The clock was close to midnight, with desperate sports journalists scrambling down some late thoughts in a last-ditch attempt to make the first edition, as England's players approached their small but incredibly vocal band of supporters in the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.
"England's number one," was belted out by the travelling army and in turn Joe Hart turned to them, punching in the air in more of a manner of a local non-league player simply delighted to be getting an opportunity to be playing semi-professional football for his hometown club. It was refreshing. Hart's actions were followed by similar recognition towards the crowd from his fellow players.
England had just beaten Sweden 3-2 in extraordinary circumstances. Coming from 2-1 down to win meant it was the first time since Cameroon in 1990 that the Three Lions had recovered from a second half deficit to win at a major tournament. It was essentially an away game for England, just three or four thousand fans in a 60,000 crowd, with thousands of Swedish fans inside the stadium.
It was also the first time I had watched England play in a competitive game since 2007 (Russia). Due to a combination of factors, including work reasons, finding time to watch England has become impossible. I was there purely as a fan. Events like Wayne Rooney's outburst at supporters after England drew with Algeria at the 2010 World Cup (where he publicly criticised Three Lions fans who had turned on the players) hardly helped. An unloved England - until now.
But I saw an opportunity to have time off and booked a few days in Kiev, a beautiful city, with friendly people, remarkably different to the hostile and sullen residents of Moscow. I'm glad I did. I saw the rapport between English footballers millionaires and their supporters return.
Having an English manager helps. Roy Hodgson has shades of Sir Bobby Robson in him, a decent likeable gentleman who just wants to do the right thing. His players clearly understand him and are also wanting to play for him.
A small gesture like singing the national anthem also helps the players become liked. England supporters belt out God Save the Queen and they expect the men representing them to be equally passionate. All eleven starting players and manager sang the anthem for the first two games in Euro 2012, and most bellowing it out in the manner of a rugby player.
It also looks like England's players are bothered about playing for their country again, after years where club football appeared to be the be-all-and-end-all. England fans can put up with a lot. They know this crop isn't the best, they know the sides of the last 20 years have been so much better. But just giving their all helps: Scott Parker flying into challenges, Steven Gerrard's surging runs just like at Liverpool, Andy Carroll competing for every header and the defence calm and well organised.
It did not take much but with thanks to the small things, England's supporters found it considerably easier to get fully behind the team when they went down to 2-1. In recent years, the Three Lions would have crumbled and the team would have been severely criticised during the game. Not so this time. Walcott, 2-2. Welbeck, 3-2. Job done.
England supporters stayed behind for half an hour after the game. Not because they were forced to for security reasons. They wanted to revel in the victory and more importantly than that, they at last felt part of a win. Three Lions was played over the tannoy. It seemed fitting. Whatever happens in the remainder of the tournament, it seems as if, for the first time since 1996, this England side have become loved again.
Some Garry Cook photographic links
2 years ago