Tuesday, June 07, 2016

"... 'cause I remember ..."

Not all England team-members came away empty-handed when (wait for it) football (almost) came home at Euro 96.
Twenty years ago this month, and some 16 years before London 2012’s 70,000 selfless and tireless ‘Games Makers’ became the world’s most acclaimed ‘under-rated heroes’, a volunteer army ten times as small played their part in another summer of now-nostalgia-drowned sporting glory.
Or, of course, and indeed agonisingly, near-glory.
Unlike London 2012, however, here at least any impatient, cheerleading or indeed finger-wagging build-up to England's hugest hosting since that summer of '66 hardly felt overwhelming.
That is, until the autumn beforehand, when waving flags bearing that oh-so-savvy 'Football's Coming Home' slogan began billowing from a fair few lamp-posts on city streets.
Perhaps the low-key approach - in stark contrast to what the event became at the time, and ever more so since - came from that post-Euro ban hangover, 'the English disease' no longer spreading across the continent but internalising self-conscious fears here.
Or maybe due solely this football fan, rather than journalist nor official, not paying quite enough attention.
But thankfully, an instinct kicked in ... to apply to be an Euro 96 volunteer.
A form filled out with boasts based on little more than earnest intentions, school qualifications and possibly even photocopies of football articles already somehow published led to acceptance into this 700-strong circle of trust. Or, at least, tolerance. 'You'll do.'
Four months or so before that strange St George's-themed opening ceremony at Wembley, the West Midlands contingent of volunteers were gathered in an anteroom at Aston Villa.
Media relations manager Alec McGivan and event manager Hazel Ruscoe were our very-welcoming leaders, setting out the overall strategy for the tournament and our rather more basic roles and place within it.
Suddenly, everything was becoming even more enticing. Football really was about to come home.
And the Discman soundtrack heading back to Birmingham uni digs wasn't even the Lightning Seeds, but presumably more enthralling Britpop bands of that era such as Blur, Pulp, Oasis, the Manics, the Bluetones, even Sleeper.
Wait. Maybe more recent, belated discoveries such as Roxy Music or Joy Division. Joy indeed.
Well, it was a long trip home - for some reason, that must have made some sense at the time, opting to swerve train or bus and instead traipse on foot that 7.5km-route between Witton (not Aston) and Edgbaston.
City centre - and more windingly surrounding - streets that would later be cram-packed with Scots and Swiss and Dutch in their clogs and tablecloths and kilts and hats, pint-clutching/collecting arms around each other in boisterous communal collusion.
(Crazy days, eh.)
Those duties irresistibly tempted at that soon-springtime evening proved to be carried out, once the suddenly-impatiently-awaited contest kicked off, at the Villa Park media centre.
That is, the building behind the North Stand now known as 'Villa Village', a corporate base an Alan Hutton first touch's distance from the stadium itself.
This was June and July, for a first-year university student that odd inter-regnum between finishing your end-of-year exams and waiting for results - sorry, the go-ahead to go home for a three-month summer break that once in full-time employment would seem mind-bogglingly indecent.
Many might well have whiled all away the sunny hours on the Vale knocking back £1.50 bottles of wine, each slug carefully calibrated with another of Tango or Fanta to entirely neutralise any vinegary taste.
And, sure, watching the matches on big screens - or at least as best a view as could be glimpsed between po-go-ing heads fighting stale-beer-sticky feet.
But, no - instead, some of us were photocopying pages of stats about ages and injuries, shuffling and sorting them not into order but into rows of layers of sort-of-order, and making sure each one would then be stuffed into the appropriate pigeonhole.
While not even thinking a scintilla of a smidgeon of inkling about wanting to be, well, anywhere else.
Because there were, after all, plenty of potential benefits.
The obligatory and yet free uniform, for a start: a navy sweater with ominously-grey sleeves, a navy polo shirt and a similar T-shirt for choosing to wear underneath, plus a pair of colour-coded shellsuit trousers.
(Although the supplies of the latter ran out for a few of us last slow-movers, who had to make do with providing our own provided there would be no clash.)
Most importantly, however - and, yes, even above camaraderie - there was the hint of tickets, once your pre-match rigmarole had passed muster.
Thus, ten minutes into a game, a flutter of magic tokens would be fanned out - always with the suggestion some unlucky soul would have to miss out, although it never really seemed that anyone ever did.
(Apologies to those who ever actually did.)
The only proviso was that you had to be back across the car park and into the media centre with ten to fifteen minutes to go, to start doling out even more important missives: stat attacks to help beleaguered hacks.
(Why, even to correct any earlier errors. As if, right...?)
Fortune-favoured here again in having family tickets to all Wembley games, Villa Park (tr)avails were enhanced by witnessing and exuberantly celebrating all those joyous London moments we all know.
Oh, plus those stark seconds in the semi-final: 80,000 people's collective intake of breath when Stefan Kuntz thought his golden 'goal' won it in extra-time, then a similar silence when poor, ever-interview-friendly Gareth Southgate faltered.
(That quiet was then broken, in our section anyway, by at first a solitary voice and quickly a ensemble chorus, of the right place, right time song. No, not gloomily cheery 'Three Lions', but similarly: 'Always look on the bright side of life...')
There was, however, one Wembley match missed - and of all, it had to be the unexpectedly-comfy 4-1 slapping-around of the Netherlands.
Last group-games being as they are, that night's duties meant preparing for - and preparing people for - seeing Scotland face Switzerland.
And so, on 75 minutes, then making our way out of our seats, along the rows, for some reason around one perimeter of the ground perfectly timed to absorb all blame and abuse from Scottish fans for news of Patrick Kluivert's significant goal-difference consolation strike.
(Cheers, David Seaman.)
That left, at Villa Park, only one quarter-final to go - the winner that put the Czech Republic through and won Karel Poborsky a transfer to Manchester United, his scoop of a ball from penalty-edge into the net like Frogger somehow simultaneously leaping two roads not one.
For an aspiring hack as well as lifelong football fan, those experiences behind the scenes - while spectator-ly in front of them too - gleamed golden.
(The temptation there was to crowbar in 'goal-den', just as Euro 96 organisers saw fit to name the tournament's lion mascot 'Goaliath'.)
Not only, that is, for exciting experience of and eye-opening insight into the alternately languid and fractious environment of the sporting event media centre.
Why, those working common-room collections of some tapping on laptops with glum or studious intensity, others more volubly clubbable, the odd one or few prone to panicky rages at the sheer audacity of technology.
Privileges and pleasures have followed, actually getting to be there as a correspondent at Euros, World Cups and Olympics - now relying on those seen but unsung volunteers, assistants, technicians. Content- and help-providers.
(Even if that sense of feeling out of place, diminished, as back in '96, yet lingers even on this other side.)
Best to just do your best, really, and not be like one veteran and volatile BBC radio commentator overheard at Villa Park way back then, barking at a timid and unsatisfying receptionist that deathless phrase: 'Do you know who I am?'
Always timid at the time, and wrapping scarred arms around that summer at the end of an often-lost first year out in the wider world, Euro 96 as a Villa Park volunteer gave some precious sense of connection.
Sipping an orange juice on the fringes of a first lunch-break, it took the guileless Black Country friendliness of two middle-aged mechanic brothers to take a step forward and talk.
'Come on, son, tuck in - doh be shoy, doh let us all tek it.'
And then, plenty of small teams. Focused on our shared duties. In the hurried moments beforehand. And then - for 60 minutes or so in the stadium - indulgently concentrating on two teams only. Well, four, on that Scotland-Switzerland/England-Netherlands night. And then, in the harried moments in the aftermath.
Before, several months later, in that fading yet glimmering sort-of-glow, unexpectedly getting a parcel of a message through the post.
Digs back there in the distance, several homes along now.
And despite all so much disappointment, blundering and head-slapping squandering of any early promise to follow, that medal does still feel, well: sweet, FA.

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