A tale of three semi-finals

Toby World Cup semi-final red card

Italia ’90. Euro ’96. Russia 2018. A third major tournament semi-final in my lifetime for the England men’s football team. In the end, though, it wasn’t to be third time lucky for the Three Lions.

However, Gareth Southgate and his squad achieved something few other England teams have: exit a tournament with their heads held high, without recriminations or accusations of underperforming. For a few brief weeks they united the nation – and brought waistcoats back into fashion.

Three semi-finals in my lifetime. Three different phases of my life.

Italia ’90

Age: 19. Status: Single. Song: New Order’s World in Motion.

David Platt’s last-gasp volley in the final minute of extra time to defeat Belgium. Gazza’s tears. Pearce and Waddle missing penalties as England lost to West Germany in the semi-final. And a John Barnes rap.

The end of my first year at university was not, it must be said, a high point in my life. I felt like a fish out of water, struggling academically with a subject I didn’t enjoy. There were good aspects, of course: friends, sports, cheap beer in student bars. But overall I felt rudderless. I had expected the independence of being away from home to be liberating; I found it disconcerting. I thought I would be able to find my own direction; instead I was lost.

I would finish my university career with a mediocre degree and battered self-esteem. But I also found my future wife. So, you know, upsides.

Euro ’96

Age: 25. Status: Engaged. Song: Three Lions, The Lightning Seeds featuring David Baddiel and Frank Skinner.

*That* goal by Gazza against Scotland. The 4-1 win over the Netherlands. Pearce’s scream of redemption as England actually won a penalty shootout (against Spain). Losing to the Germans (again) in the semi after Gareth Southgate’s penalty was saved. (Whatever happened to him?) Football came home as England hosted the tournament; the European Championship trophy, alas, did not.

Two years after Heather and I got engaged; a year before our wedding. We had finally moved in together six months previously and watched most of Euro 96 on a 14-inch portable TV in our college flat.

It meant I was doing a 100-mile round trip to work every day in the little Citroen Saxo we had bought together the week before the tournament started. But we were happy. Life was simple, uncomplicated. Thoughts of starting a family were still some years away.

Also, who remembers this Pizza Hut advert, released in the aftermath of England’s penalty exit?

Russia 2018

Age: 47. Status: Married with three kids. Songs: A Boy Obsessive and Three Lions 2018, both by yours truly.

Harry Kane’s last-gasp winner against Tunisia. Finally, victory in a World Cup penalty shootout (against Colombia). The agony of yet another semi-final defeat – at least it wasn’t on penalties and to the Germans again. Gareth Southgate’s waistcoats. Football nearly came home.

This year was the first time any of our kids had shown any real interest in football. Toby went from mild interest in April to full-on football fever by the time the World Cup started in mid-June. Kara learned the words to Three Lions. And even Isaac, the least sporty of our kids, watched the England games with us.

2018 was the first time football became a family experience for us. No hurrying the kids off to bed before the start of a game or at half-time. Watching clips of England games from 1996 and leaping a silent jump of joy when Toby excitedly pointed at the screen and shouted, “That’s David Seaman!” Being issued with a red card by my own giggling son.

Football is all about the occasional highs and all too frequent lows. But this year’s tournament has been a real high for me. Not just because of England’s unexpectedly strong performances but because of the shared family experience. It’s almost enough to make me forget about last night’s defeat. Almost.

I wonder, though: how long will it be until we reach another semi? And will football ever come home in either my or my children’s lifetimes? Roll on phase four – let’s see what life (and football) has in store for us …


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