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The Europeans; A Great Bunch of Lads

England, Northern Ireland, Eire and Wales have all featured in a celebration of British and Irish football in Europe over the last few weeks. It seems fitting, yet ironic doesn’t it, that immediately after the ‘Leave’ vote, so many people of the British Isles should be in France with the aim of progression in Europe. This time it’s football, but football is life.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

I did wonder this week whether the date of the referendum had been picked to coincide with the completion of the group stage of Euro 2016. With so many ‘home nations’ at the tournament, perhaps David Cameron thought we would be enveloped in a wave of pro-Euro enthusiasm.

Perhaps I read too many conspiracy stories; it’s a habit picked up from decades of watching the perennial victim of fate - Sunderland, for whom nothing is ever straightforward.   

Watching this post-referendum kerfuffle, it brought to mind the episode of Father Ted where Ted, bored, places a lamp shade on his head like a coolie hat and starts imitating a Chinaman. In the next shot he looks out of a window and sees three Chinese people watching him, and before long rumours are abound across Craggy Island that Ted is a racist.

It was the episode shot the day before Dermot Morgan died and the first one to be transmitted following his death. It is the one where Ted is standing behind a window with a perfectly placed square bit of dirt on it which gives him the appearance of Hitler. It is simply sitcom-perfection.

From then on Ted’s bewildered attempts at proving he is no racist become increasingly absurd until he inherits a collection of Nazi war memorabilia from his old friend Father Seamus Fitzpatrick. What follows could be so true of the rhetoric we’ve seen prior to, and since the ‘leave’ vote:

Colm: I hear you're a racist now, Father?

Father Ted: ...wh-what?

Colm: How'd you get interested in that type of thing?

Father Ted: Who said I'm a racist?!

Colm: Everyone's saying it, Father. Should we all be racist now? What's the official line the church has taken on this?

Father Ted: No! No-

Europe: I hear you’re a xenophobic now, Britain? What’s the official line Britain has taken on this?

Britain: …wh-what?

Europe: When did you get interested in that type of thing?

Father Seamus Fitpatrick in the episode was played by PJ Kavanah, a cameo from his day job as a poet, writer and columnist. Kavanagh was at Heysel in May 1985, when thirty nine people were killed. He was there with the artist Jeffrey Johnson.

Some of you will remember Johnson, and you will have seen his work which includes a stunning painting of Roker Park from 1978. It’s only four inches high by six inches across, but you can make out the individual players and faces in the banks of the Roker End and Clock Stand corner as they were in the late seventies.

The morning of June 22nd 1985, following English clubs’ banishment from European football as a result of Heysel, PJ Kavanagh put his thoughts to paper. "What marvellous news it is, that English football clubs have been banned" he wrote, before reflecting on England losing an innocence; watching itself rioting on terraces whilst 39 people lay dead in the car park outside.

Kavanagh talks about his friend, Johnson being a "devout Sunderland supporter" who has "loved football all his live with a fierce partisanship". Most of us can relate to that. Partisanship is British and it’s Sunderland; and maybe it made our island, our club and our football great. Partisanship is not always bad despite what we’re told; but in 1985 it was taken to an extreme with no basis. Kavanagh reflects on how Europe perceived the English of that night.

"Nobody can stand our guts……The rest of Europe has had enough of all that, has kicked us out, and quite right too"

That was in 1985 and it was about football. But, on Thursday, a little over thirty years later, Britain finally had enough of Europe. And quite right too? Well, that’s your call.

Discussing the state of French football with a Frenchman recently, he bemoaned the demise of Ligue 1; its growing resemblance to Scotland’s Premier League and the decline of once great clubs like Marseille, Lyon and Monaco. The answer? He said it is complex; but, that whatever it is, he hoped it is "not like England’s answer" – specifically, the sanitising of stadiums and raising of ticket prices.

He has a point, but that ‘sanitisation’ of English football was a necessity to allow us back into Europe. English football was a scourge and Europe could take no more and kicked us out. Ultimately, that process of cleansing resulted in the English Premier League being one of the richest and safest leagues in Europe. Most people would not think twice about taking a child to an English top class fixture today. Perhaps, in part, we have Europe to thank for that.

In 1985 PJ Kavanagh concluded that the violence at Heysel was because we were a "xenophobic and warlike race". He argued anti-European attitudes somehow sanctioned and endorsed the chauvinism of the terraces when we went abroad. He said that once we joined the European Common Market, all we did was scream we want ‘our money back’.

Remember the ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman’ jokes of old? No one tells them anymore. "An Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman enter a bar, and all stare into their pints ashamed to be part of a joke about stereotypes". In Marseille recently, a Russian walked in and asked ‘who will fight me’, oblivious to the fact most English hooligans are retired now. He probably also wondered where the Scotsman was.  

So, now that we’ve got a chance to get a bit of ‘something’ back, be it national pride and identity or control of our destiny; we might just get our money back as well. We are a better nation for having being in the European Union. We are a more tolerant nation and we are a more progressive nation. It just didn’t work out. Maybe being ‘Europeans’ didn’t suit us. All the while we’ve been integrating ourselves in Europe, we’ve been getting crapper at European competitions, the Champions and Europa Leagues. Maybe we’ll do better with a restored national identity.

A bright new future may yet emerge. What must never happen though, is Britain returning to its European nights of 1985. The Europeans; a great bunch of lads.