A lifetime of near-misses: The real story of England's football superfans

Anyone who follows football, with a few notable exceptions, is well aware that winning isn't as important as everyone makes out. Sure, watching your club lift a European trophy or league title is a wonderful experience, but most fans across the world will never have that luxury.

When it comes to international football, it's even worse - the trophies are scarcer for everyone, and if you've had the misfortune (in football terms) of being born in a smaller country, you can't even be sure of qualifying for global or continental tournaments.

England fans don't generally have the last of those worries - they've only failed to make it to one tournament in the 21st century - but we now have two generations of match-going fans who aren't old enough to have seen their country win a major trophy. And no, before you ask, Le Tournoi doesn't count.

The fans expect. Can England deliver?

There's still time to play Spin & Goal on PokerStars, which gives fans the chance to win BetStars tickets and predict how the other matches in Russia will go. However, there are some fans for whom the results don't seem to matter. We're talking about those long-suffering fans who have continued to follow the Three Lions to major tournaments win, lose or draw.

The one that nearly was

The painful loss to Germany at Euro 96 still lingers in the memory for many, but the impact of that game is twofold: yes, it was a moments-from-glory experience which was also an entire generation's first exposure to international football after England's failure to qualify for the World Cup two years prior, but it was also, importantly, on home soil.

Anyone born in the 80s or later - in other words, those too young to have travelled to Italy in 1990 as adults - will know England's form on the road gives far less cause for optimism, so there's been more of a sense of enjoying the ride.
"I've seen England play in numerous campaigns at home and three tournaments and it feels like I'm yet to see a good performance," says Jacob, whose first experience of an England tournament game involved a Rob Green error and an uninspiring draw with the United States in South Africa eight years ago.

"It's all about the fun of being away and ultimately the hope. That said there have been numerous times, after both Slovakia and Iceland in 2016 that I swore I'd never do it again, yet here I am."

Deep pockets

Those wishing to follow England without it draining them financially will often find themselves booking early and then making it work for them, rather than waiting until close to the first game.

Joe, who has travelled to countries such as Slovakia and Slovenia for qualifying games, has learned from experience and saved hundreds of pounds by sorting things out at the earliest possible moment, while Colin started to consider his options when he signed up for the ticket draw last October, and tells me he "can almost taste the vodka!". "Going away with England can be as cheap or as expensive as you choose to make it, to a degree," Joe notes. "Of course, the match ticket price is pretty much out of your hands, but you can make sacrifices in flights and hotels if one is particularly costly."

Supporting England at major tournaments is about the experience as much as the football

There's a difference between travelling to support your club and doing the same for your country: with the former, you're rarely in a new city or country for more than a day or two. Indeed, plenty of England fans won't even have that, if they follow one of the multitude of clubs to have never qualified for Europe in their lifetime.

"I think quite often England fans are from smaller clubs, perhaps those not used to success or European ties," Jacob notes. "There seems to be an acceptance that we're not that good but it's about having a good time and enjoying everything around it. Being in a host city really does feel like you're in the centre of the world."

Russian calling

The World Cup, as with the European Championships in France two years ago and Brazil two years before that, will be very different for the most committed fans.

While covering the Euros in France two years ago, staying in Marseille and Nice, I encountered plenty of fans whose teams weren't playing in those cities and even some - from Scotland and Norway - whose countries weren't even involved in the tournament. The games might be densely packed, but there's still plenty of time to mingle with fans of other countries in the host cities when your country has a day off.

"Part of the fun of a World Cup is meeting fans from other countries and sharing your love for the game with them," Jacob explains. "Throughout my time following England I'd say my favourite memories are often just chatting to people from other nations."

Colin concurs: "I've always gone for the group stages at tournaments as it's the most exciting part... football all day every day surrounded by loads of fans from all over."

The calm before the storm

And, for all the headlines about trouble between English and Russian fans in Marseille, most have seen that as the exception rather than the rule. There is a balance to be struck between fans at Wembley "more of a family type atmosphere," according to Colin, while Jacob plumps for the less forgiving description of "absolutely awful" due to vocal fans being spread over the vast expanse of Wembley.

Marseille was, in Joe's words, "as bad as I have seen it" in terms of England fans, while Jacob argues even that was overblown in terms of English involvement.
"Every fan group has a few idiots who spoil it but it would be wrong to label everyone in general as that bad. That said, England fans are frankly a disgrace at times," he says.

"[Singing about] World War stuff is so outdated and it's the boorish behaviour of some idiots, as seen in Amsterdam recently, that makes the media and wider football public think that we're all thugs.
"In the aftermath of the Marseille violence I remember reading reports online blaming England fans when in reality it was not our fault whatsoever. People jump to those impressions because of the way we as a fanbase do behave at times. It's a never-ending circle that doesn't help anybody."

Optimistic outlook

Most of the fans I've spoken to haven't been put off by stories about Russian football fans, or indeed the troubles between England and Russia supporters in Marseille in 2016. Quite the contrary, in fact, with many looking forward to taking in a football culture they've yet to encounter while following their club sides.

"After landing in Moscow on June 13, we are there for the long-haul," Joe tells me. "Aside from myself, as I didn't see much point, our collective have tickets guaranteed all the way up to the final - should England reach it - with mine stretching until the semis."

Even those who are used to disappointment - and that's a lot of fans - won't even consider cutting their trips short if and when England get eliminated. Put simply, watching your country in a major tournament is only part of the fun.

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While many tend to have their close-knit groups to begin with, these groups will tend to expand by the time you're on your second or third England away day. You can even find yourself in a tiny hidden-away sports bar in an unfamiliar city and get recognised by another group of supporters with whom you crossed paths in Paris, or Manaus, or Rustenburg.

A major tournament feels like one of those environments where normal rules don't apply. It's a month-long party, and the best thing about parties is trying to sneak into places you're not supposed to be, safe in the knowledge that you'll be able to flee the country and escape any consequences if it comes to that. And few have better stories than Jacob when it comes to the sort of events you'd think ridiculously far-fetched if they hadn't happened to you.

"I have too many great memories from all the away days but one that sticks in the mind was in South Africa in 2010," he begins. "It was one of our final nights there and we decided to go check out this sky bar at the Radisson in Jo'burg. When we arrived at the hotel we were escorted up a back entrance and into a VIP area, with somebody wrongly thinking we were important.
"We were being interviewed on TV and then me and my friend went to a bar before I remarked the guy next to us looked like Arsene Wenger. It actually was and suddenly we realised that everyone around us was a footballer, Dwight Yorke, Steve McManaman, Patrick Vieira, Edgar Davids and more.

"The night saw me offer to let [former Manchester City striker] Benjani move into my parents spare room if he signed for Plymouth Argyle (he didn't), before I taught Jay-Jay Okocha about a dance that was "sweeping the country".
"Jay-Jay watched me make bunny ears with my hands before squatting and bouncing around the dance floor, before then doing it himself. In short, Jay-Jay Okocha is an absolute legend."

*some names have been changed.

Tom Victor
@@tomvictor in Features