On Sunday, July 11, 2021, McShane & Shaw were booked to perform two forty-five-minute sets at a small wedding (all weddings at this time were small as restrictions limited them to thirty guests.)
As the day came closer, we realised our second set, scheduled for 8pm, was going to coincide with the kick-off of the European Cup Final: England Versus Italy. You wouldn’t think a mere ball-kicking game could disrupt the sacred and joyful union of a wedding ceremony, but this was no ordinary match…
The England football team has failed to make it to the final of a major competition since 1966 (the 4-2 defeat over Germany is still celebrated with dreamy nostalgia) and, ever since that day, England has experienced a decades-long footballing drought, often not even qualifying for tournaments. But this year it was different. As England rose through the levels of competition, beating Germany, Ukraine and finally Denmark, to reach the Cup-Final, the nation-wide hype grew to fever-pitch.
By the weekend the wedding was completely at the mercy of football. The organisers had to supply a viewing room – to prevent guests from either cancelling or watching the game on their phones during the cake cutting. We did wonder if the wedding itself might get rebooked, but, as the date had already been changed a few times due to Covid, they were determined to go ahead.
As things turned out I believe everyone got the best of both worlds: the guests enjoyed a very entertaining set by McShane & Shaw – followed by the cutting of the cake (brought forward to just prior to kick-off) – before sitting down to watch the most important game of footy since 1966. Chris and I were paid in full and sent home early without playing our second set.
There have been aspects to this competition that I detest. Possibly the main one was hearing England fans, on semi-final home territory, booing the Danish anthem. There were 56,000 England fans and only 4,000 Danes. They should have been treated as guests. From that moment on I stopped caring whether England won or not. Nevertheless, I do love a good story and I wanted to see how this one turned out. I got home and didn’t even unload my gear before turning on the TV. I texted a friend of mine to say that I was: “home in time to watch the second half – plus extra time – before England finally lose in penalties.”
Which is exactly what happened.
I wouldn’t say my prediction was an eerily accurate foretelling of the future, England have a history of taking games to a draw and then losing in the penalty shootout. Indeed, the England manager, Gareth Southgate, has had a career haunted by his infamous penalty miss in the 1996 UEFA semi-final against Germany. But he’s recovered well, for, ever since then, his story has been one of redemption. First, he managed the England youth team and then moved on to manage the men’s national team. His inspired leadership has brought out the best qualities from his players in ways that are both sporting and personal. But as I watched his choices for who would take the penalty kicks it was as a musical performer that I questioned his wisdom.
Running around a football pitch playing your heart out in front of over 60,000 fans for 120 minutes is exhausting. So, mere minutes before the final whistle, manager Gareth Southgate brought on two fresh players, known to be skilled penalty takers, for the sole reason of participating in the imminent shoot-out. And you’d think this strategy would make sense but my gut felt it was the wrong thing to do.
Even now, after years of stage performing, I still marvel at how different it feels from comfortably playing music at home to the rarefied state of going onstage before a live and expectant audience. You can tell yourself that it’s just another gig but there is no doubt that everything becomes more intense when there is more at stake. Your brain becomes jittery as the adrenaline-fuelled feeling of fight or flight kicks in and lyrics and chords suddenly fly from your mind. In my performance classes I’ve always recommended careful construction of the set list. Get the first song right. Choose a good introductory song that is exciting for the audience but, above all, is easy to play.
The first few minutes of a performance tend to be the shakiest. And it’s no surprise. You’ve gone from being a more-or-less anonymous human-in-the-world to suddenly having a roomful of eyes and ears all focussed on you. So, choose your first song accordingly knowing that those early nerves can throw you off.
And, with that in mind, it seemed to me that Gareth Southgate’s penalty set list was a surprising tactical error. In front of 60,000+ fans, and millions more watching on TV, England missed three out of the five penalties. Which is a lot. And two of those misses were by the players who had only just been brought on. Indeed, one of them hadn’t even kicked the ball yet. I cannot imagine how shaky they must have felt taking those all-important kicks. One hit the post and the other two were saved and all three lads were devastated.
The fact that all three of them happened to be black brought out the worst in some of the so-called England fans who subsequently delivered a torrent of online racial abuse towards the three. But manager Gareth Southgate responded to this quickly and publicly saying that such abuse must end immediately and that any errors were all on him. The penalty choices had been his and the lads had stepped up to take the challenge he alone had given them. They were not to blame.
And he’s right. But the irony of his story is unmistakable. The story I see is of a man whose career has gone full circle. His quest for redemption after his famous missed penalty has led him, via a curiously convoluted route and much personal growth, to make another, albeit grander, version of exactly the same mistake twenty-five years later.
Through his expertise and efforts, he helped England climb back to the top only to see them falter and lose because he’d underestimated the importance of being warmed up, in-the-zone and ready for performance. Ah well, next year is the World Cup. Another chance.
Keep your eyes on the ball and your mind on the goal and, most of all, love to play!
Keep Strumming and Smiling,