The Prime Minister wearing an England jersey with “Boris” emblazoned on the back. Some unfortunate business with ticketless fans storming the barricades at Wembley. Priti Patel being an absolute spanner.
I suspect there’s every chance these are not the moments that come to mind when you think of last year’s Euros. Hopefully not. Hopefully you think instead of the seeming effortlessness that Gareth Southgate’s England squad – the greatest in living memory, deftly silencing the first-round naysayers – swept through to the finals. Or the collective uplift of hearing an open shop window, cabbie, man in the street carrying a radio, the celebratory roar of a neighbour’s flat whose Sky Broadband was a tantalising 20-seconds quicker than yours, all rising as one, the whole uniting-the-nation shebang. That’s the stuff that tends to stick.
Southgate could scarcely have emerged as a more mature foil to Johnson and both his stupid jumper and his olde worlde gang of cabinet Brexiteers – don’t get us started on the whole taking the knee “row” – with Keir Starmer tweeting out the England captain’s thoughtful essay to the nation, prior to the tournament, one Southgate headed "Dear England".
Starmer retweeted it under a new headline: "This Is England".
And got called "woke" for it. Of course he did.
Now it’s the title of a collection of 27 paintings of that record-breaking squad, one that goes has just one on view to general public for the first time. Matt Small, a London-based figurative artist, got the commission before the squad was even confirmed. So there remain a few half-finished best-guess nearly-ran’s still in his studio, the artist’s equivalent of the cutting-room floor. (There’s always 2024, eh lads?)
The portraits – of Kane, Grealish, Sancho, Maguire, Rashford, Saka and the other 21, meanwhile – hung in the corridors at Wembley throughout the tournament. We’re not suggesting that Small's portraits necessarily acted as a talisman of good-luck, inspiring the players to do their very, very best, and to present themselves as the greatest national team this country has seen in over five decades. That is not for us to say*.
Anyway, from today they go on view at the Pitzanger Gallery in west London. The players made history, of course, not just for their footballing achievements, but for their comportment, sportsmanship and unity – taking a higher-ground that has not always been the footballer’s path, and certainly not always the fans', and one that made a lot of other people look very, very babyish.
“Through their resolute and determined stance on various social issues and matters of inclusion and compassion for all, this group of players have come to represent the modern face of England, a multicultural land where people from all walks of life now call the country home," says Small.
“The England squad have demonstrated a desire to bring out the best in each of it members by showing respect to the different attributes they all bring and then utilising them to the betterment of the team. I hope that my paintings of the team can help continue to inspire the country to follow that example too and become a society where everyone feels valued and they belong. When this is achieved then this England will become a united place where we can all move forward united as one.”
"This is England" is at the Pitzanger Gallery, London, W5 5EQ until 14 November. Members and Ealing residents go free
*they definitely did
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