite-training focus in English women’s game may be disadvantaging the urban poor who used to be better-represented (from around 4:50): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibzlwJmwbrw

    One positive aspect has been more women with professional insights into the game in pundit and commentary roles (where the average quality of male punditry remains a low bar to exceed). The foreign pundits are often exceeding tame, although few sink to the depths of Stockholm Syndrome sufferer Jurgen Klinsmann.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      That’s an interesting point, SD. I suppose the justice of the system will depend on the criteria and methodology used to recruit candidates to elite training and whether or not they comply with our chosen measure of fairness.

  11. Paula Becker says:

    Ireland, France and Greece announce that they are now apartheid States with vaccinations mandatory for hospitals, public transport, hospitality venues, supermarkets and all health workers. Mike Small writes about the football.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      No, he’s writing about the state of British society and the political narratives that have sprung up around the England national football team as a high-profile cultural phenomenon from a particular ideological perspective. This is what he does. This is what Bella’s for. He’s also written about COVID and our response to it many times in a similar vein.

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