Millennium Square

July 18th 2018

In theory, I could claim to have been twice thwarted this season in my plans to watch Yorkshire CCC in action. First, persistent rain prevented any play in the Royal London One-Day 50-over match against Nottinghamshire at Headingley (as reported in “Below Average”, 28th May 2018). Then, it was decided that last Wednesday’s scheduled fixture against Derbyshire in the Vitality Blast T20 on the same ground should be postponed until the end of the month in order to accommodate the desire of many (perhaps most) spectators (and players) to watch the England footballers contest the World Cup semi-final against Croatia.

I cannot tell a lie, however. I must confess that I was also in this category and would have taken my place in Wednesday’s fanzone in the Millennium Square in Leeds even if the cricket had taken place. England’s tally of three World Cup semi-finals in nearly 70 years of trying suggests that – in comparison with T20 cricket matches – these occasions do not come around very often.

And now the final has been played. The euphoria and disappointment will last for a while and then dissipate, perhaps slowly. The World Cup caravan will move on to Qatar in 2022.

The newspaper and television headlines about this year’s World Cup “fever” seem to have been reporting on a readily observable phenomenon. It has taken many forms, one example of which was no doubt replicated throughout England. On the bus journey from Carlisle to Workington that I took to watch a rugby match recently (“Oystercatchers and Blue Plaques”, 9th July 2018), I lost count of the displays of bunting and the flag of St George that were displayed from houses and pubs and other buildings. One flag draped from an upstairs bedroom window of a two-storey house stretched down to block the sunlight from entering the living room below; another dwelling’s garage doors had obviously been newly painted in the red and white; in one street, the decorations had been applied to several houses in a row, as if it were some sort of competition between neighbours. And this was suburban and semi-rural Cumbria – not a known hotbed of soccer passions – rather than the environs of Old Trafford or White Hart Lane.

Not everyone was caught up, of course. A few miles before Workington, two men – both in their 60s, I would guess – got on the bus and sat in the rows in front of me. One, wearing the slightly improbable combination of a WorkingtonTown rugby shirt and a golden earring, had a conversation with the back of his friend’s head as the latter looked forward from the seat in front. The conversation briefly strayed on to England’s quarter-final win over Sweden the day before.

Did you watch the soccer?”

First half. Then I switched off”.

£200,000 a week… Not £200,000 a month, mind… £200,000 a week”.

That was it. The rest of the conversation was on rugby league matters: Wigan’s recent narrow victory over Warrington; the acquisition by Hunslet (Workington’s opponents that day) of two players from Keighley; the dismissal by the Leeds Rhinos of their head coach, Brian McDermott, who had overseen the winning of eight major trophies in eight years… “It counts for nowt…

Even allowing for this minority – perhaps sizeable minority – view, I am left to wonder why it is that the World Cup gripped the nation’s imagination, even more so than usual.

Part of the explanation must obviously lie in England’s performance in reaching the semi-final, having defeated the might of Tunisia, Panama, Colombia (on penalties) and Sweden, even if the Second XI did lose to Belgium’s reserves in the final group match. In itself, the victory in a penalty shoot-out – the first by England at a World Cup – must have helped to release the pressure gauge. The identification with the national team tapped in to the basic urge towards tribalism and the seeking of meaning through association, which we see every week during the club season.

It is clear, also, that football enthusiasts and non-football followers alike have been more willing to identify with this England team, in contrast with some of its predecessors, because of the more acceptable qualities they demonstrated off the pitch. The manager came across as a decent and honourable man; the squad appeared to lack the egotistical non-performers of previous campaigns; the recent entrants to the team (John Stones, Kieron Trippier, Jesse Lingard) played with some skill.

However, more general factors were also surely at play. With the exception of the story of the heroic rescue of the young Thai football team and their coach from their refuge in the flooded cave complex, the current news agenda, typically, has not been one to raise the spirits: blundering and self-centred British politicians floundering about Brexit; societal divisions exposed by a visit to this country of an (elected) US President; death from the Novichok nerve agent in Wiltshire. There was an urgent requirement for something to bring the country together and the exploits of the footballers – plus the heatwave – somehow managed to do this.

And so to the Millennium Square in Leeds on Wednesday evening.

The first thing to report is that the City Council had designated the fanzone as alcohol-free. We were therefore spared the beer showers that characterised some of the other zones across the country – to the apparent amusement of the television news presenters and soccer pundits watching from the comfort of their distant studios, though not necessarily much fun for all those caught directly underneath. The Leeds zone had a proper cross-section of England support: chanting youths, families of all ages, office parties, groups of young men of Asian descent draped under the St George’s flag, Japanese tourists (?)… Leaning on the crash barrier next to me was a young woman of about 20: “Come on, England”, she yelled enthusiastically. I was the one – possibly, the only one – wearing an England rugby shirt.

The minutes counted down to the kick-off. The screen relayed the pre-match views from the ITV studio: Ian Wright was his customary bundle of patriotic nerves, Lee Dixon worried about the space that Croatia might exploit down the flanks, Roy Keane looked as if he were slightly bored by the whole proceedings. Then, the first roar as the scene shifted to the players waiting in the tunnel and the camera focused on Harry Kane. For the national anthem, everyone seated on the wooden benches or the concrete floor stood up to join the rest of us in a full-throated rendition. (The Croatian anthem was greeted by the chanting youths with a flurry of gesticulation and half-hearted booing. They can’t see or hear you, I thought, recognising as I did so that – of course – that would apply to all the sounds we were to make during the course of the evening).

Trippier converted his wonderful free-kick after five minutes. The huge roar engulfed the Square, the sound echoing back from the Leeds Civic Hall and the CityMuseum. We collectively raised our arms in triumph, then cheered again as the goal was replayed, this time admiring the skilful technique as well as the happy outcome.

We can reflect on the ifs and buts, but that doesn’t change the match result. If Kane and Lingard had taken their clear-cut chances in the first quarter, England would have been 3-0 up at half time. As it was, I sensed that I was not the only one to detect that, from about the half-hour mark, Croatia were gaining the upper hand. In the second half, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic controlled the midfield, creating the space on the wings from which the Croatian full-backs could launch their attacks – Lee Dixon had been right – whilst England increasingly resorted to the traditional route of long hopeful punts downfield.

The occupants of the fanzone kicked every ball and made every challenge of this compelling match. Croatia equalised and then, almost immediately, hit the post. Ashley Young was replaced by Danny Rose. “That’s four Yorkshiremen on the pitch now”, I helpfully informed my young neighbour, who smiled politely. In extra time, Stones had a header cleared off the line before, at the other end, Jordan Pickford made a point-blank save. The substitutions of Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson were greeted with appreciative applause for their efforts.

Croatia scored their winning goal. The match ended. The England support dispersed quietly into the Leeds night.

Somewhere between the Millennium Square and the front of the ArtGallery on the nearby Headrow, I managed to misplace the Stade de France baseball cap that I had acquired during a family holiday in 1999. Two losses in one evening.

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