England is a country that's losing its teeth. The bulldog nation has been muzzled. Once it was the junkyard dog of Europe, conquering and dividing, ruling the Raj and bashing the Boche. Now, its back legs have gone. It can't even muster the enthusiasm to drag itself to the pub for the football.
Football has long been a source of solace in troubled times, a reminder that while it's easy to get upset about our socio-economic climate and the various looming threats to our own mortalities, we can also get upset about stuff that is inherently pointless. Nothing quite says "everything is OK in the world" like sitting in a room, calling James Milner a cunt with a hundred other people.
So last Friday night, I set off to Leicester Square, London's neon sinkhole of low-level gambling, pizza that tastes like stairs carpet and men in iridescent shirts kicking each other's teeth in, to try to find the real England fans. The people who keep this nation afloat with their partisan bile and casual xenophobia. I went there expecting to be greeted with more red crosses than an eplsite stream and a roomful of people who'd all freshly developed a hatred for all things Moldovan.
Alas, what I found was a lot more tepid.
There were no flags here, no songs, no patriotic neck tattoos. If anyone was wearing an England shirt, I didn't see them. It was busy but this was Central London, it's always busy, and though you have to assume that much of the crowd was made up of people starting nights out or finishing days at work, no one was watching the match with any fervour. The game was merely a sideshow to their own drunken Fridays, something to stare at while your mates were in the smoking area.
Maybe I'd asked too much of Central London and its cabal of treasonous metropolitan tapas-munchers. I decided I'd have to go further afield to find the real England. The place where Blake's dream and Blair's nightmare collide and leave us with an event horizon of English culture. I was going to have to head out of Zone 1, to the eastern suburbs. I was going to have to go to Romford.
For those of you not too clued up with your Zone 6 geography, Romford is a kind of hinterland between London and Essex, clinging onto the confines of the city via a few obscure bus routes. It's actually a nice enough place that resembles no other part of London, save, perhaps, Leicester Square, but Leicester Square if it was just an A-road lined with a load of hairdressers, dog spas and lounge clubs called things like "Voodoo".
One of the things that Romford is most famous for, though, is its widespread sense of patriotism, to the point where it's occasionally mistaken for widespread nationalism. The area was targeted heavily by the BNP in the build up to this year's local election, and while the good people of Romford humiliated them at the polls, current Tory MP Andrew Rosindell is hardly the continental sort, strongly opposing Europe, supporting the death penalty and campaigning with his Staffy while wearing a Union Jack waistcoat.
Without wishing to stereotype all nationalists as football fans, or all football fans as nationalists, or everyone who lives in Romford as a Nazi, it seemed like the kind of place where an England qualifying game might be something of a big deal. Or at least a bigger deal than it had been in Leicester Square on a Friday evening.
Granted, Ukraine isn't a country that we have much of a history with. But it was an important game – lose, and there was a strong chance we wouldn't make it to next summer's World Cup in Brazil. Given that that tournament appears as a kind of footballing paradise in the distance, and the fact that a bunch of England fans had been attacked in Kiev before the game, I felt sure people would be more excited by it than they had been by the Moldova match. Plus, what else are you gonna do in Romford on a rainy Tuesday night in September?
I was looking for a place to watch it, and one place stood out more so than any other. A beacon of pure England in this consumerist desert: Yates's Wine Bar.
Every town has one now, but Romford's branch of Yates's is arguably the most notorious. The internet reviews of the place read like war crimes testimonials. It's more than just a bar; it's an idea and a byword for angry, drunken England. It's the kind of place that middle-class comedians use as a reference to somewhere they'd never go to.
The town was quiet as I made my way to the bar from the station, but immediately Yates's seemed like the place to be. They'd even taken the trouble of hanging England and Ukraine flags above the entrance. Perhaps the England one was outside all the time, but the Ukrainian one? There was dedication in the air.
For fuck's sake.
Where were the dogs in England shirts? Where were the kids with Beckham haircuts? Where were the men with Bombardier guts weeping and singing "no surrender to the IRA"?
As the game grew ever more aimless, as it got to the stage where Ashley Cole was lashing shots over the bar from the halfway line, and as England's midfield failed to find Theo Walcott with a regularity that suggested they were, in fact, taking the piss out of him by sending him through balls they knew he could never reach, the atmosphere waned into explicit disinterest. Heads turned away from the TV screen, conversations resumed, Twitter feeds were checked, tabs were settled. People were treating the England football team's struggle to reach the World Cup with as much deference as an easyJet safety video.
At half-time I got up and staggered away from the pub, heading shell-shocked into the drizzle.
It wasn't just Yates's that was letting down Queen and country. The whole town seemed bored of England, there was a distinct lack of ceremony. The Wetherspoons looked as any Wetherspoons does on any normal weeknight; host to the usual band of phone salesmen on third dates and those G&T OAPs who use the pub as a kind of surrogate care home rather than face-painted lionhearts.
I sent a bunch of texts out to my mates, asking if they'd found anywhere to watch it. Most weren't watching, some were watching at home, one who was in a pub told me that the landlord had been badgered into showing EastEnders on the second screen.
As I wandered the streets, it occurred to me that perhaps our cultural heroism has been hijacked by the people we were supposed to bully at school. Instead of Edward Elgar we have Ed Sheeran, instead of "Wonderwall" we have One Direction and instead of Thomas Becket we have Tom Odell. Maybe somewhere along the line England went from a nation of industry, innovation and invasion to a country whose main export is a bunch of dudes who wear Converse with smart trousers.
Perhaps we've lost our appetite for the kind of alpha-male derring-do that tends to result in sporting patriotism.
After traipsing around the desolate town centre for the duration of half time, staring in the windows of empty pubs like some alcoholic Oliver Twist, I came to a dead end. As I raised my head, I found myself staring up at a Union Jack that the wind was peeling from the scaffolding above a new Wimpy. I wondered if I had reached the end of England. I thought that perhaps you might think I'd faked this picture. But I didn't. I felt like Jimmy at the end of Quadrophenia.
Watching England now isn't a fun, thrilling or even tense experience. It's community service football, a burden and a duty to player and fan alike. Of course, most players must still get a thrill when they're called up for the first time, and the addition of Rickie "Happy Gilmore" Lambert to the squad at least provides it with a bit of an underdog story. But the only joy it's really possible to feel while watching England play today tends to arrive through nostalgia. When you're watching James Milner scrap for possession near the corner flag, are you really watching James Milner scrap for possession near the corner flag? Or are your eyes glazing over, the pitch becoming an Impressionist smudge of white and green that your mind paints with more vivid memories of Sheringham scoring the fourth against the Dutch, David Batty taking his terrible penalty, Paul Gascoigne stretching out his doomed leg, over and over again?
It seems like there's a messy divorce going on between the England football team and the English public. Of course, there are many outside factors that have contributed to this – things like atdhe.eu, the Premier League's monopolisation of the national football brain, the sheer volume of idiots it is possible to stay in bed and argue about football with on the internet, foreign football, the new FIFA 14 demo, Adrian Chiles's face like a bollock, the post-Ceefax-page-302 football Enlightenment perpetrated by Championship Manager and the Guardian.
But then there are the ways in which Team England have brought this upon themselves. (Such as referring to themselves as Team England.) The disinterested players, the po-faced adverts, the Lucozade sponsorship deals, the managerial merry-go-round, the bad suits, that fucking band with their drumming, the fact that Jay Bothroyd was given a cap. It's all conspired to bathe the England team in a kind of ruined glamour.
And perhaps that's the crux of it is: that England are just boring. Not even boring to watch, boring to support. You don't have to go as far back as Euro '96 to remember an England team that seemed like rogues and chancers, nursing hangovers and black eyes won in city centre piss-ups. England were fun back then. They weren't Brazil, but they didn't really want to be; they were England and they didn't give a shit what you thought about them.
Now they are... not. They are James Milner, just following orders, diligently toiling in blind alleys, a dull collection of square heads you probably wouldn't even recognise if they walked past you in the street on a rainy Tuesday night in Romford.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive