England Under Allardyce: The Dark Timeline
So, under the tutelage of Gareth Southgate, England are in a World Cup semi-final. All of this, however, might have been quite different had it not been for the – at the time – unexpected departure of Sam Allardyce after just one match in September 2016. But what if that story had been brushed under the carpet? What if the England of 2018 had been the Big Sam England of 2018? With our tongues firmly planted in our cheeks, we thought we’d have a quick look at the “the dark timeline.”
There was no-one of significance to meet them at the airport, of course. Such was the level of apathy to which public interest had sunk that even in an era of apparently perpetual anger and outrage, no-one could even be bothered to turn out at Heathrow airport to pelt them with rotten tomatoes, a fate that had famously befallen the Italian team upon their return home from England in 1966 after a similarly ignominious exit from a World Cup finals. None of this was to say, however, that the mood back home in England was accommodating towards the team. Scapegoats had been carefully crafted prior to the start of the tournament, and the unleashed fury after their defeat had been as wanton and vituperative as had been predicted. Mental health charities had already spoken out requesting that the papers tone down their coverage, but it had made little difference. Words seldom do, when blood lust is in the air.
The appointment of the manager two years earlier did at least exercise some minds. When Sam Allardyce had come into the job after England’s capitulation to Iceland at Euro 2016, critics argued that the new manager was a wholly inappropriate choice for the job. The FA replied testily that in a results based business, Allardyce’s history spoke for itself. Others suggested that other aspects of his history meant that he shouldn’t have been considered for the position in the first place. When film of the new England manager appearing to advise businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice was published by a newspaper barely a couple of months after he took the job, it looked for a couple of days as though his spell as the England manager might just turn out to be one of the shortest on record. The manager, however, brazened it out. The FA, financially restricted to the point at which paying up his contract after having only signed it a couple of months earlier was an option that they could scarcely afford to take, waited for the hurricane of outrage to blow over before carrying on very much as before.
And carry on very much as before it did. One step forward, one step back, at best. At worst, England – the manager, the team, the FA itself – seemed to have learned nothing from the steadily diminishing returns of every World Cup finals since 2006, even though the record read like a historical countdown to non-qualification. In 2006, they reached the quarter-finals. In 2010, they reached the second round. In 2014, they were knocked out in the group stages. This pattern of increasingly diminishing returns didn’t go unremarked upon, and it was eventually arrested by England’s placement into a weak qualification group, but even amongst this mediocrity they could only stutter and backfire their way to Russia. Allardyce’s honeymoon period came to a halt in June 2017 when, following narrow wins against Malta, Scotland and Lithuania and a goalless draw in Slovenia, two Leigh Griffiths goals in the last seven minutes for Scotland at Hampden Park gave them a two-one win, although the media’s main focus of ire the following day was Raheem Sterling, who’d hit the crossbar for England when he might have scored in the dying seconds of stoppage time. A goalless draw with Slovenia set up a nervy final qualifying match in Lithuania, where a first half Wayne Rooney penalty kick ensured a place in the finals by the skin of their teeth.
Narrowly qualifying for tournaments before, as had happened in 1997 and 2001, had been previously causes for national celebration but the atmosphere felt different, this time around. With tensions rising between the UK and Russia now coupling with the reservations of those with questions over Russia being awarded the finals in the first place, public interest in the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia was as low as most could remember. Travel agents reported no upswing in inquiries concerning flights to or accommodation in Russia, whilst media reporting of the build-up to the finals was muted in tone. England’s draw in the finals had been fortuitous. Belgium were the group seeds, but matches against Tunisia and Panama still offered belief that they should at least get through the group stages, this time around. This, however, seemed to be the summit of expectations for most.
The announcement of the squad for the finals was met with the faint sound of groaning. Wayne Rooney might have only scored eleven goals in his first season back at Everton, but he would be leading the attack. Promising young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was left out in favour of Joe Hart, despite Hart’s not far short of calamitous season with West Ham United. Most controversial, however, was Allardyce’s decision to talk John Terry back into the squad at thirty-seven years of age. Terry had retired from international football in 2012 and was now plying his trade in the Championship with Aston Villa, but following England’s defeat at Hampden Park Allardyce had contacted the former captain and talked him around. At a tetchy press conference announcing the squad, Allardyce stated that, “What this team needs right now is leadership, and John is the right man for that job. He would have steadied the defence after the Scotland match [although England did at least remain unbeaten after losing at Hampden Park] and we all know that he has the character and heart to lead this team in Russia. Players like John, Wayne and Joe are the backbone of my plans. They’ve been there before. They’ve been there, seen it, and done it.” A comment piece on the squad selection in the Guardian the following day seemed to catch the increasingly sceptical mood of the public: “Allardyce states that his team has ‘been there, seen it, and done it’, to which we can only reply by saying, ‘they have rather, haven’t they?'”
As questions regarding Allardyce’s history started to raise their heads again, the team flew out to Russia with the best that most at home could hope for being that the bunker mentality that the manager was building around his squad might at least bring the players together. Reports from inside the training camp, however, hinted at a squad riven by discord, with senior players and younger players barely on speaking terms. This story was leaked to a press which was otherwise shut out of England’s preparations in every way possible. Its leaking in itself was probably the biggest story here – it was believed to be one of the younger players who leaked it, exasperated at the systems that had brought success to their younger squads not being replicated at the highest level – but most coverage of the story fixated on the personalities concerned, such as they were, with Raheem Sterling in particular being singled out for attack as a potential source for the leak, as part of what would later be described as “an act of attempted character assassination” by a new, incoming head of the FA, several months later. Reporting directly from inside the training camp, however, was simply off limits. The press had been all but barred from direct contact with either the manager or his players, a legacy of the trail of allegations made against Allardyce in the press in previous years.
By the time of the announcement of the team for the first match against Tunisia, all hope of dragging the England national football team into the twenty-first century appeared to be lost at the altar of damage limitation. An early goal from Wayne Rooney settled the nerves a little, but when Gary Cahill tugged on a Tunisian arm with ten minutes left of the half to play the team seemed to revert back to its tried and tested formula of long and vague balls being hit in the general direction of an increasingly isolated looking Rooney, who in turn rendered himself less and less effective by dropping deeper and deeper in the pursuit of the ball. He was replaced by Andy Carroll with fifteen minutes to go, but Carroll’s downward header against the post and wide thirty seconds into stoppage-time seemed to encapsulate the stifled mood of the evening. As the players were booed from the pitch by the small number of supporters who had bothered to make the trip to Russia, a couple reacted angrily, spitting some choice profanities at a television camera before being dragged away by coaching staff.
By the time of the game against Panama, the depth of the hole into which England had dug themselves by failing to beat Tunisia was clear. Belgium had put five goals past them – albeit not without reply – and, assuming that England could or would beat them, then goal difference might be crucial going into their final match against Belgium. This was England’s chance to rebuild a little confidence after the stultification of the Tunisia match. “TEAR THEM A NEW PANAMA CANAL” was the Sun’s headline on the morning of the match, but nothing could have felt further from the truth as England pootled through the first half, taking the lead through a penalty kick given for holding in the penalty area – one of the rare occasions they’d not taken a short corner, even through the opportunities that might present themselves through VAR had been amply demonstrated in other matches – but otherwise offering little attacking threat to the Panama goal. A second goal, a strong header from substitute Harry Kane, sealed the win with five minutes left to play, but the reaction at home remained tepid.
England now needed to get a result from their final match Belgium in their final match to guarantee their qualification and Belgium, who had won their first two matches comfortably and were already through to the next round, obligingly made eleven changes ahead of their final group match. It was a strange, lop-sided evening. Seldom in the previous history of the World Cup had the conflicting fortunes of two nations been thrown into such clarity by playing each other. For Belgium, this was little more than a superannuated friendly match, an opportunity to test the mettle of the back-up players ahead of the more testing conditions of the knockout stage of the competition. For England, though, this was a matter of survival in the competition. Attempts in some sections of the press to whip up a degree of national fervour at home, however, fell flat. As one prominent broadsheet football writer put it: “There seems to be a belief amongst some that this team has an inviolable right to the unwavering and unquestioning support of those at home, as though those concerned have done anything whatsoever to merit it. If anything, however, the ham-fisted attempts at whipping up support for this team under these circumstances merely serve to underline the shortcomings of those who have done so little to warrant it.”
There was, therefore, a sense of foreboding in the air as England kicked off against Belgium with as many eyes on the latest score from the other group match between Tunisia and Panama as there were on the main event. Adnan Januzaj’s second half goal was enough to win the match for Belgium, a shot that seemed to pass through the upturned arms of the goalkeeper Joe Hart, and from here on England were left nervously watching the score from the other match. Harry Kane was sent on in place of Rooney with ten minutes to play but couldn’t find a way through, although he did at least offer a little refreshment to a tired and pedestrian looking team. At the final whistle, the England players celebrated one of the more hollow achievements of the entire tournament. The final score from the Tunisia match had seen them edge through on goal difference. They would play Colombia in the next round. “STERLING SILVER”, screamed the Daily Mail the following morning, highlighting just one of eleven lacklustre performances from the previous evening.
Sterling was dropped for the Colombia match and replaced by Andy Carroll but Wayne Rooney, who had demonstrated little more than the reasons why he shouldn’t have even been selected for this squad over the course of the three group matches, started again. Barely fifteen minutes had been played, however, before a Gary Cahill slip allowed Radamel Falcao to give Colombia the lead, and a downward header from Mateus Uribe which bounced down and over the head of John Terry on the line doubled their lead before half-time and put the result beyond doubt. During the second half came a familiar sense of panic. Kane on for Rooney. Danny Welbeck on for Andy Carroll as time started to run out, England switched to a three-man defence, with Marcus Rashford sat clicking his heels on the bench. Defensively exposed and playing in a formation that they’d never even trained for before, a break from one end of the pitch to the other finished with Juan Quintero putting the result as England’s players simultaneously froze and wilted under the glare of the cameras and the heat of a Moscow summer evening. The recriminations started before the match had even finished. This time around, at full-time the players didn’t even sink to their knees in despair.
Allardyce was, in his post-match press conference, as bullish as ever. “When you look at the Germanys of this world, out in the group stage, I think that puts our performance into perspective quite a lot”, he told a gimlet-eyed press pack, “I think we reached our minimum target for this tournament and our performance at these finals is definitely an improvement on last time, so I definitely feel we have something to build on to qualify for Euro 2020.” The players, meanwhile, clamped their headphones to their ears extra tightly in the hope of drowning out the white noise, and understandably so. Even if public apathy towards the team was at something approaching an all-time high, the press was anything but apathetic. “RUSSIAN DOLLS”, shouted the Daily Mail, the rage-induced veins on their temples clearly visible. Not to be outdone, The Sun went with “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOSS”, while The Mirror proclaimed that “England are Mos-cowing home after the Three Lions suffered a World Cup comedown against Colombia.”
There were cameras at the airport upon there return, of course. National newspapers have people stationed permanently next to the Arrivals lounge, these days, after all. But there was no significant public backlash. Within days of their elimination, the whole of the UK government started to give the impression of disintegrating before our very eyes. Some joked that at least the prime minister was doing her best to deflect attention away from the shortcomings of the team. John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart and Andy Carroll all announced their retirement from international football, to which the most common retort was, “Couldn’t you have done this a couple of years earlier?” On the whole, though, there was little more than wearied resignation from supporters, former supporters and onlookers who might otherwise have been infuriated to the point of distraction by what they’d seen. After all, there was a new Premier League season starting in a few weeks time and the transfer rumour mill was already starting to turn.