England fans' flagging in France

Every day is a flag day for England's followers in France; EURO2016.com discovers the story behind the passionate fans backing Roy Hodgson's team.

England supporters

The Iceland fans behind the goal where Arnor Ingvi Traustason scored his late, late match-winning goal against Austria on Wednesday had only to turn and look behind for a glimpse of what awaits them in Nice next Monday.

There, hanging from the balcony of the Stade de France's upper tier, were two St George flags with the letters BWFC – the initials of Bolton Wanderers Football Club – imprinted on them.

For anybody following England at this EURO, it was a familiar sight. In the land of the Tricolore, every venue England's footballers have visited has found itself decked out in the white and red of the Cross of St George: first Marseille, then Lens and Saint-Etienne.

The same will happen at the Stade de Nice where Roy Hodgson's side meet Iceland in the round of 16 today – the same sea of flags, each marked by the name of a different town or football club.

One unscientific count by this reporter stopped after reaching the 100-mark in Saint-Etienne and it must make these French arenas feel like a home from home for Hodgson's players, according to Andy Hinchliffe, the former England defender.

Hinchcliffe, working here for UEFA as a co-commentator, said: "Looking around and seeing the different parts of the country they have come from, and the effort and expense they have put in, is unique to England fans and the players, I am sure, appreciate it."

They certainly do. As defender Gary Cahill put it: "I feel like we've had three home games with the England fans. They've been absolutely unbelievable."

A culture change
What is intriguing about England followers and their flags is that if you watched footage of the national team’s matches in the 1980s – and even at the 1990 World Cup – you would struggle to find a single St George Cross on display. Then it was the Union Jack. England supporter ©AFP/Getty Images

According to John Williams, a professor of sociology and football fan culture at the University of Leicester, it was in the 90s that England fans, seeking to shed their association with the hooligan problems of the 70s and 80s, purposely adopted the flag of St George as their symbol.

Williams adds that EURO 96 in England was an important step in the process, recalling a time when "football was becoming much more fashionable in England and the Premier League had been launched. A lot of those things came together with a campaign to 'detoxify' the England supporters' brand – the flag of St George was part of that and the whole 'Three Lions' campaign was part of that."

National and local together
For Williams, what is noteworthy about the great swathe of flags at England’s games is that each has a personal touch. "They are not just displaying their affinity to England they are displaying their localness," says Williams. "We are a very unusual football culture, we have 100-plus professional clubs and if you're a town of any note you have got a local football club."

Hence the array of names – be it Bolton Wanderers in Saint-Denis or Cambridge United, which features prominently on this tweet of England flags at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard on Monday night.

"With the rise of the Premier League, one way for people who support their local clubs which are not Premier League clubs to maintain a connection with 'glamorous global football' is through following England," continues Williams.

"They're not just displaying their affinity to England they are displaying their localness and their connection to local places and they're hoping this is picked up on television."

Picking your spot
Becky Gamester-Newton is a representative of the Football Supporters' Federation's support group for England fans in France and she says: "I've been following England to away games for ten years and you see the same flags in every qualifier, every tournament."

This begs the question: why? "People like having that flag put down and saying 'We are here'," she replies.

Sigurdsson excited for ‘perfect’ England tie
Sigurdsson excited for ‘perfect’ England tie

And with the sheer number of English spectators at matches – and it has felt like they have occupied three-quarters of each stadium they have played at so far – this means a significant number of fans all wishing to say just that.

The key thing, adds Gamester-Newton, is spot of advance planning. "When we play in a qualifier in a different country, we will speak to the organisers and say 'We've people who want to put their flags down, can you let them in early?'," she says, though it works differently here in France.

"For this tournament, the gates open three hours before so these people are getting in at six o'clock and trying to get a good spot."

Their early-bird efforts are not going unnoticed. Whatever becomes of Roy Hodgson's side on the pitch in the knockout stage, inside the stadiums they have visited their followers have already created a spectacle to savour.