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Even from a very early age I’ve been aware of the significance of the national game and clearly remember watching TV with my dad when England lost 3-1 to Germany in 1972, and vividly recall the infamous Poland match a year later when we failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals – although England have certainly exacted revenge on the Poles ever since.

At sixth form college there seemed a natural proclivity to patriotism and, having watched Aston Villa since the age of six, when I’d waited by the front door one Saturday lunchtime and insisted that my dad took me to my first match, the lure of international football became more and more exciting. My first England match came against Finland at Wembley in 1984 – the 5-0 win was a cracking start.

Those were dodgy days, and my introduction to the ranks of England’s supporters came less than a year after the terrible riots in Luxemburg, where the German army had to be called in to help restore order. England had been eliminated from Euro 84, which was held in France, and  widespread rioting and looting took place throughout the city. One of my friends who was there that night can recall the unforgettable sight of two England fans walking away from a department store, both carrying stacking stereo systems and wearing women’s mink coats.

There was a lot less international football in those days – there’d only be six or so qualifying matches for a tournament, a situation that has obviously changed massively since the break-up of the Eastern Bloc countries – now England have six home matches and face trips to all manner of weird and wonderful cities spread near and far. Put it this way, when I was growing up I never thought I’d ever buy a round of beer in Baku, Azerbaijan, or Chisinau, Moldova, before watching an England game!

To a certain extent I think that a lot of the mystique has been taken away from the international game since the influx of new nations. Beforehand, there was rarely a meaningless match – although since the fall of communism in Europe it certainly pays to have a loyal England fan on any pub quiz team when a European geography question comes up! Since Andorra’s inclusion into the qualification process, it seems only a matter of time until Gibraltar and Monaco are given full international status by FIFA too – but I think it undermines England’s status to be crisscrossing Europe to play against what amounts to local pub teams.

People have said to me that I don’t have to go and watch those kind of fixtures but, to me, following England is not really about the football: I still get goosebumps running down my back when they start playing God Save the Queen and I see the white flag with the red cross. I’ve always got my hand on my heart and I sing my pledge to my country – following England is fundamentally an overt expression of my patriotism. Even if it is sometimes surrounded with an alcoholic haze, England expects every man to do his duty!

Villa, along with other clubs from the West Midlands, have always had a good England following, and teams with ‘B’ postcodes have been particularly well represented over the years, including one of my best mates, Barry Bluenose. But then again, England have always been lucky enough to have been able to call upon loyal football fans from all of the large, working-class, industrial towns and cities.

My first away trip with England was to Poland by coach – boy what a long schlep that is! When we finally arrived, there was a hostile welcoming committee waiting to greet us and we were battered left, right and centre as we tried to collect our tickets prior to the game. If the Polish fans weren’t trying to whack us, it was the Polish police – and things have got a lot worse over there since, while we’ve seemingly cleaned up our reputation. God knows what’s going to happen in Poland and Ukraine during the Euro 2012 tournament.

Even in the gory, gory days of the football troubles, in this country there still seemed to be a code of conduct, unwritten rules of combat among those hell-bent on violence – and those people actually set off from home in the morning to watch a game of football at some stage: the actual match was still central. I think it is also fair to say that if you didn’t ‘want it’, you were generally left alone: families, women, children and the elderly were certainly never targeted.

But anyone who went to Moscow for the England match in 2007 will tell you that those rules clearly do not apply in the East – what happened over there by the locals was just sick and plain barbaric, as was the tragic incident that involved Brice Taton and his Toulouse-supporting friends in Belgrade in 2009. England fans will have to keep their wits about them during Euro 2012 I think.

Having grown up with England not qualifying for the World Cups of 1974 and 1978, to have found myself sitting inside the stadium in Turin for the World Cup semi-final against West Germany in 1990 was quite amazing. Being so close to the final was truly special, and when Chris Waddle’s shot hit the inside of the post, and Gary Lineker scored, I really did think that it would be our year. Even now, 20 years later, I can’t listen to Nessun Dorma without filling up a bit and my mind wanders back to the warmth of that night and thoughts of, “What if?”

“What if?” is also an expression that applies to France 98 – if I hadn’t gone I would certainly have saved my marriage – but I’m so glad I went! I’ll always remember the day that my ticket allocation notification arrived by post during Easter 1998. My then wife went extremely quiet for a day or so as she realised that I had tickets to all the England matches and a dark cloud hung over the house. On Easter Sunday she asked where the hell we were going on holiday that summer, to which I simply replied that I was going to France but “I don’t know where you’re going!” She left me a day later and it took me a whole six weeks to get over her!

It was on the way down to Marseille for the match against Tunisia that my life changed. After boarding the ferry from Dover we caught a train to Lille, where we watched in wonder as a Eurostar train, rammed full of England supporters, pulled into the station shortly after we arrived. There was a superb atmosphere as they all got off, everyone singing and dancing, then we all jumped on the train heading south. What a fantastic journey it was: the bar was drunk dry three times and everyone was in such a bubbly, joyous mood. Then, about 20 minutes outside Marseille, just as the train reached the point where it slows down and starts to snake along the coast, I looked out over the Mediterranean at the setting sun, surrounded by mates, and knew right there, right then, that I was meant to be there and, as a consequence, ergo, that I wasn’t supposed to be with my wife.

Although we had split up, it was at that exact moment that my marriage ended – as the sun went down over Marseille, my life changed direction. That was my destiny, she had left me because it was right and it was meant to be. It’s not often you realise that life-changing decisions are being made in the moment they are happening. Well, not after consuming so much Kronenbourg 1664 anyway.

Shortly after the French World Cup was over, England had a friendly match in Stockholm against the Swedes – and I’ll never forget bumping into Lennart Johansson while I was making my way to McDonald’s. Slightly worse for wear, but out of respect for what he’d done at UEFA in helping England secure the 1996 European Championships and campaigning to get English club teams let back into Europe, I decided to go over and thank him. At first he was very friendly and agreed to sign the back of my ticket, then, all of a sudden, something seemed to snap inside of him and the big Swede launched into a verbal attack. “Do you know why I am not President of FIFA?” he boomed at me, which took me aback somewhat. I didn’t. Then he started prodding me in the chest, which bearing in mind I’m 6’ 5” tall with a shaved head, was pretty brave I thought! “It’s all because of your Mr Jack Wiseman at the FA, that’s why!” he ranted and really gave me the third degree – like it was my fault! It was all very surreal.

I think the people I go to watch England with and myself are considered to be dinosaurs nowadays, as we still travel and support the national side because we are proud Englishmen. It’s almost as if we’re a band of brothers, and I struggle at times to come to terms with some fans who give us a bad name. I’ll never forgive the fans I saw throwing oranges at the locals in Seville, because when you have been to places like Izmir in Turkey and there are only 600 England with you, then, believe me, you stand shoulder to shoulder. You certainly don’t need idiots antagonising the locals or showing a complete lack of respect.

It’s very easy following England abroad now, not just because of the cheaper flights – it’s more to do with the safety that our large support guarantees on the whole. I know a few lads who haven’t missed a Wales away game for donkey’s years, all fantastic fans, who still have to run the gauntlet and don’t enjoy safety in numbers. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for them – I’d rather have 30 of those lads with me in a scrape than 1,000 face-painters, that’s for sure.

Another aspect of following England these days is that I feel the FA have got to the stage where they actually tolerate fans again, which is a welcome development. Back in the 1980s, they genuinely hated us I reckon! I look back at Italia 90 and remember Colin Moynihan’s reference to England supporters as the ‘Effluent Tendencies of Society’: if the same were to be said today, I think the FA would jump to the fans’ defence and demand an apology. So, back then, when the authorities were united in their hatred of us vermin, we were probably more divorced from the team and officials than we are today. A mutual respect has at last returned, which has been bridged by the Football Supporters’ Federation and, in particular, the work of people like Kevin Miles and Anne Marie Mockridge.

But in all honesty, I feel it was the Hillsborough tragedy that saw the biggest sea change. The awful events that day were not caused by hooliganism, even though the deaths on Leppings Lane were a direct result of conditions and circumstances that had direct links to the darker side of the game. High-perimeter fencing and aggressive policing had become part and parcel of the match day experience, along with a lack of consideration towards genuine football fans during that era. Recalling what happened to Liverpool fans that day still chokes me; the victims were normal, decent football supporters, people who simply didn’t deserve what happened to them.

Although a lot has changed within football since the late 80s, some things haven’t – I’m still a Lacoste-wearing casual and I admit it! I tell the lads at work that I don’t give a monkey’s about having a big house, or a flash car, but if I was lucky enough to win a big jackpot on the EuroMillions lottery, the first thing I’d buy would be a small private jet. It’d be a 12-seater and  the set-up would be just like the United Nations – I’d have eight permanent members made up of my current, regular England friends, who’d always have a seat on my Dinosaur Airline flight to every England game, joined by four ‘invite only’ guests. But in the meantime, I’ll keep buying the lottery tickets and making alternative arrangements to get to England games!

Pete Woodall