THIS might be the first time in my life where part of me is hoping to see England win a major tournament in tonight’s Euro 2020 final.
I have been so impressed by the efforts of my former Aston Villa defensive partner Gareth Southgate (below), as he has led a fine young England team to their first major final in 55 years.
Now we wait to see if they can get over the winning line against Italy in front of their home fans at Wembley.
There’s no doubt that England fully deserve to be in the last game of what has been a captivating tournament and their clash against Italy should be a wonderful spectacle, with my loyalties very much divided.
So let me explain where I’m coming from as with my Ireland head talking, I can’t bring myself to cheer on England tonight.
I’ve spent my whole life cheering any team that plays England, especially if they have got near to winning major tournaments.
Yet I have to admit this is a likeable England team led by a manager who is one of the nicest guys I ever came across in my football career.
Southgate was bought to replace me at Villa back in 1995, as I was at that stage of my career where I was nursing my knees through matches and trying to hang on in the Premier League.
I remember him joining us from Crystal Palace and to start with, he was playing in a midfield role before he dropped back and played in the defensive line alongside me.
Ugo Ehiogu and Shaun Teale were also pushing to get into the Villa defensive line, but Gareth emerged as the real star.
He was magnificent at the heart of our three-man defence under Brian Little and we finished that season winning the League Cup with a fine win against Leeds in the final at Wembley.
Gareth’s form was so impressive that Terry Venables had to get him into his England side for the Euro ’96 finals, where he infamously missed the decisive penalty in the semi-final shoot-out against eventual champions Germany.
I felt for Gareth after that because I got to know him well over that year at Villa and he was the sweetest of guys.
He was so humble, down to earth and just a great fella and you didn’t want to see a moment like that inflicted on someone who was such a decent guy.
You will never hear anyone in football who has a bad word to say about Gareth and this is why I say that even though he is England manager, I am pleased to see him doing so well.
To be honest, I didn’t see Southgate as a manager in the making when we played together at Villa.
He was a quiet guy, so thoughtful and didn’t really strike me as having the personality that was expected of a manager back then.
Yet times have changed and even though there is still a place in the game for managers who wear their heart on their sleeve and throw the odd teacup around the place, Gareth is perfect for the job he is in now.
He has blended this England squad together so well and all the players seem to be enjoying the experience of being a part of Euro 2020, which is a massive part of having a winning balance.
Back in my time playing for Ireland under Jack Charlton, we had great fun every time we met up for international matches and the bond the lads built up off the field served us well when we need to dig in during a match.
That’s the spirit I’m seeing from this England side because there have been times when they have not been on top form in this competition, but they have found a way to get results and their manager has made all the right calls when they were needed.
This England team under Southgate are actually quite likeable until you see the morons in the crowd who support them and it reminds you why a lot of people in Ireland will be hoping they lose against Italy this evening.
The booing of the opposition’s national anthem and the images of drunken fans smashing up cities across England and fighting each other have been popping up on social media and it makes no sense to us in Ireland.
When an Irish team or sports person has a big win, we go out and celebrate with a smile on our face and enjoy the moment.
Sadly, England fans have a history of fighting anyone they can get hold of when their football team do well and it’s a trait that makes them hard to like.
The other factor for me here is I have lots of Italian friends and they are the most wonderful people to be around, so I’d be delighted for them if they got the big win tonight.
All in all, it should be a fascinating game between two teams that have dangerous attacking players and have looked solid at the back, with the outcome certain to divide people across Ireland.
A few people I have spoken to in recent days have suggested they wouldn’t be against England winning Euro 2020 and that is a big change from what we would have expected from Irish people down the years.
Yet plenty in this country will still be hoping England get battered by the Italians tonight and that ‘Football’s Coming Home’ song is finally turned off the Wembley PA system.
Whatever way it goes tonight, I will take some satisfaction from the outcome, even if that means England finally ending their long wait to win a trophy.