John Coward was 39 years old when England played against West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley. A merchant mariner, he watched the game on a black and white TV at home in Alnwick, Northumberland, with his three children, Christine, Denny and John, aged 11, 10 and six.
Coward practically kept his emotions in check until Geoff Hurst galloped off the field in extra time and hit the ball into the top corner, securing his hat-trick, England’s 4-2 win and the first and only Jules Rimet trophy of the country. “When he scored the goal,” Coward recalls, “I had John on my knee and I got so excited I threw him in the air and his head almost hit the ceiling!”
Coward, who will turn 95 in August, admits that in 1966 he had absolutely no idea that it would be more than half a century before the England men’s team would once again reach the final of a major tournament. But as a fan of Newcastle United (who last won the top division in 1927, when Coward was one), he is no stranger to disappointment and had long given up hope of seeing the national team reach such heights again.
“He’s gotten a bit despondent with England over the years,” says Denny, who is now 65 and ran a business before looking after her mother full-time when she was diagnosed with dementia. “Obviously, when you’re almost 95, you’re living on borrowed time. And he once told me that he would like to see them win something before, as he puts it, he throws the bucket over the bucket.”
On Wednesday night, Coward saw England’s tense, sometimes excruciating, ultimately euphoric, 2-1 victory over Denmark with three generations of his family in the home he grew up in in Amble.
He was the oldest person in the room; the youngest was his great-grandson Louis, one month old. Louis slept most of the game, but his brother Rudy, four, watched it in red and white face paint, next to his great-grandfather. They might have been 90 years apart, but for 120 minutes they were wordlessly in sync.
When I’m with the family on Thursday, as you’d expect, there are some fuzzy heads. “I couldn’t get him out of bed,” said Rudy’s mother, Hannah, a supporter. “Late for school this morning, isn’t it?” Hannah’s sister Julia hadn’t shown up yet (it’s 4:30 PM). “Normally she never gets a hangover,” Hannah reports with a mischievous smile.
You can forgive them for getting carried away; it was not the easiest year for this family, like many others. When Covid-19 hit, Coward was living on his own. For nearly six months, his only contact was a wave and a cut-off chat when his kids (or their kids and their kids) dropped groceries outside his door. Deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, Coward struggled to understand video calls.
“Before all this started, he would go into the kitchen and make things to eat and get on his scooter and put his bet on Friday to get fish and chips,” Denny says. “All these independent things, but slowly but surely, because he didn’t do them – you know what” they say use it or lose it. He just didn’t take good care of himself, he didn’t eat well. And I could see it in his mental state too: he was moody and quite depressed.”
Last month – coincidentally around the time the European Championships started – Coward moved in with Denny. He is now much more cheerful and even rides a stationary bike for five minutes every day. “He’s like a different person, a new man,” Denny says. And football couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s something that can bring you all together.” I ask Coward if he enjoyed watching the games with Rudy. “It’s all right,” he replies, a little grumpy. The family falls in hysterics: “Well, there you go,” Denny sighs. “You have to say it feels special. It’s hard to make a four-year-old and a 94-year-old behave!”
Hannah isn’t sure how much the euros will come in for her son. His favorite player is Marcus Rashford, although he comes to Harry Kane. Rudy started playing football when he was three and went to sessions every Tuesday, but they were canceled due to Covid-19 and have not started again. He has now lived a third of his life in the shadow of the pandemic.
“Rudy spends a lot of time with my grandfather now,” says Hannah. “So I hope he remembers. It would be nice if he could tell his kids, ‘I watched that game with my great-grandfather.’”
Tonight, again, four generations of Coward’s family gather to watch England take on Italy. They will be desperate to see Gareth Southgate’s team end 55 years of disappointment and underperformance, but the past 18 months have given them enough perspective to know they will survive if England are defeated. “We came out of the black hole, didn’t we?” says Denny. “Winning would be the icing on the cake, but I don’t think it would be” the end of the world if they didn’t, because they did so well to get where they need to be.”
All that said: just: assuming Raheem Sterling bursts through the Italian defense sending the England winner, let’s hope Coward doesn’t throw little Rudy through the ceiling this time.
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