Longform Disappointment: Australia

SLOUGH – Yeah, that’s a hell of a dateline, isn’t it? The exotic holiday paradise of Slough, a town that elicited the sentence “Oh, that’s not a pub, it’s an exotic dance club” on Saturday night. A town with a name that, in medical terminology, means “a yellow fibrinous tissue that consists of fibrin, pus, and proteinaceous material”; that is, a bit of yellowing scabbiness in normal person speak. I mean, the metaphor writes itself.

And since ‘yellowing scabbiness’ might not be a bad way to describe the England performance against Australia, let’s talk about that. Because the reason I’ve written this from Slough is the same reason that I missed the Scotland-South Africa game and the same reason I watched the England-Australia game from an English pub surrounded by English people. Since it’s none of the wider internet’s business what I was up to, though, that’s all the explanation you’re getting. My blog, my rules.

In the last couple of Longform Disappointment posts I’ve talked about what it’s like to be a Scotland fan: the feeling of perpetual impending, inevitable gloom; the ingrained resignation; the creeping terror, even instinctual fear, of doing well. If anything, the takes dished out on the performance of the team kind of leant themselves to that, since they consist of a couple of thousand words of moaning and neurotic gripes.

Which meant that I greeted the team selection for South Africa with the same calm acceptance that accompanied the final score. Key players had obviously been rested in preparation for the ‘key’ game against Samoa the next week, and who were we to think that we could actually beat the Springboks?

The inferiority complex of Scottish rugby, even of the larger Scottish psyche, insinuated itself into wins, a misty vapour clouding everything with vague, uneasy insecurity. When I found out at dinner that Scotland lost, then, I was a bit disappointed, but not angry. Not shocked or despondent or devastated. That’s just what happens to Scotland. Sooner or later, it’ll all come to an end.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a member of a fanbase that didn’t have that, didn’t have the great crushing weight of failure looming over them at all times. Part of a fanbase that went into games feeling confident in the result, that expected their team to win. One like, perhaps, England, winners of the world cup 12 years ago, consistently high finishers in the Six Nations, one of the few teams to have beaten New Zealand in recent memory.

The pub we managed to find within walking distance of the hotel looked unpromising. It stood alone in the asphalt emptiness of a massive car park, narrow shouldered and awkwardly jutting beside the smooth sweep of the main road. Cars glided past, blending into one another with rumbling engines and streaking lights. None stopped or pulled in to the empty parking spaces.

We crossed the road, past an empty bank, the outside sparkling with light but the interior empty and dark. It was a Saturday night, after all. There was some discussion of what England needed to do to win. Play a tactical kicking game to win territory and then go direct with the forwards. Keep the ball off the ground, though, offload and switch the point of attack. A fast, constant barrage of punches to the Australian sternum, if you were a fan of metaphors. It probably wasn’t a bad plan, as such, and could well have worked.

The atmosphere inside matched the exterior. One man sat alone two feet from the projector screen that had been set up along one wall. We walked in with about five minutes played, and he was already banging his pint on the table any time England had the ball.

Others were scattered around the tables not paying attention. Staff rushed infrequently past with sizzling platters of meat to serve talkative, boisterous parties out enjoying a Saturday night meal. Aside from us, there were perhaps 10 people watching the game.

We caused a crush at the bar, no-one wanting to try and sort out rounds. Some of the English fans fidgeted, alternating glances between the bar and the small screen tucked into an overhanging nook.

We eventually got drinks and stood in a corner of the entrance, angling views towards the projector. We weren’t there for long, though. A group having dinner in the prime position to watch the match finished their meals and offered their table to us, taking their beers over to a quieter corner. Attempts to drag chairs over from another table were rebuffed after we were told that the table had been reserved for another party. The man sitting on his own stood, wavered, and went to get another beer.

The pub was loud, full of voices and shouting, and the commentary on the TV was turned way up, until we couldn’t really talk comfortably. Every five or ten minutes, a bartender/waiter/dogsbody would hurry past with a sizzling, crackling tray, disappearing into another corner of the pub. It was a rectangular building, but had wings and legs and low ceilings, as if trying to persuade everyone that it was actually a relic of medieval Slough, famed site of historical importance. Conversation, the general buzzing chatter and laughter of a Saturday night at the pub, made it hard to talk without shouting.

Not that any of the English fans particularly felt like talking. Being a large group, there were obviously some who cared far more and others who had come along for the banter, but the tension, the possibility of going out early from their own World Cup, dragged out everyone’s inner nail-biter.

The Australians dominated the first half, scoring twice, and took what looked like an insurmountable lead into half-time. I wandered up to the bar and saw the same despondent dejection I would have expected from Scottish fans. Australia were visibly outplaying their team, and their expressions reflected it. Thoughts abounded, the first half wasn’t good enough, England needed to play better and work harder and do more.

More grilling meat was borne sizzlingly past.

I would have expected exactly the same from Scotland fans. Maybe a little more frustration or chat or anger, but everyone handles disappointment differently. Apparently having expectations and a history of wins and happiness to fall back on doesn’t do much good when it comes to the lows.

They came out for the second half, though, and it happened. England did start to work harder, started to play better and do more. They looked mobile and fast and sharp, playing loose and scoring early on in the second half.

It was possible, the wisdom seemed to go. The England comeback was on, Australia were fragile and could be beaten if England took the game to them, challenged and confronted them.

Sizzle, chatter, the jukebox being fired up before an angry fan demanded it switched off.

The hope, a narrow sliver of light widening and sharpening, illuminating the core of belief that was there – that door opened for a couple of minutes. England fans were getting excited, pumping their fists and shouting, gasping with disappointment at every wasted opportunity.

The man sitting on his own had been tottered to the bar a few times since the first half, and was now banging the table with one hand while draining his glass with the other. He began to talk to some of our group, smiling with satisfaction as each replay of the England score flashed across the screen and the commentators grew hoarse from exuberant hyperbole.

It didn’t last. Australia came back, seized control of the match for good when an England player got sent off, and eventually put the finishing touches on a comprehensive win when they scored with the last play of the game.

The pub was still just as noisy. There were more people coming in for what seemed like the only food served, a tray of matte-charred meats. People were gathered round tables, joking and laughing and drinking. We grabbed our coats and left.

The solitary England fan went to get another pint and sat back down at his table. He was staring unsteadily, squinting, at the projector as we walked out.

There was some good-natured banter about the loss. The people who cared were upset, the people who didn’t care had recovered their equilibrium. A few were devastated, embarrassed that England would go out of their own World Cup early.

Expectations can be funny things. Scotland had been crushed ruthlessly earlier in the day and  the rationalisation process had taken fewer than ten seconds.

When we got to the team meeting room the next morning, newly added to the list of rules of conduct for the weekend was “Don’t mention the rugby.”

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