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Hakuna Matata #4: A new dawn – England v Poland ’86

By Chris King

In a bedroom, in North West London, an 11 year old boy is woken by the light of a new day. The thin material of his curtains no match for the glare of the rising summer’s sun. In later years it will take him an age to rise from his bed; forever hitting the snooze button on his alarm – praying for five more minutes peace before the horrors of the daytime resume. But now, at such a tender age; he is up in an instant – resuming his intergalactic battle with figurines and transformable characters. All under the watchful eye of heroes – both fictional (superman wall paper) and sporting (an A1 poster of Glenn Hoddle).

At first glances it appears to be a normal, everyday morning – but on closer inspection, there is something different about his room today. As his head raises with the swooping motion of arm and robot in disguise, the boy notices an old, used envelope propped up against the mirror above his drawers. He moves closer to inspect the envelope, trying to guess what reason it had to be there? He could see there was nothing inside it – ripped as it was, with such haste so as to leave just one side intact.

The reason for the envelope being there soon became clear – it was trying to tell him something – through an excitable message scrawled in large letters on the side:

“We did it. 3-0”

England beating Poland in the 1986 World Cup was not my first memory of football. For one I didn’t even see the game – all I had to go on was that scrap bit of paper my Mum had used to write the result down on. There were also the two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup win I’d watched as a Spurs fan in the years before that tournament. Each with their defining memory – be it Ricky Villa’s mazy run or Tony Parkes “heroics” in the penalty shoot out – but those four years are like a dream in comparison to what followed throughout the next three decades.

I could, with clarity, even transport you back to the living room of my grandparents and relive every moment of the England v France game in the 1982 World Cup, or Marco Tardelli’s goal in the final of that same tournament. But for some reason, that morning – that scrap bit of paper heralded the moment when I realised that football was about more than just watching Steve Perryman shake hands with someone important in May. For the first time, football made me worry – made me feel nervous – left me feeling more than a little bit excited.

I was in my last year at junior school in 1986. Although I’d been allowed to stay up and watch the UEFA Cup Final two years earlier – with the time difference to Mexico and the fact I had school the next morning, no amount of pleading with my Mum was going to let me watch the Poland game.

But then, did I really want to watch it? I missed England’s opening game of the ’86 finals for the same school reasons – a match we lost 1-0. I was allowed to stay up for the next group game against Morocco – but wish I hadn’t once Bryan Robson had gone off, his World Cup over; and Ray Wilkins been dismissed for petulance – 0-0. Throw in the pessimistic view emanating from the TV in every sports round up, or that both Poland and Portugal only really needed a draw to go through – well, you get the picture. It was only a game someone who really cared about football would want to put themselves through. Only, I wasn’t allowed.

I remember getting ready for bed that night with a sense of apprehension I’d never experienced before. It was as if by not watching that game, I would be responsible for the side losing. They needed my support to win. At least we didn’t lose the Morocco game I’d watched and that was with only ten men on the pitch. Imagine what we would do with 11 fit and ready players, and me cheering from the sofa. It wasn’t to be. Although it felt like it took hours to get to sleep that night – the reality is that I was most probably asleep long before the game had actually kicked off.

And so it was, through that scrap of paper – I realised how much football meant to me. Waking up that morning, finding out the score – desperately trying to find somewhere that would show me the highlights of the goals – sort of apologising to the poster of Glenn Hoddle, for today, in the playground at school, nearly every England fan would pretend to be Gary Lineker. Hoddle would have my devotion again once the domestic season started.

It also brought about the first memory I have of lying to those around me in order to impress them. Of course I went in to school that day pretending I had stayed up late to watch the game. Yawning so as to keep up the pretence; agreeing to let mates come round and stay the night so they could watch the next game – because my Mum was cool and, well, I could do what I wanted.

I did watch the next two games. The Paraguay and Argentina matches both had respectable start times so I didn’t have to make up stories about late nights, nor did I have to make up a reason why a mate couldn’t come round to stay. The feeling of apprehension was replace by one of dread as it became clear England were going out against Argentina – to be replaced by hope when we scored, and then deflation when my new hero, Lineker, missed a chance I would normally have tucked away at break time.

The Poland game may not have been my first footballing memory, but it is the first time I realised that the game we love was no longer a formality. My team being on TV did not automatically mean I was guaranteed to see them lift a trophy. A point that became painfully clear a year later when the new Spurs’ captain, Richard Gough, shook the hands of someone important in May.

Chris writes a blog of his own called Northern Writes on a great variety of topics from food & wine all the way to more football related topics. He also tweets under the handle @NorthernWrites, please take a few moments to take a look.

You can click here to read more posts in the Hakuna Matata series. We are accepting submissions from anyone willing to donate some time to the site, so please pick up your pen and send something in.

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