MANCHESTER, England --It was a quiet night in the Bay Horse pub on Friday, but the locals knew who to blame for that. Gareth Southgate, the England manager, was singled out as the reason why the atmosphere was as flat as a warm beer after 90 minutes of missed chances and nervous moments during the 0-0 draw in the Euro 2020 clash with Scotland at Wembley.
"Pretty rubbish that, wasn't it?" pub regular Barry Barlow told ESPN. "Southgate picked the wrong team and England never got going. The pub is usually pretty lively when there is a big game on, but it felt like a quiet Tuesday night in here tonight."
Even the postmatch airing over the sound system of "Vindaloo," the raucous fan song dating back to the 1998 World Cup, couldn't raise the unimpressed drinkers from their seats.
"Southgate should have put [Jack] Grealish on earlier," said another fan, who did not want to be named due to COVID-19 Test and Trace regulations, which can require 10 days self-isolation if a person is deemed to have been in contact with somebody who has tested positive for the virus.
While 22,500 supporters watched -- and endured -- the Group D stalemate inside Wembley Stadium, with the usual 90,000 capacity reduced by 75% due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, thousands of pubs across England, just like the Bay Horse, hosted fans to watch the game on television and big screens. Wherever you are sat in the Bay Horse, a small pub in Heywood, North Manchester, you can see at least two television screens and live games are a key element of the business.
"Football is massive for the pub," Mick Smith, the pub manager, told ESPN. "We run the local branch of Manchester United Supporters' Club, so match days are obviously huge for us. And after the year we have had with the pandemic, Euro 2020 couldn't have come at a better time.
"With three lockdowns, we have been closed, on and off for eight months. It's been hard, and it's still hard because we can't have the usual numbers in because of the social distancing measures, so it's fantastic to be able to take bookings and fill the pub for the England games."
Football in the pub has become the primary way that England fans support their national team at a major summer tournament. The phenomenon can be traced back to Euro 96, when England hosted the tournament and reached the semifinals before being knocked out on penalties by Germany. Southgate missed the crucial spot-kick in that shootout and was blamed for killing the atmosphere that night, too.
The launch of the Premier League in 1992, which coincided with all live games being broadcast on non-terrestrial channels, prompted plenty of fans to watch in pubs rather than pay monthly subscription fees. Euro 96 was when pubs and England games became intertwined, to the point where it is now the only way to watch games at major tournaments for millions of British football fans.
"I remember being in here at 7 a.m. to watch England play Brazil during the 2002 World Cup," Barlow said. "It was a bit weird to be sat in a pub at that time -- I wouldn't normally do that -- but the time difference in Japan meant we were all sat here, drinking pints with our breakfast!"
During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, research by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) showed that 6 million pints of beer were bought while watching England's group-stage opener against Tunisia. By the time, England played Croatia in the semifinals, the consumption numbers had jumped to 10 million.
COVID-19 protocols, such as reduced capacity and no standing at the bar, mean that pubs are unlikely to repeat those numbers during Euro 2020, but the tournament is still regarded as providing a crucial boost to the hospitality sector.
"We expect fans of both nations to buy 3.4 million pints when watching the game itself," Emma McClarkin, Chief Executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said ahead of the England-Scotland game. "Unfortunately, the current restrictions on pubs in both nations mean the experience isn't going to be the same. No standing and limits on group sizes, as well as social distancing, are going to severely reduce the number of people who can enjoy the game in the pub. Because of this, we expect pubs in England and Scotland to sell 850,000 pints less than they would have done without restrictions."
With or without restrictions, pubs can understandably be lively places, but the COVID-19 measures undoubtedly dampened the atmosphere while England played Scotland. Drinkers had to pre-book tables, which were spaced apart with warnings that they couldn't be moved, and face masks had to be worn whenever moving through the pub. Hand sanitiser pumps were in every room and customers had to leave their name and phone number on a Test and Trace sheet at the entrance. But some measures have caused consternation and frustration.
"This is what we are up against," pub manager Smith said, pointing to the front page that day's Metro newspaper, which carried a story warning of £1,000 fines for pubs that allow "booing, singing or chanting" from patrons due to the risk of the virus being spread by such behaviour. "What do they expect me to do? Wrestle somebody to the ground if they start to cheer a goal?"
Fortunately for Smith, there was rarely any danger of anyone jumping to their feet and cheering during Friday's game. Due to the lack of thrills and goal-scoring chances, the ambience was more like a waiting room at the dentist than a pub full of football fans.
But they will be back when England play Czech Republic on Tuesday and if Southgate's team begins to play to its potential and makes it to the latter stages of Euro 2020, the pubs will get busier and the noise will get louder.