Another England game and another torrent of outrage from much of the English press at how poor England is. Surprise surprise. There is a very vocal majority in the press who want to blame all this on Capello because it’s easier than thinking deeply about it and much more preferable than stating that players who you laud week-in week-out are actually, at a decent international level, well below par. There is also a crude desire by almost all of Fleet Street to get their mate Harry Redknapp installed as manager, as though this will make any significant difference.
All of us who have witnessed this ‘debate’ time and again across decades know what the problem is. Everyone with a brain in football knows what the problem is. It was painfully clear in the contrast between our play and France’s. We do not have a culture of patient nurturing of the ball; we simply cannot pass well enough to retain possession and we default to aimless hoofing all too quickly. Our first touch is often humiliatingly poor.
The fallacy that the players perform better for their clubs than for England would be exposed if anyone bothered to look closely. Their touch doesn’t disappear at international level, its not there domestically, it’s just less exposed most weeks so is ignored or not noticed by critics.
After last month’s international which brought the exact same reaction from the press and public, I wrote that the only surprising thing about such performances is that it surprises anyone. We would do better as a nation to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, stop assuming we have some entitlement to be good at international football, stop the cyclical scape-goating of managers or specific players. This isn’t going to get better with a change of manager or playing personnel, the problem is endemic and profound. It goes back to the roots of the English game which are wedded to physicality and not skill.
England are a decent second tier side; the international equivalent of say Nottingham Forest. We could beat a struggling Premier League side on a good day, we won’t lose to many sides below us, but we haven’t a chance against the best sides in the top tier. We must accept this. We don’t have to like it but it’s vital that we know it is true because until we accept our true position in world football, we can’t begin to hope to change our fortunes. We will continue to be crippled emotionally by our losses if we continually think they are an aberration caused by squad selection, tactics or managerial decisions.
Just thinking if only we had an English manager it would somehow transform our players’ ability to pass the ball is blatant nonsense, as it was thinking that a whole team of new caps would somehow outperform the old guard. With England it’s always a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Every new generation of players has been inculcated into the same football culture and while it’s possible to tweak and improve that, by the time they get into the England team their basic skill set is established and immovable. So each generation is fated, by and large, to repeat the failures of the past as more and more international sides skill-up and move forwards, we slip backwards and backwards and backwards.
This French side was rotten at the World Cup but unlike England this wasn’t due to a lack of talent but a lack of temperament, so it was inevitable that they would re-establish themselves sooner rather than later. England has a much, much longer journey to undertake.
However, we cannot make he first steps on that journey until we accept our true position in the scheme of things; to stop the self-loathing and begin to accept reality. The berating of England, its players and its managers is now a national sport in itself. I often think people enjoy it in some kind of masochistic way.
But it’s inappropriate in the same way that shouting at a dyslexic child who can’t spell properly is inappropriate, until media, fans, players and everyone else in the game realises that, we will not improve. It’s all in our hands to change. But does anyone really want to?