Football is tribal. Despite an outcry from some portions of Irish society for "maturity", an emotion apparently displayed by cheering on football teams from neighbouring countries, it's very normal, and completely harmless for Irish football fans to enjoy/long for England's inevitable demise.
We watch English football and we consume English media, yet we are not English. The proximity only fuels the rivalry. We don't ask Liverpool fans to cheer on Manchester United in a cup final. We don't expect Meath fans to join the Dubs on Hill 16 for an All-Ireland final. We don't even expect Scottish fans to cheer on the English, just the Irish.
Ger Loughnane once said that rivalry is not emnity, and this obviously applies here. Yes, English fans' behaviour is irking. Yes, their sensationalist media coverage drives us mad,. Yes, Declan Rice kissing the Three Lions two years after playing senior international football for Ireland is infuriating. But it's not that. It's that we're Irish, and the big country with a chance of winning tournaments just a few miles away is England. We're small, they're big. We can't win anything, so we take joy in them not either. It's just sport.
Of course, the "maturity" crowd don't understand that. Some inbuilt need for Ireland for forget its history and move into a world of friendship and happiness misses that cheering on football teams has nothing whatsoever to do with that. In fact, keeping tribalism, and even nationalism, as a purely sporting endeavour in some ways protects it from its far more serious and disturbing potential.
All of that brings us to this England team, and their "likeable" group of players. And there, sadly, the Support England brigade have a point.
It's easy to dismiss some of the actions of the England's players, and even their manager in recent years, but they have continuously put their head above the parapet for what they believe in. They continue to take the knee before every game despite getting booed by their own supporters. Raheem Sterling dared to take on Fleet Street. We all know the incredible work and achievements of Marcus Rashford. The likes of Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane have been consistently good on social issues too, as have a number of others in the squad.
In the face of calls to stick to sport, the English players have refused to reduce themselves merely footballers a nation can get behind. They insist on using their platform to express what is important to them, and it's admirable.
Henderson yesterday reached out to a English supporter who had tweeted about his experience going to Wembley for the first time "in full makeup and overtly queer". Players can wear Pride armbands and talk about equality all day long, but Henderson actually putting himself out there for a specific case like this is a much more important action, and one he didn't have to do.
Hi Joe great to hear you enjoyed the game as you should. No one should be afraid to go and support their club or country because football is for everyone no matter what. Thanks for your support, enjoy the rest of the Euros. 💪🏻🏳️🌈 https://t.co/xHqXgDj1h7
— Jordan Henderson (@JHenderson) June 30, 2021
There was no pressure on Henderson to send such a message to appear to be for equality. It's not some ruse to make them look good. It's an important symbol from a leader of the English football team to call, in a real way, for inclusivity and equality.
They way many of the English players have behaved in the face of post-Brexit Britain, a sometimes hostile government, a country veering towards intolerance, and the ever worsening right wing media, is a credit to themselves and their country. They represent what England should be about, while so many more try to take it off course.
But that's real life. When they play football, it's just sport.
So I won't be supporting England against Ukraine or anyone else. Will the tears of Jordan Henderson still taste sweet when he misses the defining penalty against Denmark in the semi-final at Wembley? Of course it will. Because that's the tribalism that makes sport what it is.
But if it goes the other way, is it the end of the world? Will we be okay with a group of players (and a manager) who have led the way for equality and social justice, even in the face of opposition from their own fans, who have stood up against media stereotypes, and who have single handedly launched a movement to feed hungry children? Will we even be pleased for them?
Of course. Because that's sport too. And the English players, in fairness, are a credit to sport.
Until then though, Ukraine Abú.