The England Obituary, Part Five: A View From North of the Border
It’s not really an obituary, this. For a start our lot lost 4-0 to Norway in qualifying so I’m in no position to start flinging mud. I’d be only too delighted if many of your underappreciated players were allowed to declare themselves Scottish instead. I’d even take Heskey. So it’s not about the team – mostly I just wanted to have a bit of a rant about the English press, first and foremost because they’ve been annoying the hell out of me over the past few weeks and I wanted to get some of it off my chest, but also because there’s a more serious point involved. For all the many and various reasons that have been suggested for the (perceived) malaise in the English game over the past few days, the impact of the media itself, and the responses and reactions of the nation and the supporters in general, is itself, I would submit, a more active impediment to the success of the national team than any other single factor.
Having said which, virtually every attempt to explain the disappointment – my own included – reads far too much into it. The margins of success and failure are very tight and England weren’t that far away from a much more successful campaign. Take out one goalkeepeing error or one last minute goal in another game and they’d have had a winnable (though of course, not easy) second round game against Ghana and there’s every chance they’d now be eyeing up an equally winnable quarter-final tie over Uruguay. Take out the freak injury to Ferdinand beforehand and it might well have been a very different tournament. Even if you add back in Lampard’s phantom goal it might have been all change – that’s not to say Germany didn’t deserve the win, they responded better to the situation, but sometimes clichés are clichés because there’s a lot of truth in them, and goals really do change games.
You might say that would all have been window-dressing, and the bottom line was England didn’t play well enough regardless of whether they might have got away with it. There’s something in that, but even here the margins are tight and difficult to fathom. Every fan of club football can think of a four game spell in the last couple of years where the team has been terrific, and a four game spell where they’ve been awful. In international football you don’t get the second chance to counterbalance it, but that doesn’t mean that the small number of games provides any more accurate a sample on which to base assessments.
So it’s a bit silly to pretend that the state of the English game stands or falls on a few bits of luck on the other side of the world, and I take most of the many explanations offered with a pinch of salt. There might be something in some of them of course, some made me nod my head, some seemed less plausible, some didn’t even make sense, one or two were racist and abhorrent. Many are mutually contradictory – the reason that another knockout phase defeat feels like a disappointment rather than about par for your place in world football is precisely because you really do have some good players, we’ve seen England play better than this in qualifying. Thus all the explanations that blame youth football and lack of coaching and lack of opportunity don’t make much sense to me in that light. Which, again, is not to say there’s no substance to them, but they don’t serve as an explanation for what just happened in South Africa.
I’m sceptical, then, of much of the analysis of the past week. But it’s quite hard to tell or come to any judgements because most of it, or at least most of the information on which it’s based, comes through the distorted prism of the press – who have been, over the past few weeks, awful. Worse than usual, I think, though I’d probably just forgotten and it’ll catch me by surprise in just the same way again next time.
Viewed from the outside, there seem to be few in-betweens when it comes to England; string a couple of wins together and the noise coming out suggests you’ve got a team of worldbeaters, but if you fail to roll over someone you think you ought to beat it turns very quickly on its head, the hunt for scapegoats and the thinly-disguised joy that some elements take in pouring derision on the team and the sport in general shines through in all its ugly glory. It’s easy to perceive that all this is coming from the same people, and maybe that’s even true in a few cases among the redtops. But more likely it’s simply that the two groups of people do exist, and results determine which camp shouts loudest at any given time. Meanwhile the more reasonable and moderate people who belong to neither camp tend to get drowned out altogether. So, my apologies – I know you do exist, but from the outside it’s easy to forget it and to imagine that England really are represented by the press from whom we hear most.
And I really do think it was worse this time, even the more sensible elements of the press seem to have gone off on one (or more) over the past couple of weeks, and to have overreacted in sometimes hysterical fashion both to the team’s failure and specifically to some of the players and to incidents that took place during the campaign. We can’t only blame the published press either, they may have some responsibility for setting the agenda but not the entirety of it. They feed off a sense of hysteria which exists independently of them and which the internet provides a nice easy vent for these days. During the competition and even more so in the days since the defeat all kinds of scorn has been poured on the players in many sources, and I see there’s yet another batch of baseless internet rumours being gleefully circulated by email and messageboard this week, relating to Gerrard in particular.
So, in no particular order, a few thoughts on some of the issues on which the press – and the country – have most gone to town:
Capello made some odd decisions during the tournament which I don’t feel any particular need to try and defend. He might have been lucky and they might have worked, but mostly they didn’t. I don’t know that there’s a lot to be said to that other than “oops”. I share the rest of the world’s amusement that you feel the need to pay him six million quid a year but he’s a good coach, let him do the job. Or don’t, and let someone else do it instead, I don’t really care either way. Just don’t expect him or anyone else to have a magic wand – management is not an exact science, and while a good manager can, over the course of time, increase their team’s chances so that it’ll make a difference in the long run or over a 40 game season, in international management your career will hinge on a very small number of games in which luck probably has a greater role to play and in which you have very little time to react to it. Them’s the breaks.
Rooney is a very fine player who had a poor tournament. It happens, and he’s not been the only one. But such is the way we hype good players up in this Champions League era that we expect them to produce it on any given occasion and start asking what’s wrong – or taking pops at them – if they don’t. It was inevitable that some of those who don’t like Rooney would take delight in making a villain of him, and unfortunately he gave them further ammunition to do so with his comments about the fans’ booing right after the Algeria match.Booing your team is rubbish. The whole “I’ve paid my money, I’ve got every right express my feelings” thing. Sure, and you have every right to do all kinds of other things that are equally stupid, boorish and counterproductive, but why would you? Which is not to say that I don’t understand it – people have invested a lot, emotionally and financially, in the team and want to express their disappointment. And however unhelpful it is, Rooney’s job is to take it on the chin and I’m sure he knows it too given a few minutes to calm down and rationalise it. But precisely because he cares so much, and because he’s a hot-tempered and not particularly articulate man, the seconds right after a bad result are not the time to get such rationalisation. There are few more reliable ways of creating controversies and scapegoats than by sticking a microphone under someone’s nose at just that moment.
Give the boy a break. Especially if you ever want him to be able to play at his best.
John Terry is an idiot. This we know. And yet when he gave a press conference after the Algeria game he was suddenly credited with a level of guile and cunning way beyond his level. A media looking for reasons for England’s poor performance were only too eager to interpret Terry’s every phrase as if it was loaded with carefully thought malevolence, rather than as the witterings of a big idiot who had opened his mouth without engaging his brain. He didn’t say half the things attributed to him, though I guess he could have been interpreted that way, if you’d already decided that was the story you wanted to write. Capello’s comment that Terry had made a “big mistake” was even better, implying as it did – at least to some – that the thing had now become a personal vendetta and that Terry would be sleeping with the fishes by the following evening.
He had indeed made a mistake. His mistake was to attempt to talk honestly and openly to a press pack who were ready to pounce on anything, to do so without having the nous to realise the effect his comments would have, and to give material for every two-bit hack with his own agenda to pursue. Big mistake indeed.
Football people like to talk an awful lot of crap about tactics. It’s a very easy trap to fall into, I do it myself I know. But in truth, the reasons why your team plays well one week and like a sack of stale porridge the next are almost unfathomable, dependent on bits of luck or tiny changes in psychology or physiology way beyond our ability to understand, predict, or control. Instead we look for patterns that make sense of it as best we can. One week you play 4-4-2 and lose heavily, a few days later you make a couple of changes to the team and switch to 4-3-3 and suddenly you win. It’s very easy to assume a causal relationship and go thinking that’s your best formation and your best line-up, especially if you were in the camp that was already of that opinion beforehand. (There’s bound to have been such a camp, at least if your team has more than about three fans.) There might, at times, be something to it – it’s possible to play daft tactics that gives your team no chance, or sometimes a manager will hit upon a particular system that happens to fit in with the dynamics of the squad they’ve got or allow a particular key player to give his best. (Usually such plans are stumbled upon by accident or trial and error rather than by any overarching theory or any great prior understanding of the game.) But within reason any system is what you make of it – you just have to play well.
England didn’t play especially well, particularly in that Algeria game, and the search for someone to blame generally led to Steven Gerrard, who was widely criticised after that game for drifting inside from the left wing too much. Such theories seemed to assume he was doing so against his manager’s instructions and gave almost no credit to Capello, who not only did nothing about it during the game but played Gerrard on the left again in the following game against Slovenia. Whether he was thought to be too stupid to notice it or too weak-willed to do anything about it I’m not sure – but either way if you have so little confidence in your manager then it strikes me that Steven Gerrard is the least of your problems. In any case, despite the BBC panel claiming otherwise, Gerrard spent just as much of his time drifting infield in the Slovenia game, and yet England played much better. Who knows why, but it’s difficult to argue that tactics, or Gerrard’s positioning in particular, had anything to do with it.
There are many more issues I could pick out in the clamour for stories and for explanations, but you get the drift. You might think it’s all just fluff, an external source of noise that’s irrelevant to the performance of the team – but I really don’t think so. The constant sniping, the search for villians, the determination to bring people down, the demand for changes at every level as soon as things aren’t going well all contributes to a climate in which continuity and sensible decision-making in relation to the England team is all but impossible. By all means look for internal reasons within the game as to what you can do better, it may well be that there are some systemic issues you can address that aren’t helping. Reducing the Premier League to 18 teams would be the most obvious step you could take, it seems to me, though I can already see what will happen – you’ll fall short again next time and then the witch hunt will be all the worse because the they had their way on reducing the amount of league football and yet still they were rubbish. It shouldn’t stop you trying anyway, if it’s the right thing to do, but it’s a mistake – “a big mistake” – to divorce the media from the process as something that comments neutrally on what’s going on and has no influence on it.
For all that, England are not as bad a team as many people have made out. They’re not one of the top rank teams, but they’re bubbling under and one of these years they probably will get a bit of luck along the line and stand a decent chance of winning something. But it’ll be more than you deserve. And until such time as you can temper the behaviour of the press and, as a nation, behave a bit more calmly and rationally towards your team, you’ll be doing nothing to help it along.
Oh, and incidentally – on second thoughts I was probably just stretching a point for effect there. You can keep Heskey after all.