That St George has fot a lot to answer for. As one or two of you may already be aware, I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to fight the corner for those amongst us that would like to win the World Cup, and won’t apologise to the rest of the world because we apparently spoil some people’s view for a couple of hours every few days or so in doing so. It has been an illuminating discussion, and has been to biggest single reason for the lack of posts on here this week (for which I apologise).
The debate has been between three groups of people: 1. People that think that the way that England have played thus far has been an affront to those that have other wise enjoyed this carnival of football and will hopefully be eliminated as soon as possible. 2. People that think that England supporters should fall in behind England and support their team. These people couldn’t care less what happens, so long as it ends up with David Beckham lifting the trophy on July 9th. 3. People who are concerned that England have not played very well yet, but believe that they have the capability to improve. These people are aware of England’s shortcomings, but believe that these are of a secondary importance if they can raise their game. As you may have guessed, I fall into the third category. It’s somewhere near the middle ground. As you can probably imagine, it’s not easy.
As far as I’m concerned, we are all aware of England’s limitations, and the lacklustre displays that they have already put in. There have been periods when they have certainly ridden their luck. Stern John’s miss against Trinidad. The opening twenty minutes of the second half against Sweden. John Terry’s catastrophic attempt at a defensive clearance early on against Ecuador. However, much of the press coverage since then has been bordering on a vendetta against the team and the coach, and has been unjustifiable. Press reports this week have quoted Ashley Cole as saying that he finds the pressure stifling, and it’s easy to see how. Let me show you an expample of how it works.
Two weeks ago, Paul Robinson was a shoo-in as the England goalkeeper. His form last season was solid, and he played a very large part in getting Spurs into their best league position for fifteen years, and no Tottenham goalkeeper has conceded fewer goals in a league season since 1971. He made a slight error in the Paraguay match (looked like a lack of concentration to me, but he’d had a quiet game), and the criticism started. It reached fever pitch after the Trinidad match, when me missed a cross and Stern John should have scored. I noticed Robinson’s face in the tunnel before the Sweden match. He looked absolutely petrified. After that match (neither of the goals in which were his fault), the criticism continued. Now, I have no idea what sort of access to the press the England players have, but Ashley Cole’s comments seem to confirm that there are English language newspapers in Baden-Baden. Goalkeeping is a largely psychological position, and it is a lot more about confidence than other positions on the pitch. If he saw what was being written about him over the end of last week and the weekend, his confidence may have been shot to pieces. Then, last Sunday, Robinson was beaten by a shot from Ecuador’s Tenorio, and Mark Lawrenson ripped into him. It wasn’t until about the sixth showing of it that Lawrenson grudgingly accepted that it wasn’t Robinson’s fault, but John Terry’s. What Robinson had done was actually very good goalkeeping: by standing up and not committing himself too early, Tenorio had hesitated and given Ashley Cole a vital couple of seconds to get back and make a critical block to nudge the ball onto the crossbar. Mark Lawrenson is paid a lot money to be a football expert.
As I said at the start of this article, I am used to England’s often insipid performances. Yet, they have stumbled through to the last eight. Before the Sweden match, I commented that they may well wake up next Wednesday, blearily wondering how they got into the semi-final of the World Cup. I stand by that statement. Portugal, for all the bluster that they have been coming up with in their press conferences, have performed little better than England so far in this tournament, and their behaviour against Holland seemed to indicate a tendency towards ill-discipline that England could exploit. I don’t place enormous importance on them being missing two or three players for this match (after all, don’t England already find themselves in that position?), but the fact remains that they are beatable.
The problem is the attitude of a large number of members of the press. They have taken the position of unrelenting criticism of the England team, largely so that when they fail (and the likelihood has been from the start that it would be an “if” rather than a “when”), they can stand back and say “I told you so”. But look at where their predictions have got them so far: Spain, prior to last night, were the team that had been moulded into an effective unit under Luis Aragones. Holland had delighted everyone that had seen them play after the Argentina match – until they were labelled “the most cynical team in the tournament” after their little fracas with Portugal. The same journalist that labelled Ecuador as “dark horses” and the third best team in team in South America prior to them playing England described them as “the weakest team in the last 16” after England beat them. There were three days between the two reports.
I have no problem with constructive criticism of recent English performances. There are many areas of their performance that need to be improved if they are to live with the best in the tournament. Having said that, though, I don’t think that it’s too much to expect just a little even-handedness in their reporting. England, like all of the other teams in this tournament, are not perfect, but neither are they the worst team at Germany 2006. The truth, as is often the case with this sort of issue, is somewhere between the two. I know I’m chasing my tail by even posting this, but I had to get it off my chest.