England Expects... But Can't Deliver
IVE BEEN urged to "write something about England and the Euros." The assumption is that it would be a supportive tub-thumping flag-waving pre-tournament ra-ra as I fall in line and don the myopic St George gegs of expectation. It won't be. I don't really "do England." When it comes to club v country there is only one winner for me. In fact, it's no contest.
My list of priorities in international tournaments goes something like this:
1) Boro players: if they are in action in hope they do well, bless them, but far more importantly that they don't get injured. Or tapped up. Boro have had representatives flying the flag at every big event since 1998. And it is always nice to have a real interest in some of the obscure group games.
2) Boro targets: over the past two decades or so we have been spoiled and regarded any international event as a kind of medieval hiring fair or set piece industy trade exhibition, a shop window for us to peruse. As 'big spending Boro' there was was almost no-one on show that we could not afford. With Gibbo's Magic Wallet in full flow there was no such thing as wild eyed speculation. We actually, really might - probably will - sign some of these guys. After France won the World Cup we signed Karembeu. After Brazil won it we signed Juninho. It was great.
3) Good football: It is always refreshing to see good, well balanced teams playing attacking football and exciting individuals in mesmerising form. It is great to see tactical innovation, audacious skill and power and watch well matched adversaries playing spirit-soaring, faith reaffirming football.
As (1) and (2) do not apply at belt-tightened Boro any more my personal levels of active engagement have dropped dramatically. And as (3) so rarely includes England I can't see myself becoming overly animated on that score either.
England have won just SEVEN matches over 90 minutes in the entire history of the European Championships. I don't expect that to change too much this time. So I won't be writing too much about the Euro's. I've marked out my position before.
In fact, that sounds like the cue for a dip into the archives. Here's one I did earlier, a flashback to South Africa and the mandatory post-tournament fruitless inquest. Mentally you will need to tweak a few names but not much else has changed....
England Expects... But Can't Deliver
ENGLAND supporters are the Geordies of international football: they have deluded themselves that because they won a trophy once on Pathe News and they have the "best" fans they are entitled ex-officio to be world champions.
That they have star players and an all out attacking style of football that is the envy of the world and that only a series of outrageous refereeing decisions as every major tournament comes to the boil has stopped their inevitable and popular march to glory.
Don't let the evidence of almost 50 silverless years get in the way of that passion.
England fans really should know better. This 'failure' isn't a blip. Thirty years of hurt? Are we up to 40 now? Or 50? Failure is the norm for England.
Yet despite that inescapable reality there has been an collective elective amnesia and a willingness to buy into the spin that the glittering global success of the Premier League would somehow short circuit history and win England the World Cup.
It is a delusion. Remember how the cocksure media chorused after the draw that England were surely a shoo-in for the final. At least. The draw was "EASY" said the Sun. Wayne Rooney was the best player on the planet and the team was studded with intergalactic quality the tabloids declared. Who could stop us this time?
The England fans' painful frustration and heartbreak now stems from that ridiculous media frenzy and unrealisable artificially raised expectations based on arrogance, ignorance and wishful thinking. It is a long way down from the saddle of that high horse.
That uncritical media juggernaut driven blindfold through the national psyche was given added momentum by a relentless cynical multi-media marketing campaign to get us to buy England branded beer and burgers and bog roll and given weight of numbers by the sudden appearance in public places of more flags than a Nuremburg rally.
Fans, even the most knowledgable, were persuaded against their better judgement - and by the very tabloid and studio big-hitters now leading the witch-hunt - that this time victory was possible... probable?
Now as England fans make their way dejectedly through the post-exit debris of broken dreams and discarded car flags like a tear through face-paint, the spotlight switches to our true national sport: the hysterical search for a scapegoat.
Because someone must be to blame for this unacceptable, shameful historic failure. Let the show trials begin... the accused: Capello for his scared selection and tired tactics, Rob Green for his butter-fingered fumble, the team for a collective failure against Algeria and the inability to score one more against Slovenia that gave them the "hard" route (and the chance to lose to Ghana instead), John Terry for his failed coup, Sepp Blatter, the referee, the ball, Gareth Southgate. Take your pick.
But while we try to pin the crime on someone - anyone - we are missing the point: England are nowhere near good enough to win the World Cup. They were never going to win. We have not been denied our birthright. It is not an historic aberration, it was a completely predictable exit that fits all the evidence of football history.
England are ranked by FIFA somewhere between eighth and 12th in the world so a place in the last 16 is just meeting expectations. Going any further is relative success.
England's tournament default it to stumble through the group stage then go against the first technically competent side they come up against.
Sometimes the draw is kind and they get past a Cameroon or a Belgium but then when they meet a Germany, Brazil or Argentina they go out. That is the harsh reality. The idea that England are an international football superpower is a nonsense.
Since grinding out victory on home turf in 1966 (courtesy of a dodgy goal that didn't prompt demands for a FIFA inquiry) England have reached the semi-final ONCE - that last four high-water puts them on a par with giants South Korea, Croatia, Belgium, Sweden, Turkey and Bulgaria.
England have even failed to qualify for the finals at all on three occasions.
Since 1966 Germany have always gone further than England. They have won two finals and been runners-up three times plus they have won three European Championships and been runners-up in three more. They have the right to expectations. We don't.
But why were England never going to win? Surely the Premier League is the best in the world? Sky Sports says it is.
Certainly it is the most popular. The Premier League puts bums on seats and earns the biggest TV rights from more countries than any other competition and it is peppered with global superstars playing the fastest, most physical and goal spattered football in the world. And that's great.
But club and country are not the same. Premier League domination of the Champions League and the global armchair audience has been based on a wage explosion that has prompted the wholesale importation of foreign talent.
English football has become like the Harlem Globetrotters with a string of big teams packed with expensive exhibitionists bamboozling a parade of willing patsies from middling makeweights delighted just to be there.
And the talented tricksters that make it all tick are overwhelming not eligible for England. The step-overs, the sublime skills, the deft touches and visionary distribution are foreign attributes grafted onto a chassis of English industry and passion.
Shorn of the European, African and Latin American elements the English game is a limited, creaking one dimensional one based on graft, passion and the long ball forward and it is repeatedly exposed on the international stage by teams from smaller lower ranks nations who are technically far more proficient and tactically literate.
Insular England have been isolated from the coaching and cultural developments in the wider game for decades and have made a virtue of it. There is a quite explicit distrust of coaching badges and tactical variation within the ranks of the professionals and a disdain within the managerial community for 'flair' in favour of workrate and commitment.
The modern era has brought a globalisation of the game. Television has spread once localised and indiginous styles to a wider audience, jet travel and post-Bosman free movement of labour has encouraged a melting pot of talent and a tumult of footballing ideas while the money and prestige of the European game has sucked in talent from across the world. Players and coaches have carried with them elements of their own national game around the world and their distinct tactics, training, tempo and culture have been expanded and exploited and enriched into an exciting new whole.
Reticent English clubs have nervously dipped their toes into this pool, not for ideas but for players or the occasional coach - who are usually regarded as wierd mystics, alchemists or revolutionaries because they think and talk about diet, tactics, training and technique - but they remain wedded to the traditional direct, high tempo pressing game.
Any dangerous deviation, any attempt to keep the ball for 20 minutes with a slow, cautious approach based on possession across the back prompts booing and shouts of "get it forward" from the crowd and the press box while "tinker man" tactical changes of shape too far from the mandatory 442 are seen as a direct unmitigated philosophical assault on all the English game holds dear.
In the domestic game the debilitating results of that historic exclusion have been hidden by importing players to paper over the cracks - but England can't sign a bunch of foreigners. Although watch this space if Harry gets the job.
We get told constantly that England have "a Golden Generation" of world class stars coveted by the continental giants. We don't. We have a very small of outstanding players who may or may not survive in more technically demanding leagues and prove themselves worthy of the media bestowed "world class" label and we have another clutch of good but not great players.
And they are all made to look far better than they actually are, or at least are protected from having their weaknesses so ruthless or regularly exposed, because at their clubs they are surrounded by technically superior imports who help bridge the skills gap.
There is a culturally ingrained emphasis on physique, commitment and passion. Given a football lesson by Algeria? Boo. There was a lack of commitment said the pundits. Show more passion! No. Show more skill. England must learn to play the way the rest of the world do, using close control, technique and flexible tactics and tempos as needed.
If England were serious about being a superpower the FA would rip apart results driven youth football to put the emphasis on coaching technique from a very early age.
In Germany, Spain and Holland kids play small sided games on small pitches and are encouraged to control, pass and move from an early age. They don't play an organised 11-a-side game on a full-sized pitch until they are 14 or 15. In England we already have the nucleus of future national teams built around the biggest lads - not the most skilful - hoofing it up field on adult pitches long before then.
The biggest, strongest and most athletic flourish in results driven junior teams whatever their technical limitation while the scrawny but skilful don't even get picked. Even at that level coaches - and parents - want victories and the pressure is on to pick the strongest kids rather than the skilful and find a short cut to success.
If the FA were serious then that would change and a new system of youth football, of genuine academies and feeder clubs with the emphasis on skill rather than results would be put in place alongside a cultural revolution in the national teams at every level. That would take a generation and would require an integrated approach from the clubs, the FA and junior football and it would take a massive investment in coaching excellence with very little prospect of any quick financial return and no guarentees.
But the FA are the creature of the piper paying clubs who want to continue to import the very best to get results in the short term and so keep the gravy train rolling along.
Owners and chairmen don't care about England, only the success of their own club. Sky Sports and the media will take whatever commercial advantage there is from Team England but their core bums on seats product is club competition and star names battling it out in endless Super Showdown Grandslam Sundays. They don't want change.
And ultimately fans are the same. Almost unanimously first and foremost fans want their own club to flourish. They want the stars. They want the quality. They want success. For club not country. That is just a summer time bonus.
If the price of a vibrant domestic scene is having to endure an agonised empty inquest over England's endemic failure every two years, so be it.