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Jonathan Wilson

England lost? No worries

Can a lifelong supporter of written-off teams handle seismic victories?

Jonathan Wilson
Jonathan Wilson
Where were you when Colly and gang won the 2010 World T20?  •  AFP

Where were you when Colly and gang won the 2010 World T20?  •  AFP

I did want them to win it but, in all honesty, it wouldn't have felt right if England had won the World T20. It didn't feel right even that they were in the final.
Even putting aside all the arguments about franchises and structures and bouncy castles and cheerleaders and other peripheral nonsense, and why England lag behind the rest of the world, it didn't feel right.
It didn't feel right on a visceral level. As a Sunderland fan and reluctant Englishman (my great-great grandparents were a diverse bunch who wound up on Wearside or Teesside in the late 19th century in, with what now looks like bleak historical irony, a quest for work, I could have been blessed with the lyrical melancholy of the Irish, the wry pragmatism of the Scots, the persistent irritation with Marc Wilmots of the Belgians, but instead got the post-imperial self-loathing of the English), I'm not sure any team I support belongs in a final.
In cricket, it's true, success has been rather closer than in football. I was only two at the time of the 1979 World Cup final, so that didn't register. My memories of the 1987 World Cup final are limited to my dad's eruption at Mike Gatting's reverse sweep. I was at school for the 1992 final. Mr Pyburn left a television on at the front of the lab throughout double physics, making little pretence that he cared about anything other than the game. Major Griffiths took his Latin lesson rather more seriously, although he must have noticed just how many of his class were sitting with heads propped on one hand, the easiest way of disguising an earphone passed from transistor in the inside pocket up blazer sleeve (a detail that makes the early 1990s seem impossibly long ago). And he certainly must have heard the collective groan of disappointment when Neil Fairbrother was caught behind off Aaqib Javed.
And that was that. The football team worked out that nobody would slag them off too much if they lost on penalties and pursued that mode of exit with avid devotion. I watched England win the 2003 rugby union World Cup over breakfast in a pub in Barnes with my hockey team. Our game was scheduled for lunchtime but we'd agreed with the opposition that we'd play a friendly and rearrange the league fixture for later in the year; as a result my main memory of the day is of having to go in goal when our keeper failed to show up, and spending the 70 minutes berating a half-cut and uninterested defence as we won 9-4. Dudgeon high, as everybody else went back to the pub to celebrate, I stropped off home. But anyway, I don't really care about rugby; it wasn't like I had put on the hard yards of having them stomp on my optimistic heart with their flat-footed ineptitude. Which by then I very much had in football and cricket.
And so 2010. It was a team with which I should have had great affinity. They had a captain in Paul Collingwood who was Wearside-born and supported Sunderland, somebody who is essentially an embodiment of what I think sport should be about. I'd always felt a bond with Ryan Sidebottom after an incident in a hotel in which, early one morning, staying in rooms on the same corridor, we turned a collective blind eye and deaf ear to the drunken clatterings of a very famous former cricketer. I liked Michael Yardy, who was a left-handed version of what I'd have been if I were a million times the bowler and ten million times the batsman that I am.
But I pretty much missed the final. What football journalist, after all, when booking a weekend away, checks the calendar for the World T20? Nobody I worked for then cared about the FA Cup, which meant that amid the climax of the Premier League season, the Champions League final and World Cup preparations, the weekend of the FA Cup final was the ideal time for a break.
With three friends I went up to visit another friend who lived in a converted asylum just outside Dundee. On the Friday, we walked from Glen Clova to Braemar. On the Saturday, as Chelsea beat Everton 1-0 at Wembley, we walked from Braemar to a bothy by the Pools of Dee. And then, on the Sunday, from the bothy to Aviemore. It was, as I'm sure nobody else noted, May 16: 20 years to the day Sunderland had beaten Newcastle 2-0 in the playoff semi-final, a sacred day to those of us of a Wearside persuasion who went to school on Tyneside. It felt written that this should be Colly's finest hour.
Midway through the morning, it became apparent there was a split in the group. Two of us wanted to rush down and watch the final; the other three either didn't care or were too weary to push on. At some point, the two of us realised we'd left the other three behind. We could have waited, but we took the opportunity. Our mobiles had no reception so we left a note wedged in the hinge of a gate, using branches and twigs to make a huge arrow on the ground pointing to it. The other three missed it. Not without justification, they were furious.
We found a pub with a television in Aviemore and texted them to say where we were. We bought a round and settled in. Except the pub was showing football: Forfar Athletic v Arbroath in the final of the second leg of the Scottish Second Division/Third Division playoffs. Normally I'd have relished a clash between two of the great nicknames: the Loons v the Red Lichties. But not that day.
The barman was not for changing the channel. The pub was almost empty. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention but it seemed a matter of national pride: Scottish football took precedence even when it was being played in front of a crowd of 2207. By the time Bryan Deasley scored Forfar's decisive second three minutes into injury time, Sidebottom had removed Shane Watson and Brad Haddin, and with David Warner run out, Australia were not very many for three.
Our mates arrived. There was an awkward reconciliation, based largely on the size of the improvised arrow (had we made it too big?). But we had to get a train back to Dundee to get the sleeper back to London. And so, just as I had been on the final morning at Edgbaston in 2005 when I was crawling to Cardiff for the Community Shield, I was stuck on a train during a passage of vital cricket, relying on my mam to text me updates.
This time I watched at home, alone with my own telly. There were no Latin teachers or Scottish barmen to get in the way. I could have gone to a pub with my cricket team, but I'm a bad watcher of sport when I'm not reporting on it - a pacer and a swearer. I don't know how I'd have handled a win; I'm haunted still by my dad's observation when Sunderland won the FA Cup in fairy-tale style in 1973 that in the moment of victory he felt a shaft of sadness for nothing could ever be that good again. Would I have gone out to find my team-mates for a raucous night of celebration? Or would I have stayed in feeling slightly flat and wondering if success was really worth it? Thankfully Carlos Brathwaite spared me the crisis.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. @jonawils