If football does indeed come home this summer, you have me to thank. Because it was me that set in motion the inexorable wheels of destiny on 30 September 1997.
It was a damp Tuesday night at St. James’ Park, Newcastle. Les Ferdinand had just poached the second of two goals to put the Toon ahead against Aston Villa. Gareth Southgate, seemingly rebuilding his career after the disastrous penalty miss at Euro 1996, miscued a clearance and stumbled in the direction of the crowd – headlong towards where I was seated.
“You’re rubbish Southgate,” I called out (I was never one for the witty banter of the terraces or the down-and-dirty language of the footballing gutter). And for some reason, despite facing a cascading black and white wall of far more cutting catcalls, he seemed to take exception to my comment.
So it was that our eyes met.
It was more than he could bear. Agonising hours of self-doubt and self-loathing. Days and weeks of half-heard insults. Months of sleepless nights. They all reached a crescendo right there, right then. He snapped.
Looking up at me with a stare that would have petrified Medusa, he sneered. Snarled. Shook his sweaty locks. And I knew in that instant that I’d fixed him. Never again would he be a loser. Never again would he fail in the face of fierce opposition. Never again would he snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
No, really, there’s no need for thanks. I was simply doing my bit for Queen and Country.
And so to this weekend. When I think about the England team (in that I include Gareth and his battalion of backroom staff), I do start to wonder whether they’re pulling off the greatest marketing trick of the modern era.
Dele, Raheem, Harry and the boys certainly have social media nailed. There’s no-one more au fait with a meme, a spot of Photoshop head-swappery or a pure-bants tweet here and there.
And the brand. Oh, the brand. ‘Refreshing’. ‘Unassuming’. ‘Courageous. ‘Approachable’. Their values are so right-on they could have come straight out of the Corbynista playbook.
There’s the Southgate Waistcoat which screams post-hipster irony. Trippier’s back-to-school tram lines. Lingard’s leggings (are they plus fours? Jodhpurs? Something not yet encountered by this middle-aged spreader?). Every sartorial statement. Every coiffured cue. Every dapper detail. They’re all designed to catch the eye. Interest the onlooker. Fascinate the nation.
They’ve reached out. Said the right things to the right people in the right ways. Engaged their audiences. Convinced their clientele. Promoted the hell out of their well-honed proposition. It’s been a work of genius – a campaign for the ages.
But herein lies the rub. They’re definitely marketing world beaters. True champions in first-class communications. And top-of-the table when it comes to premier-league PR.
I’m just not sure if they’re any good at football yet.
*Header illustration courtesy of the wonderful Joe Underwood. Thanks Joe!