Of course, it’s not over yet. England may limp home against Croatia and Russia are more than capable of slipping up against Israel. I find it pretty difficult to care that much, though. Still, in spite of oneself, it stings slightly, though. When you’ve decided that the Premier League, the Champions League and the other baubles that the rich in football dine out on isn’t really your cup of tea and that you’ll carve your niche in the spit and sawdust world of the semi-professionals, the only morsel of glamour that you get in football comes from the national team, and I am in the predicament of having no relatives from overseas to be able to claim any ancestral heritage from. Not that I identify with this lot in the slightest. This is, man-for-man, one of the best paid international football squads in the world and big clubs are nothing if not ruthlessly capitalist, so I find it difficult to argue the case that the likes of Gerrard and Terry are “crap” – they wouldn’t be paid a six-figure sum every week if they were, and the majority of them have played in the last four of the Champions League – so the only conclusions that I can draw are that they don’t much want to be there in the first place, and that the tactical infrastructure doesn’t go much beyond “pick the most famous players and hope for the best”.
I can’t work out whether Steve McClaren is hard to hate or hard to like. On the one hand, his little smiles and jokes to the press when they’ve just been wretched are grating but, on the other, you can’t help but get the feeling that he has merely been promoted above his station. The obvious parallel is Graham Taylor, though Taylor was and, indeed, still is, clearly a likeable man (although he always struck me as having something of a Pooter-ish quality about him), whereas McClaren merely comes across as a fool who is grinning like a Cheshire cat in the absence of having anything constructive to say. However, merely blaming the manager for the problems of the current team is, whilst traditional, over-simplistic. Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea (along with, it has to be said, the rest of the Premier League) will trundle along with everything still good in their worlds and, over the course of time, the chances are that they will spend less and less on youth development and more and more on scouting ten year-olds from the rest of the world. The pool of English players playing week-in-week-out will continue to diminish and the quality of the team will continue to deteriorate. Trevor Brooking will continue to trundle around the country giving worthy speeches on how important it is to “get kids into the game”, but youth coaches will continue to ignore teaching young English players the fundamentals, and try and persuade them that such esoteric values as “having a big heart” and “being the sort of man you’d want next to you in the trenches” are somehow relevant to winning football matches. And all the while the press will continue to hype the team to unrealistic levels, whilst the public’s expectations will remain too high.
So, the media, then. There was no mention of Rooney being offside for his goal on “Match Of The Day” last night, but plenty of hand-wringing about the foul that resulted in the penalty that drew Russia level. In spite of the obvious deficiencies of the team, the tactics and the performance, the players were deemed as being somehow beyond criticism. If you sat and watched “Match Of The Day” last night, you could be fooled into thinking that this was just another in the long line of the Birmingham Six-esque injustices that seem to dog England. No mention was made of two matches earlier in the qualifiers when they managed one point and barely a shot on target away to Croatia and Israel, or the fact that England, having gone in at half-time a goal up and looking reasonably comfortable, were so one-dimensional in their play that Guus Hiddink merely had to make a substitution and a slight tactical change to completely undo them. There was no “Plan B”, but it didn’t look as if there was much of a “Plan A”, either.
Long time readers will remember that I have pointed out on several occasions that, with Croatia, Russia and Israel to play, this was never going to be an easy group to qualify from. With one point from their three away matches against those three, England have certainly filled my expectations in that respect. I have also said that not qualifying for the finals of major tournaments is just one of those things that England do every once in a while (cf: 1974, 1978, 1984 & 1994). They’re not out yet, but it’s difficult to work out which would be worse for English football – qualification or failure. Failure to qualify would almost certainly mean the end of McClaren (every cloud has a silver lining, and so on), but I am almost certain that the malaise within English football is terminal and that, whilst getting rid of him would be welcome, it would be a mere cosmetic exercise which would mask more pressing, longer-term issues that will never be addressed. The complete strip-down of everything, from the FA and the fact that we still don’t seem to teach children the fundamentals of the game to the way that the Premier League runs itself, isn’t going to happen, so the continuing decline of the England football team is, I would suggest, inevitable and unstoppable. All that needs to be done (and this, I think, is the real challenge) is the tempering of the hope and expectation of the public, and wilder excesses of the media. To be honest, I can’t see that happening, either.