The trouble with this pre-season that runs for weeks and weeks is that it starts to drag. For those of us with no particular interest in the rumour mill, who are just hoping that their their team starts the new season with the requisite number of players and substitutes, it starts to get a little boring. Trying to find anything that isn’t a transfer story can be hard work. There are, however, some gems out there to be found. For example, hidden away in the middle of the BBC’s football website this weekend was an interview with Trevor Brooking that should be made required reading for everybody in the English media. Brooking, one suspects, is reaching that point in his old age when he stops caring about being bland or playing safe, as he was often accused of doing when working for the BBC, and it is no bad thing that he is using this opportunity to tell us a few home truths.
It was almost two years ago, on these very pages, that I noted with a degree of dismay that the press was woefully under-playing the likelihood of England reaching the finals of Euro 2008. Whilst club football has become more and more polarised, with the powerbase now lying with no more than half a dozen clubs, the international scene has, by contrast become more of a level playing field than ever. In the eyes, of the fourth estate, however, this is not the case. They seem to labour under the perennial misapprehension that success at club level leads inexorably to success at international level, when the raw fact of the matter is that nothing could be further truth. We were left, at the end of last season, with the somewhat jarring contrast of two Premier League teams playing out the European Cup final coupled with no England team at the finals of the European Championships. This is a pattern that I remain convinced will become more and more likely as time goes on.
The ludicrously high expectation level is still there, but it is categorically not the fans that carry this expectation along. I stated long ago that England supporters watch each match from the gaps between the fingers over their eyes. One of the ironies of the perception of arrogance of the England football team is that they could probably do with a little more of it than they currently have. Their self-confidence seems to be so perennially brittle that it only requires someone to score against them to make them likely to lose a match. An England team that actually seemed to believe in itself could arguably be capable of doing much better than it actually does, but the bare truth of the matter is that most (if not all) of the players go into major tournaments either not caring too much about what is going to happen or not seriously believing that they can win it.
At the level of mere player selection, the England coach’s job is fatally hampered by a simple lack of options. There are barely twenty-five English players that are anywhere near international standard at the moment. It only requires one or two injuries and Fabio Capello is having to hunt around the substitute benches of middle-ranking Premier League clubs for replacements. This is an inevitable result of the lack of investment in domestically developed young players, and there is no point looking to the Premier League to try and rectify it. The Premier League long ago gave up any pretence of caring about the well-being of the national game. Responsibility for bringing new, young players through therefore has to lie at the door of the FA but, as the debacle over the building of a national school of excellence ast Burton-Upon-Trent has demonstrated, they don’t seem too concerned about doing much about it either.
The truth of the matter is that we are at the start of a long, downward ark for English football at international level. The younger players that are coming through look, almost universally, to not be up to the required standard, and there is nothing to suggest that this situation is going to change. All that Trevor Brooking is saying in his interview is that this is a situation that we are simply going to have to get used to, and setting a ridiculously high target of reaching the semi-finals of the next World Cup is not going to help anyone. It will only increase the pressure on everyone concerned, and help to increase the international perception of the England national team as being arrogant and out of touch with their own limitations. For the time being, it would be better for everyone if we just all crossed our fingers and hoped amongst hopes that we might just qualify for the finals of the 2010 World Cup. Even that, based on the current evidence, is far from a done deal at the moment.