I sit alone in a Milanese bar, just around the corner from the San Siro. My hand shakes with nerves as I reach out and grab my pint. Tomorrow’s the big day: France v England, the beginning of either my Italian adventure or my Italian… Failure? Humiliation? Either word would do. I was advised against coming out alone, but I feel like I need a bit of time to think away from my staff and squad. I take a swig of beer and glance around. The bar’s almost deserted aside from an old couple drinking quietly at the bar and a golden retriever sprawled across one of the sofas, snoring gently. I won’t lie, I’m pretty pissed. Nearly 4 pints in and I’m pretty pissed. I hope I prove tomorrow that I’m a better strategist than I am a drinker.
I don’t feel English tonight. I feel like I’m unraveling under the pressure. My upper lip is far from stiff. My blitz spirit has abandoned me. Noel Coward once satirised: “Though the English are effete, they’re quite impervious to heat.” I do not feel impervious to heat. I feel incredibly pervious in fact. “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” he’d sang, poking fun at my compatriots’ refusal to align themselves with foreign customs like siestas while abroad and to instead stay outside and carry on with their duties as they’re slowly cooked alive. It’s always struck a chord with me, that song. It may be more universal than I realise, but I certainly feel like I have a genetic predisposition for putting myself in needlessly stressful and torturous situations in the name of a well intentioned but ill-advised sense of determination. Christ, I may as well just buy myself a “Keep calm and carry on” tea cosy and retire. Maybe I’ll buy a bungalow in Bournemouth and live out the rest of my days going out to the park to feed the squirrels.
I suddenly hear the door of the bar slam open as raucous laughter spills in from the street. I turn to see a small group of men stumble across the threshold. It is immediately and painfully obvious to me that they’re English. Ironically my first clue is their severe sunburns, then their flip-flops and most tellingly of all, their replica England shirts, presumably plucked from a Sports Direct clearance bin before the company and it’s owner were forced into administration a few years ago. I can tell that this is the case because these particular shirts were quite clearly pre-printed with player names that the shop just couldn’t shift. The man at the front, a squat gentleman with barely any hair and absolutely no neck, wears “Shorey 3” on his back, while his two comrades proudly sport “Jeffers 11” and “Bothroyd 20”. They can’t have paid more than 50p each for these.
I smirk at the shirt names. I smirk silently and for the briefest of moments, but my timing is typically and perfectly awful, as if a surgeon’s scalpel has made a precisely measured incision in time and transplanted Shorey looking up to see me smirking back at him. I jerk my head back to face the bar and take a swig of my drink, hoping despite the clear evidence that he hasn’t noticed me. After a couple of seconds, a shadow is cast over me suggesting the contrary.
I turn my neck to face them. Shorey’s jowly face is uncomfortably close to my own as Jeffers and Bothroyd flank him. Shorey smiles. It’s a smile that could curdle milk. It’s a smile that could curdle milk that’s still inside a cow. His entire face constricts with a painful looking forced-pleasantness before he croaks “Bonjour” in an outrageously, overwhelmingly, cartoonishly cockney accent. The word is harsh and abrasive. I imagine you’d get a similar noise by taking a cheese grater to Danny Dyer’s vocal chords while he calls you a slag. I nod as cordially and as soberly as I can, but Shorey clearly isn’t finished talking. “Where’s all your French friends? Not surrendered the match already, have they?” I feel the hairs on the arms and the back of my neck stand on end, each individually growing furious as Jeffers and Bothroyd throw back their heads and howl with undeserved laughter.
“Probably surrendered already, haven’t they!” Adds Jeffers redundantly.
The laziness of their insults stays constant over the next minute or so as Shorey, Jeffers and Bothroyd continue to “slam” me and the French with razor sharp quips regarding frogs, cheese and WWII. I say nothing. I remain still. Football will do the talking, says a small voice in the back of my head. Don’t rise to it. I do momentarily consider punching Shorey in his fat little face, something I’ve never actually done before, after he makes a particularly scathing comment about croissants, but I feel like the night before my first Euro 2024 match would be a bad time to pop my fight cherry, so I continue to ignore them as best I can. Then they start singing “Three Lions”, because of course they bloody do.
“THREE LIONS ON A SHIRT” They drone. “JULES RIMET STILL GLEAMING…” There’s a short pause.
“Fifty-eight.” I offer. “It probably won’t fit very…”
“FIFTY-EIGHT YEARS OF HURT…” They blare.
“Never stopped me dreaming!” Sings a new voice. The four of us turn in astonishment to see Eddie Howe enter the bar, beaming as he sidles up to us.
The trio of fans cheer and give Eddie a surely unwanted combination of hair ruffling, back patting and bear hugs and to his credit, he chats with them for a few moments, before asking them to leave the two of us to talk.
“Fuck the metal bastard up, Eddie!” Shouts Bothroyd as the three of them stumble to the far end of the bar. Howe orders us both a drink and then turns to smile at me.
“Making friends?” He asks. I emit a snort of laughter.
“No wonder the world hates us.” I grin. He chuckles. The bartender places our pints down in front of us and we both take a long swig in silence. “So,” I continue eventually, “Joe Bell…” I raise my eyebrows.
“Oh don’t you start, for fucks sake.” Eddie groans, scrunching up his face defiantly. “Have you seen the strikers in my squad? Do you know how bloody difficult it was choosing one to leave out? But nobody wants to talk about Crammond or Kane, do they? Just Joe pissing Bell.”
“How many of them were top goal scorer in the Premier League this year though?” I grin.
“He’s no better than Nathan Andre.” He retorts.
“That’s below the belt… Nathan…”
“… Is the future of French football? Is already better than Nabil Fekir? Should be at this tournament?” He winks. “We can all sling mud at each others’ squads, son.”
“Fair enough.” I grin again and we both take another drink in silence.
“I imagine you’ll want to call it a day after that one.” He offers. “Big match tomorrow. Should be a good one, eh?”
I nod reluctantly but say nothing.
“You’ll be fine.” He continues, reading my mood. “Just look at Jackie Charlton. He was probably shitting himself too, but beating the English was one of the best things he did as a Manager. He’s still a legend over there in Ireland.”
“But what if he hadn’t beaten the English?” I ask. Eddie takes a moment to think on this.
“Well he was still a World Cup winner, wasn’t he.” We both start to laugh, but my laugh quickly turns into a yawn.
“That’s not all that helpful.” I chuckle drowsily.
“Look, just treat it like any other match. You’ve got a bloody good team and I assume you’ve done your homework on us. Don’t overthink it.” The corners of my mouth flicker upwards reflexively as he pauses for a moment. “And good luck.” He holds out a hand as I drain the rest of my pint. I shake it.
“Same to you”, I half smile, half gasp as I replace my glass on the bar. “You’re a class act you know, Eddie Howe.”
“I know, son.” He replies. “Who’d be a manager, eh?”
“Mad dogs and Englishmen.” I smile, before heading towards the door, my thoughts already on my scratchy hotel bed and a good night’s sleep ahead of the biggest match of my career.