Incredibly (face it, they’re a dreadful shower) it’s 20 years this week since England last failed to qualify for a World Cup Finals. Consequently there will be quite a number of you reading this who don’t remember, or perhaps weren’t even born to witness, the terrible scenes that ensued. Five days national mourning. Stock markets in Tokyo teetered on the brink. Traditionally, one might write “people who were born on that day would be shaving now”, but I feel that it is both reductive and sexist. As well as being fundamentally inaccurate – all 20 year old boys these days have beards. Which is very unnerving.
To mark this occasion (and to brace myself for the repeat performances tonight and on Tuesday, you read it here first) I did what any reasonable man would: I found the monumental Channel 4 documentary “Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job” on YouTube and re-watched it.
Back to any bearded young folk reading: if you’ve not seen this, I advise doing so now. Scroll down to the bottom of this page and you can watch it in full. Don’t mind us old folk. We can wait here, smoking our e-Pipes and looking at this picture.
I think the key thing it proved to me is that 20 years is plenty to allow the anger and disappointment of any spotty 14-year old to subside. Rather than being a treasonable display of top-level incompetence, it is now a fascinating document of a bygone era in football. Sad, too: I watched a mystery puffy, ruddy, healthy pink thing with a big shock of curly hair wander around the back of shot for a minute or so before I realised it was Paul Gascoigne.
But the more things change, the more things stay the same and that truism was never more relevant than it is here. The goal twenty years ago was the same as it is now; the desire and ambition and the hope and the vice-like grip of tabloid expectation haven’t gone away. Now the players have moved away from gambling and booze to cigarettes and nitrous oxide, all have tattoos and beards and they almost certainly earn as much in a month or a year as Tony Dorigo (three times a starter in the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign) has in his entire life to date. But their goal is identical and it can’t be bought for all the beards in the geology department of the University of York.
In fact, the number of resemblances between that campaign and this were quite uncanny. For a start, there is the opposition: both Poland and San Marino were opponents in 1992-1993 as they are now. Then, as now, Poland tripped us up away from Wembley and then as now England twice threw away early leads and had to settle for a draw. No, the only real difference is that in October 1993 there was a great gloomy cloud of pessimism and the fatalistic expectation that England would fail and in October 2013 the majority of people seem nervous but broadly optimistic. Not, perhaps, optimistic enough yet to book their tickets to Rio but sufficiently upbeat to have looked up the Portuguese word for “lager”.
Why should this have been? I’m going to blow everyone’s minds and suggest that actually, Graham Taylor didn’t do a bad job as England manager. That is to say, no-one else could have done a better one. Not only was he saddled with the unreasonably high expectations brought about by England accidentally reaching the 1990 World Cup semi-finals in spite of having tried almost literally everything in their power to prevent it, but there was also the issue of the players at his disposal. Bryan Robson was gone and the new England captain – Stuart Pearce – honoured him by imitation, missing six of the ten qualifying games through injury. Gary Lineker, too, had retired and none of his replacements could hit a cow’s arsehole with a banjo. David Platt – England’s only ever-present during the campaign contributed the most goals with seven, whilst a Rome-domiciled Paul Gascoigne got four. Out of the strikers, only Ian Wright was able to match Gazza’s tally, but all of these came in the 7-1 defeat of San Marino. Only Les Ferdinand – 3 in 5 – offered any sort of consistency. It’s not what you need when you’re in the same group as Holland and only one of you will progress.
The real problem with the squad, though, was a lack of strength in depth. You could make a pretty decent XI out of players who were involved in the 1994 qualifying campaign – David Seaman in goal in front of Lee Dixon, Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Tony Adams, with a midfield of Paul Ince, Platt, Gascoigne and John Barnes, and Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer leading the line – but beyond that was a series of workmanlike professionals, the kind of player you’d be glad to have in your team unless that team were trying to qualify for the World Cup. David Bardsley, Stuart Ripley, Rob Jones, Carlton Palmer and Nigel Clough were all good, consistent top-flight players in their day but were never likely to turn Brazil’s collective bowels to water.
In the 2014 campaign, Roy Hodgson has already used more players over eight games than Taylor did over ten. Yes, this is in part due to the fact that you’re now allowed to make one more substitution per game than you were then, and that substitutions are now much more of a part of the game – four games of the unsuccessful 1994 qualifiers saw England make no changes at all – but I think it also proves that Hodgson has a greater pool of talent to choose from. This is further backed up by the fact that there have already been more goals that in 1993 and they’ve been better spread throughout the team. Strikers have even scored them, in another startling tactical innovation.
When England didn’t make it to the USA, the press fell on Graham Taylor, showering him with a vitriol now usually only reserved for sex offenders, television presenters or television presenters who turned out to have been sex offenders. It’s hard to imagine that the same will be true of Roy Hodgson should England spend next summer watching the events in Brazil on television. I’m sure that some people will call for his head, but that the majority will shout them down: they’ll point out that he didn’t have the players, that he was lumbered with difficult opposition. They will make the exact arguments that should have been made twenty years ago, but applied to a situation where (if anything) they are less relevant.
No, the only real difference between now and then is that in 1993, England liked their players. The country was on an Italia 90-inspired crest of a wave and it was fashionable and fun to be a football supporter again. We wanted them to be successful. And when they weren’t, we blamed their manager. In 2013, the England football team have all the charm of an EDL rally but without the intellect or fundamental lovability. No-one in their right mind has any time whatsoever for any of these preening, overpaid, self-entitled, self-important ninnies. If our most capped current player, Ashley Cole, fell over the Wembley crowd would laugh at him. Really piss itself. But England DOES like and respect Roy Hodgson. If England fell, England would be disappointed for Roy Hodgson, an honest, decent man who has done his absolute best. Not unlike Graham Taylor, really.
If we’ve learned anything from the debacle of England’s most recent failure to qualify for a World Cup Finals, it’s that the backbiting, vituperative and agenda-pushing British media need to be ignored until they go away at every opportunity. It’s a lesson that we as a nation have learned well. God help us.
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