How quickly we – or at least some people – forget. When England were not so much knocked out of the World Cup last summer by Germany as blasted to smithereens in the manner of the Death Star obliterating an unsuspecting planet, there was much caterwauling on the state of the national team, as if England’s tepid performance in the tournament overall had been a sudden bolt from the blue. England’s performance over four matches had been at best dismal, and they had reaped what they sowed against an effervescent young Germany team that was, in terms of tactics, technique and fitness, so far ahead of England that even the matter of Frank Lampard’s perfectly-executed lob that bounced a yard over the goal-line was not a major concerned. England, common consensus agreed, had been rumbled.
There was the briefest of brief Indian summers in the form of two convincing wins against out of sorts Switzerland and Bulgaria, but since then England have returned well and truly to type. A limp, scrambled against a Wales side that is considerably less than the sum of its parts and a draw against Montenegro were little to shout about, friendly results were scarcely any improvement, and the recent 2-2 draw at Wembley against Switzerland was notable only for the fact that the team found any inner reserve from which to pull a draw out of the bag from a match that they scarcely deserved anything from. The cries of woe from most quarters on that day were partially silenced by Montenegro’s draw against Bulgaria, which meant that they ended the day no better off than England, but there were concerning possibilities to come from this match as well.
If, for example, Bulgaria have improved since their Wembley drubbing ten months ago by as much as their result that day suggests that they might, then England face not one but two tricky trips if they are to qualify for the finals of the European Championships next year. This leads on to the inevitable next question: should they manage to stumble their way there, what fate would await England in Poland and Ukraine next summer? Recent form gives little positive away as a prognosis for the fortunes of this team, and their failure, whenever it will occur, should surprise nobody. The England national team has been in a slow decline for the last decade and a half or so. None of this, however, will prevent extensive obituaries before we return the altogether more comforting subject of “The Best League In The World”.
It was evident in 2000, when a clumsy performance against Romania knocked them out of the European Championships in the group stages. It was evident in 2002, when they failed to manage so much as a fight against a Brazil team reduced to ten men. It was evident in 2006, when a run of uninspiring performances culminated in an uninspiring quarter-final defeat against Portugal. It was evident towards the end of 2007, with a performance against Croatia so farcical that ther television companies may as well have put on a two hour compilation of Benny Hill sketches and challenged viewers to spot the difference. And of course, it was evident against the United States of America, Algeria and Slovenia last year.
Yet for all of this, the surprise and hysteria remain. The press, somehow managing to ignore the slow dry rot that has set in with regard to the sheer technical ability and fitness levels of English players, started howling for the head of Capello some time ago with an apparent disregard for the question of how the England manager’s job could, almost uniquely, have made a failure of a man whose managerial career has been otherwise met with success and silverware at every turn. As ever, under such circumstances, many turned to the Under-21 team for a portent of something better, but the failure of the future of the team at this summer’s European Championships has been greeted with a familiar mixture of tish and pish. There limited reasons for optimism – the defensive partnership of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling seemed solid enough – but, broadly speaking, there was a feeling of overwhelming familiarity about the failings of this team.
The England coach Stuart Pearce, who, somehow, is the first name that springs to mind when you hear the sad old cliché about an individual being the sort of man that you would want alongside you in the trenches (or whatever), had a few things to say on the subject, few of which did much more than scratch the surface of the shortcomings of English football. “We cut them open on several occasions but we didn’t have the doggedness to see out the victory”, he said, a familiar rehashing of that old notion that somehow the loose concept of “heart” can make or break an inferior team beating a superior one. Pearce may recall the tournament of which his team’s performance this summer was reminiscent – in 1992, Pearce was part of an England team that played out two draws in the final of the European Championships, took the lead in the final match and then blew it. Graham Taylor, the manager at the time, was on borrowed time thereafter. Pearce, by contrast, hopes to to sign a two-year contract extension as the Under-21 manager has expressed an interest in taking charge of the Great Britain football team at next year’s Olympic Games.
Around five years ago, I wrote that England supporters, broadly speaking, watch their team play through the gaps in the fingers covering their eyes. They don’t seem to, in 2011. They now watch with something of a smirk on their faces. Pariahs of the national stage, a team that flatters to deceive at every turn and that in no way whatsoever is likely to be able to compete with the best in the world at any time in the near future. To that extent, the failure of the Under-21s this summer is perhaps little more than a reminder of what we already know is to come, and perhaps, considering this, it would be wise for people that haven’t started already to temper their expectations accordingly. If the current Under-21s are a portent of the future for England, the same old shortcomings are likely to continue to rear their heads. They are welcome, of course, to prove us wrong.
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