Amid all the bluster about Englands match against the Netherlands last night (a match already being described by some as “That Thing That Happened At Wembley”), Mark Critchley thinks that he may have spotted the real reason why Stuart Pearce cannot succeed as the England manager.
To be English is to be afflicted. History’s ever-unravelling twine simply doesn’t have the courtesy to cut this seat of Mars a bit of slack, and thanks to Western civilisation’s added prejudice against demographics of a largely white, heterosexual and male background, the England football team understand this more than most. Gary Lineker, in his documentary Can England Win the Next World Cup? opined ‘there are all sorts of reasons why we’ve been so unsuccessful for so long’. No Gary, there is only one. It is not because our coaching structures are as unmanned as a Maeve Binchy appreciation evening on Sputnik 1. It is not because our children are told to, God forbid, win the Kelly’s Erotic Cakes Junior County Challenge Cup and liquidise the skulls of any kid tactically astute enough to get in their way. And you know what, it is not because the media in this country chum up to dumb young prodigies, capitalise on any microscopic failure of theirs and then slip them the required change for their final, cortex-collapsing can of Tennent’s Super. No, it’s none of that. It is simply because we are English and so, we are damned. Stuart Pearce will never understand this.
During the build-up to last night’s international friendly against the Netherlands, sceptics hashed and rehashed anecdotes which questioned the England caretaker boss’ ability to write down eleven names and shout at their physical representatives. The suggestion from our ever-prescient smartarses seemed to be that a man with previous of selecting a team sans goalkeeper and putting David James up front would come up tactically spent when attempting to reign in your archetypically sophisticated English footballer. Yet something as superfluous as not having a spare hand tend to some poles pales in irrelevance against Pearce’s one acutely tragic flaw – he has hope.
It is often said, but come 2028 and the inevitable military apocalypse that will befall our island from the East, one imagines Pearce, emboldened by a fresh coaching experience at the previous summer’s UEFA U-17 Keepy-Uppy Super Knockout Slam, defiantly emerging from his lonely foxhole, firing a bazooka aimlessly into the stampede advancing towards him and all the while, permitting a solitary tear to slalom about his eyeballs before it falls onto the last square foot of Lindisfarne that the English can still call their own. None of us will see these last days of England – we and our lily livers will be on the last chopper out of Market Drayton – but Pearce will, and even when Overlord Bao and his billion minions have pulped the sorry carcass of our last patriot, that pulp will still beat in time to ‘Jerusalem’. That pulp will still be English, and could still coach us to win a major football tournament. Mutilation is merely finite disappointment because Stuart Pearce is infinite hope. English football, on the other hand, is relentless failure. To mix the two would be total embarrassment forever. Never the twain should meet.
At Wembley last night, they did. Optimism briefly abounded. Since the late 00s, supporters, learned media personalities and Adrian Chiles alike have placed great expectations on this team because there is not any real expectation of them. But of course, as who needs world class players in the prime of their careers to propel us to global domination when we have Joleon Lescott and an overwhelming sense of despair? In what can only be interpreted as an attempt to empirically support this way of thinking, Pearce named a starting eleven so unremittingly average it could only be the ‘final piece’ in the worn-out, partly misplaced jigsaw that will eventually shape to reveal Bobby Moore crying. Surprising it was then, when England applied themselves assertively, if not effectively in the first half.
What the home side undoubtedly proved in the first goalless forty-five minutes is that they exist. You could not help but concur with Andy Townsend following an early touchline sally from the English left-back, when he conclusively noted, ‘Leighton Baines, there’. However, existing is not always enough at international level, especially when it is in some flux state between tiki-taka at gunpoint and mild ‘pump-it-long’ peril. If your writer was not already in danger of building a coffee shop on Pseud’s Corner, he’d throw in the terms ‘ego’ and ‘id’ to further demonstrate this psychological catastrophe, but one look at Steven Gerrard’s performance should explain enough. A man never concerned with his sense of self, the Liverpool skipper reacted graciously to Pearce’s decision to hand Scott Parker the armband, continually passing the ball into areas of the field where all team-mates had equal opportunity of receiving it. After half an hour and his voluntary substitution, he proceeded to the dressing room rather than the substitutes’ bench, presumably to avoid restricting the view of Theo Walcott, who had just settled himself in for the night.
Come the second half, England were skewered. The earlier stasis, interpreted as ‘doing pretty well’ by the punditry, came undone through wild movement as Chris Smalling swept himself up in Klaas Jan-Huntelaar’s gravitational pull and allowed Arjen Robben the space to open the scoring from outside the box. Moments later, the attraction between Smalling and Huntelaar proved fatal – the Dutch striker heading in a Dirk Kuyt cross for 2-0 and simultaneously knocking himself and his opponent spark out. Smalling offered the viewing millions a glimpse of his own brand of strawberry porridge, perhaps foreshadowing what this new, ‘gutsy’ age of Pearce power might be all about.
And then, the inconsequence. Routine defeat isn’t particularly English, after all – one does not simply resign one’s neck to the tulip-botherer’s blade without pissing in his clogs first. Five minutes from time then, centre-back Gary Cahill indisputably secured his place at the European Championships, poaching a goal from six yards out in open play and displaying the positional sense of a hedgehog on the M6 – underwater. Ashley Young’s equaliser came next in stoppage time and looked to have finally rebutted history’s dogma, but as student of the English condition P.G. Wodehouse once noted, it is usually just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping. Up the other end, Robben assimilated every one of his sinews with what Dutch football is apparently about to rasp an effort into Joe Hart’s top right-hand corner. The most English of victories – a well-earned defeat.
Post-match, Chiles enthusiastically posited that the game had offered a microcosm of the England fan experience, albeit with the volume turned down. There was a hint of truth in this. A spirited defeat against superior opponents and an England team under the most English of managers leaves the feeling that everything is in its right place again. Football in this country has gone through its years of vague pretence and come out no better. Perhaps under Pearce, if he is to take on the role permanently, the national team will regain the pure sense of pre-determined misery that so many in this country associate it with. That would, however, mean placing its fortunes in the hands of the only ‘natural born leader’ who is so deferent he salutes his set of 1981 Royal Wedding tea coasters. It would effectively mean giving up hope. Something about the generally positive reaction to last night’s game tells me that Stuart Pearce isn’t the only one who’d struggle to do that.
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