June, 1996. A warm morning in rural Tynedale. I was out in the garden furrowing up the potatoes when a swanky blue coach came to a juddering halt in the narrow lane outside our cottage. Terry the farmer was driving his sheep up to the shearing sheds. Collies barked, quad-bikes snarled. As the coach idled amongst the bleating flock, I noticed a shaven-headed man looking absent-mindedly at me out of the window. It was only when the sheep had gone and the coach had driven away I realised the shaven-headed man was Zinedine Zidane.
“Can you believe this?” David Thompson, headmaster of Haydon Bridge High School is saying. He has a mobile phone in one trouser pocket and a walkie-talkie in the other. The walkie-talkie occasionally bursts into life with a noise like a 60-a-day smoker waking up after a heavy session. When it does, David Thompson ignores it. It is not his walkie-talkie. He has been given it to look after by one of the Euro security men who are currently scouring the back of the cricket pavilion for Islamic terrorists.
Behind Thompson, on the school playing field, the French squad are amusing themselves by whacking volleys at a TV1 cameraman perched on top of a scaffolding gantry; over in the corner Aimé Jacquet is being interviewed by Canal+, whose production team seems to consist entirely of leather-clad blondes who look as if they might once have been married to Rod Stewart; another camera crew is rushing about taking shots of black-faced sheep, border terriers and kids wearing Newcastle United shirts with the name Ginola on the back.
A tricoleur flaps above the sports hall, now converted into an international media centre, the car park is full of tinted windowed transit vans with satellite dishes on the top, men in raybans and moustaches lounging up against the sides of them watching make-up women powder-puffing the bronzed cheeks of the TV football correspondents.
“Isn’t it fantastic?” David Thompson says, “Can you believe it?” It is the first Sunday of Euro ’96 and three miles away from my house they are broadcasting live to France. Can you believe it? Well, yes. Though only after a considerable effort.
Maybe this will seem small beer to those of you who live in Britain’s more cosmopolitan cities. A few foreign camera crews, so what? But Haydon Bridge is in western Northumberland, the heart of a region which has been described, by no less of an authority than David Bellamy, as “England’s Last Wilderness”.
The appearance of the French football team might not raise an eyebrow in London, Birmingham or Manchester, but in an area where local paper, The Hexham Courant, once ran a front page story headlined Drunk Man Held Up Daffodil it is enough to set people bouncing in their chairs with child-like glee.
In the week before the French arrive and set up base at the George Hotel in Chollerford, signs go up in local newsagents: “Nous vendons les magasins Francaise”. L’Equipe and France Football vie for shelf space with Farmer’s Weekly and the Westmorland Gazette; red, white and blue bunting appears everywhere, road signs directing French journalists are tied to lamp posts and a TV broadcasting station is set up in a car park next to the ruins of a Roman fort.
Not everyone is pleased, of course. Tynedale is farming country and the sight of the tricoleur is a red rag to cattlemen still fuming about EU livestock export bans. Rumour has it that the large poster naming the French squad had to be removed from the sports hall/media centre at the High School because an irate pupil had written “Anglais!!” after the name of Strasbourg defender Franck Leboeuf.
In the main, though, people are delighted. If you live in rural England most of the time you have to go to the world, so it’s nice if once in a while the world comes to you.
On the playing field the school caretaker is holding forth to a small crowd of people. When I last saw the caretaker he was steaming drunk and struggling to stand upright in the queue at Hexham's premier nitespot, Dontino's. Now he is a kind of informal technical liaison with Jacquet's management team. He is has talked to them extensively about their needs and, along the way, become quite an expert on the squad. “The big lad’s up for a place in the starting line-up,” he says indicating Jocelyn Angloma. “But that fella,” he points to Christophe Dugarry who is undergoing a fitness test, “He’s not going to be ready in time. It’s just a formality is that. It's for the media.”
“When are you going to announce your team for the Romania match, then?” someone asks him, a touch sarcastically.
The caretaker pauses, scratches his cheek, “’Bout an hour before kick-off. I want to keep the opposition guessing.”
Like Tynedale itself, having unexpectedly found himself at the centre of attention the bloke is determined to get the most out of it.