The bleak diary of a (club) football fan during the international break
What did you do this weekend without the Barclays? What did any of us really do?
Welcome to the melancholic void that is the international football break, where you find yourself desperately longing for the sweet release of a Burnley Southampton 17:30 kick-off. Or death. Here's a rough (*extremely accurate) diary of everything that goes through the head of a club football fan when there is no club football to speak of. In other words, here's a lament for the international break.
10:00: You spend your Saturday morning doing what you usually do on a Saturday morning: lying in bed, gazing at your phone, occasionally dropping it onto your own face, the faint hum of a hangover somewhere in the distance like a police siren and the primal need for a filling-heavy toasted sandwich that comes with it. You check your Fantasy Football team to make your allocated transfers- whoops, no Premier League fixtures I'm afraid. A cold dread fills your stomach as you check what games are actually on. You are sickened. Nothing to speak of for the entire morning and the earliest action beginning at 14:00. Even worse, can you really call a Ireland playing away in Tbilisi 'action'? No, simply put, no you cannot.
What the fuck are you supposed to do with your morning now? Watch the rugby? Ugh.
11:45: Yeah, you watch the rugby. You actually quite enjoy it. You make a promise to yourself to tell absolutely no-one.
13:30: You're on the way to the pub to watch the football, as is the Saturday tradition, before you realise that a) the pub will be full of rugby fans and b) there isn't any football to watch anyway. You turn around. A Mick McCarthy team playing Georgia in a semi-crucial European qualifier is a kind of football, I guess, but only in the same way that you can call a shunting a frozen pizza and a garlic baguette that's a bit too heavy on the garlic butter into the oven 'cooking'. Technically it is, but in the truest sense of the word, it is everything but.
You don't have the money to drink enough pints to make that spectacle enjoyable.
14:30: You cave and reluctantly watch the first half an hour of Ireland vs Georgia at home. In that time you witness James McClean give the ball away in an impressive number of ways, from dribbling straight into touch to passing straight into touch. You witness Glenn Whelan waddle around, ferociously chewing gum, shouting nonsense and playing lots of sideways passes, you know, because that's what Glenn Whelan does. That is all he has ever done. You witness Shane Duffy win headers and you witness Callum Robinson in full 'Shane Long' mode, pressing alone and chasing hopeless punt into the channel after hopeless punt into the channel.
You decide to stop watching Ireland vs Georgia. You're not this desperate.
16:00: You're now spending your day (maybe) playing Football Manager and (maybe) eating that decadent sandwich you had dreamt about earlier that morning. Things are better. You are pleased to see that Ireland vs Georgia ended 0-0, the only possible result Ireland vs Georgia could have ended in, thereby justifying your decision. You note that Glenn Whelan got booked in the 65th minute. You predict that it was for chopping down an opposing player who was much quicker than him (read: has actual, functioning legs) whilst he was huffing and puffing his way back to his own penalty box after being caught out of position. You quickly discover that, yes, it was for exactly this. Something like a small burst of joy flutters through your chest.
17:00: You get down on two knees in your bedroom and give thanks to the gods of moderately appealing international football that there is a slightly broader selection of matches to choose from in the 5 pm kick-off slot. What will it be, you wonder, browsing the definitely, definitely, definitely, completely legal stream provider of your choice. Will it be Denmark Switzerland, a game promising all the delights of a half-arsed Christian Eriksen against an extremely arsed Granit Xhaka, which equates to something kinda resembling a close battle? Will it be the connoisseurs choice, Faroes Islands versus Romania, to take in the young pretenders Ianis Hagi and George Pușcaș as they attempt to shake off the enveloping shadow of their respective fathers against a side that can only really be described as 'FIFA's 109th ranked team in the world'? Or would it be the lucky dip of a tie between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Finland in Zenica and the prospect of Miralem Pjanic, Teemu Pukki and lots of other considerably less exciting football players?
In the end, you do the thing that all football fans do when they are attempting to decide between a cold, leftovers-at-the-buffet selection of football matches. Stale mini sausage rolls or bowl of crisps. What flavour? Miscellaneous. You choose the game that, on balance, features the two strongest teams. That's quite comfortably Denmark Switzerland. You wait until the 84th minute for the only goal of the game whilst the other two matches finish 3-0 and 4-1 respectively. The international break in all its steaming hot glory, ladies and gentlemen.
19:00: There are some 19:45 kick-offs on the horizon but, by this point, you have been hurt once too many times. You decide to go out instead to talk to actual people about actual important things happening in the world. You might mention the complete ineffectiveness of Whelan at the base of Ireland's midfield but you will make a point of it not being all you talk about. Even if, secretly, it is the only thing you ever want to discuss.
Despite this, whilst you're out with your friends you do end up sporadically checking the goings-on in the qualifiers. Sebastian Larsson has scored two penalties against Malta! Liechtenstein are drawing 1-1 with Armenia! Italy have completely demolished their group and are into Euro 2020 with games to spare, having conceded only three goals in seven matches! Thiago can't get in the Spain midfield whilst Gareth Southgate keeps giving Ross Barkley minutes! Why oh why do I care about all this as my life continues to drift on around me!!!
21:00: You try and forget about the relentless irritation that is Norway playing four central defensive midfielders across their midfield. The pain that is causing you. You try and forget about coming up with better centre-back options for Spain than a 34-year-old Raul Albiol, even if he is enjoying his latest mini-renaissance at Villarreal. 'Think about the future, not just the short-term Señor Moreno!', you scream internally, as you pull another frustrated, head-shaking sip up to your lips.
Your friends ask if everything is alright and you say yes, everything is fine, even though everything is not fine because Pau Torres isn't starting for Spain when Pau Torres should really be starting for Spain.
21:15: You try and enjoy your night regardless. You do not enjoy your night. It is impossible to enjoy your night.
22:30: Unable to come to grips with, well, everything, you go home early in time for Match of the Day. There is no Match of the Day. Never has anyone been so disappointed not to watch a television programme containing Danny Murphy. Before or since.
09:00: A new dawn, a new day and you are eager to take this one by the proverbial scruff of the neck. You are not going to let this one slip through your grasp like a tame Clint Dempsey daisy-cutter through the fingers of Robert Green. You are going to accomplish something.
14:05: Somehow you end up back lying on your bed in your pants watching an already-qualified Belgium team knock the ball about against Kazakhstan. You are spilling crisps (single flavour) down your bare chest and you are finding Roberto Martinez's use of Thorgan Hazard, playing down the same flank as his older brother as a sort of but not really left wing-back vaguely interesting. You don't know why this is your life, you just know that it is. Other than that you don't really know anything anymore.
17:46: You are very briefly exhilarated by John McGinn scoring a first-half hattrick against San Marino because you like John McGinn. Because everyone likes John McGinn. Because it is impossible not to like John McGinn. You discover that McGinn is the first player to score a first-half hat-trick for Scotland since Lawrie Reilly against USA in a friendly in April 1952, 67 years and 166 days ago. This the most, and only, interesting thing that will happen to you during the entire weekend. You are extremely grateful for it. Your love for John McGinn grows to a new, almost incomprehensible height.
19:00: You check the other results and play a little game with yourself where you try and guess who has scored. Did Artem Dzyuba, a lumbering stone golem of a target man you have been infatuated with since an ill-advised Spartak Moscow Football Manager save a number of years ago score in Russia's 5-0 win over Cyprus? Yes, of course he did. (That's me speaking to my brain and my brain speaking back to me). Well done, here is, like, four endorphins for you as a reward. (That's my brain again). Thank you brain. (That's me to my brain). Now tell me who got the only goal in Hungary Azerbaijan game, you shit. (Brain again, this time turning aggressive for no particular reason).
19:45: MORE FOOTBALL. But exactly the kind of football you don't want: Ryan Giggs looking glum in the dugout as he misuses a bunch of talented young Welsh players only to have the singular talent of Gareth Bale live up to his name and earn them a point on his own. Exactly the kind of football you don't want: Germany battering Estonia even though they have ten men. Exactly the kind of football you don't want: North Macedonia trying to kick the actual shit out of a Poland team as though they aren't allowed back on the team coach unless they pick up a booking. Fair enough, exactly the kind of football you do want: Goran Pandev still playing for some reason. But also no, exactly the kind of football you don't want: Slovenia Austria.
20:30: It occurs to you that international football matches outside of major tournaments only really fall into two categories. The first is a historically competent footballing nation playing a relative minnow and giving them a thrashing in unsuitable conditions, whether concerning the weather, stadium and pitch or related to other small things such as context and meaning. The second kind is when two fairly strong teams meet. These fixtures only seem to end in a forgettable draw or narrow win for one of the sides as both teams know that they only need to beat the terrible countries, and play conservatively against the good countries, to stand a pretty reasonable chance of reaching the finals.
Take Ireland's current qualifying campaign for instance, one which has only featured the following scorelines: 0-0, 1-1, 1-0 and 2-0. They have played Gibraltar twice, hence the wild anomaly of a 2-0, have scored six goals in six games and currently sit joint top of their group. As I mentioned earlier, it's football, but not really.
22:30: You are (once again) lying in bed and you are feeling empty because you know that you have to go back to work tomorrow having witnessed precisely no good football over the weekend. The international break really is shit, isn't it?
There is nothing that makes you love and cherish and miss your actual football team, the football team you really care about, like two weeks of sporadic international football. Even if your normal team are bad and watching them is bad, it's still nowhere near as awful as this. Even if you're an Everton fan and you're forced to watch Michael Keane clamber about hopelessly looking like a malevolent serial-killer puppet from a horror movie it actually means something to you because he's wearing a blue jersey.
At least it's happening in a game that matters, that people care about, with more powerful emotions at stake than apathy.
07:30: YUUUUUURSSSSSS ENGLAND TONIGHT AND TYRONE MINGS IS MAKING HIS DEBUT AND IF WE BEAT BULGARIA WHICH WE WILL BECAUSE THEY HAVEN'T WON A SINGLE QUALIFYING GAME YET THEN WE WILL BE BACK ON TOP OF GROUP A WITH A THREE-POINT GAP AND A GAME IN HAND COME ONNNNNNNNNNNN