Having been brought up in rural Ireland by quietly patriotic folk, my relationship with England has always been layered and somewhat schizophrenic. When I was young the sectarian horrors, euphemistically referred to over here as the Troubles, raged in Northern Ireland, Margaret Thatcher was doing a fine job of establishing herself, via the stark juxtaposition of her smug aloof face and those of fraught anxious miners, as my idea of evil incarnate and Bob Paisley's Liverpool had turned the Merseyside club into what would be the longest and most enduring passion of your scribbler's life.
Despite a fairly constant barrage of negative sentiment, from oddly skewed history books, bigoted and ignorant classmates and even, memorably, once or twice from the pulpit, there were no late-night drunken rebel song sessions in my home, no use of the word English as a pejorative. My brother and I were left to work out for ourselves, from our voracious reading of British comics and magazines and from the comforting pedagogue with the chunky buttons who resided in the corner of our living room, just how it was that we felt towards our neighbours across the Irish Sea.
As it turned out, and understandably perhaps, given our unprejudiced domestic exposure to English culture, we turned out to be quite the Anglophiles, reveling in the comedy of Monty Python and Reeves and Mortimer, delighting in the sonic landscapes and lyrical majesty of The Smiths and The Stone Roses and exulting in the unadulterated magnificence of Liverpool Football Club, most especially the sublime artisry and élan of the Scot, Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish.
This, then, is where it becomes complex. Despite idolising an English club, glorying in English music and treasuring the writing of England's scribes, on occasion different emotions would surface from deep within the recesses of my Irish soul. During the World Cup of 1986, our house was in thrall to the stocky panache of Diego Armando Maradona. The mischievous glee with which my father enjoyed his illegal deception of Peter Shilton in the quarter final was equalled only by our shared delight in the stunning virtuosity of his second -- to this day the finest goal I've seen. Where did this come from? This giddiness at the misfortune of our English friends?
Two years later, when I was 15, the European Championships of 1988 proved to be a landmark occasion for Irish sport, as the team, ironically under the old-school tutelage of 1966 World Cup winner Jack Charlton, took part in its first major international championship. As fate would have it, Ireland and England were drawn in the same group and when Liverpool's Ray Houghton headed into the English goal for the game's solitary strike, I leapt as high as my father had two years before. This meant something. It was ingrained, in the blood. I wasn't sure if I was comfortable with it but it was undeniable. I wanted to beat them. I particularly wanted to beat them.
The ensuing years, with the marked exception of 1990's World Cup, have not been particularly kind to either nation, with Ireland invariably missing out on the summer fun and England almost inevitably exiting on penalties at the quarter final stage. On Saturday night, as I watched England lose to Italy in Manaus, again with my father and brother, that curious ambivalence was on display again. When Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge scored, there were guttural roars of approval from my brother and I followed by a slightly awkward silence. Later, when Mario Balotelli secured the points for Italy there were also cheers, as incongruous and inexplicable as the ones that had echoed around that same room some 28 years previously. The mind and heart of an Irishman, it seems, are not always in harmonious tandem.
Today, Jordan Henderson, perhaps this scrawler's favourite of England's generous quotient of Redmen, turns 24. As I watched the after-match analysis on Saturday night I was struck by the utter lack of respect afforded to this excellent footballer. It should have come as no surprise, however. He has already been forced to endure the ignominy of a long trial period in front of his own fans, whose reluctance to embrace the Sunderland native has been an irksome inspiration for many of the articles I've previously submitted here to TLO Towers. Now, it seems, he must win over a whole new audience who spout vacuous fallacies about what it takes "at this level."
If Henderson is consistently one of Liverpool's top performers as they tear apart their Premier league opposition, then he is easily capable of being a stellar performer in international tournament football. The reality is that the standard, at the pinnacle of the English top flight and in the Champions League, is higher than that on display at any World Cup, where teams, by dint of their restricted selection pool, are often filled out with journeymen, raw beginners and veterans who are past their prime. This did not stop the cognoscenti of television's punditry elite from using the same lazy, uninformed put-downs that some Liverpool fans were capable of in the past. "What does he do?" was my particular favourite. Perhaps you should try actually watching the game, chaps. You'll see.
Liverpool's number 14, likened a little unflatteringly by English World Cup winner George Cohen to his '66 teammate, Nobby Stiles, is typically unencumbered by the weight of critical apathy towards him. He is a resilient and driven young man with a beautifully simple outlook that speaks to his inner strength and resolve. England may very well need that mental fortitude with a couple of do-or-die fixtures ahead of them and Henderson, as ever, is looking only at the positives.
"What we will do is keep confident, keep believing and look forward to the next game," he insisted. "I felt as though we gave it everything and we worked really well as a team. Going forward, I thought we were brilliant, especially in the first half. I thought we counter-attacked really well and obviously got the goal. In the second half, I thought we dominated with the ball, dominated with possession and penetrated with the passing and runs in behind, with a few chances. So it was disappointing [to lose] but we gave it everything we had."
Irrespective of what happens on Thursday, when England face Uruguay and Luis Suarez, Roy Hodgson can rely on his majestically coiffured midfielder to give "everything" for the cause. It's the only way that this underrated footballer knows how, you see. The pompous stuffed shirts on television panels may only see a blur of industry in white but soon even these football dinosaurs will come to realise what Liverpool fans eventually did -- Jordan Henderson is quite a player.