As our Eurostar train emerged from the tunnel English-side on Saturday afternoon my mobile phone signalled an incoming text. It was POSH mate explaining that he was sat in a beer garden, in the warming May sunshine, supping a pint of real ale poured straight from an oak barrel an hour before Peterborough United's final game of the season. Painting a quintessentially English scene the contrast to my couple of days in Paris was quite timely. I was back in Blighty just in time for the Saturday afternoon videprinter. Our family continental break had been planned for sometime; the arrival back on home shores in time to catch the last throws of a fading season was purely coincidental.
The speed at which we can travel nowadays still, at times, takes me by surprise. Yesterday I was eating crêpes with my wife and son on the steps of the Trocadéro overlooking the Eiffel Tour in the morning and then, in a matter of a few hours, I was slumped exhausted at home listening to reports of Nottingham Forest's promotion, Bournemouth's relegation and Fulham's continuing Houdini act. As modes and methods of travel become ever more efficient, the real-time distances between our continental compatriots shrink as Europe gets smaller and smaller. It is quicker and cheaper for me to travel to Paris that it is to Sunderland.
My own continental break in the French capital reminded me of a continental break that England and English fans will be experiencing this summer. Every couple of years, around about now, the nation is gearing up for a major international finals tournament, whether it is a World Cup or European Championship. But England's abject failure in the Euro 2008 qualification tournament means that we will have a summer off this time around.
The trip to Paris brought this fact quickly into focus for me. My mind has been occupied with the FA Cup, with Cardiff City, with Wembley and with other domestic end-of-season matters. The odd reminder of Euro 2008 had failed to take hold of my consciousness and any thoughts about the upcoming tournament had drifted out of my mind as silently and effortlessly as they had drifted in. But in Paris, there are constant reminders everywhere, the most striking of which are the mammoth posters adorning nearly every Métro station. "Les Bleus", the French national team, in full colour, looking down on you in action poses and looking forward to the big summer kick-about taking place in Austria and Switzerland.
At Gare du Nord station in Paris yesterday we shared a café au lait with a Dutch family. Their little girl took a liking to my son and came and sat next to him. Their au pair, after dealing swiftly and quite professionally with the aftermath of a comical, but rather messy, incident involving the little girl and a bottle of Coke, asked for a moments leave from her child-minding duties. She returned five minutes later with no less than five football magazines. She enthused about Netherlands' chances of winning the competition and was genuinely, and visibly, gripped with anticipation for Euro 2008. It was exactly at that moment that I realised, for the first time, that I wasn't.
Now is also the time that the Euro 2008 Panini sticker album will hit the streets. Since my son was born a little over eight years ago, we have fully completed Panini albums for Euros 2000 and 2004 and for the World Cups in both Korea/Japan and Germany. For each of those tournaments, the buying of the album and the collecting of the stickers was an important precursor to the main event, the event that would surely, at long last, see England lift a major trophy. The Panini sticker fest every other year fills that void between season's end and the start of summer tournament football and serves to whet the appetite and crank up the anticipation to popping point.
Always keen to stress that it was my son that was collecting the stickers, I used the feeble excuse to mask the inane sadness of it all. Either that or admit how freaky it is for a forty-something adult male to collect small pictures of footballers. But my son now sees it as it is; an important, necessary and unquestionable augmentation to the preparations for any major tournament.
But the thought of buying a Panini album this time round has only just entered my already full head. The first Euro 2008 game between Switzerland and the Czech Republic is only three weeks after the FA Cup Final, but I have hardly given it a second thought. It is May and I still haven't written all the Euro 2008 fixtures in my diary. How could I be so slack? No doubt England's absence is to blame. No constant reminders in the press. No daily assessments of England's likelihood of failure. No broken metatarsals to report. I shouldn't really be shocked. I will still buy a Euro 2008 Panini album. For my son of course. But not with quite the same verve as I would if England occupied a couple of the album pages.
As evident on my trip to France, and no doubt in the fifteen other competing countries around Europe, pre-tournament frenzy is taking hold and trading in Panini stickers will start to intensify. Fans across the continent will already have snapped up tickets for the tournament which is now sold out and hotel bookings would have been confirmed months ago. Supporters from Portugal, Croatia and Romania will be planning their visits to St Jakob Park, Ernst Happel Stadion and (how could I resist a mention) the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf.
It goes without saying that I will still watch Euro 2008. The anticipation and yearning may not be there now, but come early June I will quite likely find myself rushing home from work to catch Spain versus Russia or foregoing a night out to watch Austria and Poland. Don't ask me why.
So for many English fans, a continental break may well be on the cards this summer. A chance to take the family away without the worry of the awful prospect of being stranded in a foreign departure lounge at the exact moment England slot away that last minute goal which seals their first major trophy win for well over forty years. While England sit this one out, one team's continental break maybe be another family man's blessing in disguise.