They say it's a game of two halves. Life, I mean, not football. According to Blake, it's split between the two contrary states of the human soul - Innocence and Experience. With oranges and a team-talk at half time.
I was in the middle of my team talk sucking on an orange peel when my tale begins - being, as I was, on the very threshold of Experience; studying for Finals and still reeling from my own Fall from Innocence, which left a sour taste in my mouth more like the suck of a lemon than any midfielder's Jaffa juice.
Like most people of a bookish disposition, I'd spent too much time during my three years at University focusing on study at the expense of any potential affairs of the heart. Or loins, at least. This was my excuse for not getting my end away all that time. Helped by the fact that, despite what Sex Ed teachers tell you as they roll their johnnies onto cucumbers, most universities are full of earnest, anxiety-ridden, sensitive types - a total desert when it comes to making the Beast with Two Backs.
But something shifted in that final year. A blockage unblocked. Perhaps because I'd come to the end of the road in terms of my student career. Sure, there were still Finals to revise for, but they were a sideshow to my main obsession with making a success of my writing career. Diatribe Theatre Company had come and gone, with its student productions penned by me - somewhere between Quentin Tarantino and The Beano. Ian and Carol were working on a student film of one of my student scripts and I had thrown all I had into an intricate and expensive application for a place at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.
Everyone went a bit crazy in that third year. And I had some catching up to do. Like when me and a good friend decided to smash our platonic relationship.
One night we decided to throw caution to the wind and we wound up sat in the corner of some dive pawing each other.
I lifted her onto a Student Village sideboard later that night and we buttered at each other yearningly, lips pink and eyelids fluttering. But something stopped her and I was left hanging.
That should have been the night when it happened. But instead we went home to separate student digs and the next day was the day of Dunblane and so anything anyone ever did after that meant less than nothing compared to the slaughter of the innocents. I held her sobbing but it was more about dead babies than it was about us so I went off and fucked someone else. Correction : she fucked me.
Helen saw me drunk on a pebbled beach and grabbed the opportunity to give me a good seeing to. For the first time in my life I went with it. No excuses about finishing dissertations. No furrowed brow heavy petting and feeling out of my depth in creamy cleavage. I just lay back and thought of Scotland as Helen rode my tiny totem.
Being the angsty pansy I am, I immediately started fretting about babies and clap, unprotected as we were. I should have been shaking her hand and making speeches about the wonderful charitable thing she had done for me. Instead, I picked up the boxers she had peeled off me and skittered off into the night like some kicked cat.
I mention all these very unsexy shenanigans merely as a preamble to that bizarre Summer of Euro '96. The point is I had left a veritable butcher's window of a meaty mess behind me back in Aber when I was supposed to be carving out a bright new future in Beaconsfield as a fledgling film writer. I had to trundle back to the Welsh backwater to sit my Finals in between courses at the Film School, thanks to my Dad's clutch control and my Mum's confused support. Clearly my mind was not in one place. I could have done better in my exams if I wasn't having my head turned by Ealing and Pinewood. I could have done better on the film course if I hadn't had unfinished business back in Ceredigion. And I could have done better at both if my head wasn't a shed from her fluttery kisses; Helen's bouncing breasts and hips; and mass child murder in a small Scottish town.
It was Euro ‘96 that saved me that summer. Gave me some structure. And this was a huge surprise to me as throughout my life thus far I had not given a fig for football. I could go into detail about David Cooper “kicking it with his foot!” and “Playing the game!” and Mrs Rue’s skylight - but let’s just leave it as the fact that football was anathema to me.
Until that night in the weird little B and B Dad had booked for me (basically I was a lodger in an Air B and B before they were a thing). I remember hearing the chanting against the Swiss somewhere out in the genteel Buckinghamshire streets and turning on the TV and getting swept up in the atmosphere. I was alone in a strange place and so Shearer and Gazza and Psycho Pearce became the nearest I had to friends. Them and, of course, Skinner and Baddiel and their Britpop anthem which I started to feel was my own anthem too - spurring me on to succeed at the film school and become the next Paul Schraeder. England would win and I would become a professional screenwriter.
For the Scotland game I ventured out into the pubs of Beaconsfield and found myself welcomed by the footie fans of the Home Counties. No matter how posh a place is perceived to be, a football fan is a football fan and, being the consummate actor, I played along. But this was the match that stopped my newfound interest in the Beautiful Game from being a performance. My cheering and punching the air when Gazza touched the ball over Colin Hendry’s head before scoring and celebrating in a bizarre ‘Dentist’s Chair’ mime was genuine. As was the bond I started to form with the locals, especially when we beat the Dutch 4-1.
Of course, all this time I was up and down motorways to sit exams and pitching movie ideas to film school lecturers. It really did feel like everything was going my way. England’s way. It was coming home. And like all good screenplays, there was a change of location at the end of the second act.
It has to be said that the quarter final between England and Spain during Euro 96 was one of the strangest yet most exhilarating experiences of my young life. Loneliness getting the better of me, new footie pals notwithstanding, I decided to spend the weekend at my friend Meg’s in London. She lived in the East End - Bow Road itself, no less - one of those houses that seem to have more storeys than a library and backyards full of mulch. Meg left for a dance rehearsal, leaving me in the flat alone like David in ‘An American Werewolf in London’, mooching about in my underwear but looking forward to the match.
One of Meg’s Bohemian buddies called round and I went to answer the door. I stood on the front step - still in pants and tee shirt - telling him she wasn’t in as the front door shut - latch-locked - behind me. All I got was an apologetic shrug and a cloud of dust from Meg’s pal and I was left wondering what the Hell I was going to do for the whole day outside an impenetrable house on Bow Road in my skiddies! And more to the point - how the Hell was I going to see the match?
After a few defeated attempts to gain entry, I realised it was getting close to kick-off time and so I decided to bite the bullet and find somewhere to watch the match. I can only put it down to the confidence of youth what I did next. People still don’t believe it even now when I tell the story and I admit I cannot quite believe I had the brass balls to do this - but I actually walked into an East End pub on Bow Road (which could have been a haunt of the Kray twins once upon a time for all I know) in my socks and pants, hoping they would take pity on me and let me watch the match.
They did more than take pity on me. After a good laugh at my expense, this pub full of tough, grizzled Eastenders actually stood me a few pints as I sat semi naked on a bar stool like some bargain basement rent-boy and watched the most nail-bitingly tense penalty shoot-out in football history. And when Psycho scored and split that blood vessel in his nose as atonement I think I might even have joined a group hug with a batch of cockney hard-men. In my pants.
Anything seemed possible now. England had it in the bag. And I was going to be accepted into the National Film and Television School after my five week induction course. But you can never bank on anything when Germany’s involved. Or the NFTS chief lecturer Jan. Who may have been German, come to think of it.
I was back in the Beaconsfield Brewery Tap for the semi-final against Germany. I was welcomed back into the fold after my one match absence and we all dreamed together after England scored a one-nil lead. Anderton and Gascoigne’s near-misses meant more poxy penalties - but this time against a side with a track record at taking pot-shots against the English.
I don’t need to go reopening old wounds for poor Gareth Southgate so let’s just remind ourselves that we lost on penalties. I remember walking home thinking how few babies would be conceived over the next few days. And then I went into the NFTS next day to discover I wouldn’t be accepted onto the main course as I was too young and needed more life experience to be a successful screenwriter. Five weeks and my entire life savings which could have gone on a car or a house or travelling the world to tell me I didn’t have enough life experience. I thought about telling them all about the emotional mess I left in Aber or clinking glasses with Eastend gangsters or the unifying force of football. But I knew it would fall on ears as deaf as England fans’ to the cheers of triumphant Germans.
All this was a quarter of a century ago now. And as I sit with mask on watching Gareth Southgate managing his squad in his snappy waistcoats it’s clear he’s not done that bad out of failure. He may not have scored that penalty but now here he is the Boss of the squad. I may not have got on to the full-time screenwriting course at the NFTS but now here I am - er - sitting in a pub drinking a beer and watching the football. Still, at least I’m fully clothed this time.
Obviously I rang my parents to tell them about my failure and I recall my Mum saying “Never mind, love. You can always come home, if you like.”
By September I had moved to Leeds.