When I worked on the police desk at the Home Office over 20 years ago, I had to attend these tense meetings at Scotland Yard about countering football hooliganism. I was fine on the policy bit but come the tea break, I found myself alone while all the chaps chattered away about the weekend’s games. I was in my early 20s and the only woman in the room. It wasn’t ideal.
My then-boyfriend came up with a genius fail-safe line that I was to utter with gravitas and a good pause: “Tell you what they should have done… should’ve rested Schmeichel.”
Every chap nodded sagely and muttered, “she’s right” and lo and behold I was accepted. The great thing is that I can now resurrect that very line and it no longer refers to the dog in Coronation Street.
The experience summed up how excluded I felt from football – professionally and personally. Many of my friends loved it but I never felt it was for someone like me, a Muslim, brown girl. And of course, a Scot. I have assimilated in so many ways but football was too much of a stretch, even for me. Until now.
I can’t quite believe what has occurred over the past few weeks. I wasn’t even that fussed at the start of the Euros. When poor Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch, I was really freaked out as I was presenting my Times Radio show and had to junk my carefully planned running order to do rolling news coverage with scant knowledge or real enthusiasm.
Fast forward by a couple of weeks and I’m hooked. On Wednesday night, I stayed up to watch the England game even though I was rising about four hours later to present the breakfast show.
I have fallen in love with Gareth Southgate and his style of leadership. Modern, inclusive, rich in empathy and emotional intelligence. Such a refreshing change from the old-fashioned alpha male (and sometimes female) cliché of bullying and threatening people into submission. Many of us are praying this will make the leap from football into our own workplaces and political leadership.
Then there’s the team. The players have exploded every myth and preconceived prejudice I had about a Footballers’ Wives stereotype (which, let’s be honest, I did love). These young men are hardworking, decent, brave, talented and prepared to stand or kneel for what they believe in. True role models.
This championship has reminded me of the Olympic spirit. This squad has done what politicians have failed to. They have created pride in England as a nation. They have rehabilitated the St George’s flag, so black and brown people no longer fear it but want to wave it.
And they’ve made fans out of the most unusual of people. Forget my Damascene conversion, imagine my jaw-on-floor shock to learn that Harry Kane’s new “No 1 fan” is none other than my wee Muslim mum up in Glasgow who has watched every game. Football’s coming home and there’s a massive tray of tandoori chicken with its name on it. But please don’t tell her neighbours.