Archive | International

Tags: , , , , , ,

England Before and After the Munich Disaster

Posted on 09 August 2010 by JamesHamilton

Edwards, Byrne, Taylor and friends 1955

In his analysis of eleven turning points in English football history, Rob Marrs has this to say about the Munich Disaster:

Like 1966, I won’t write too much here. That terrible day robbed football (not just English football) of great players like Duncan Edwards. It is a point of conjecture to wonder what England would have done at the World Cup in 1958 or 1962 with Edwards and co in the side.

Edwards is the great mystery here, of course: just how good would he have become? How would Bobby Moore have fitted into an England side with Edwards already in situ? And what about George Best playing with a fully developed Edwards plus Charlton and Law (I’m assuming that Tommy Taylor would have moved on by c.1964)?

England lost the spine of their side at Munich: Roger Byrne, a defender best compared to Rio Ferdinand in style and ability; Edwards; and Tommy Taylor, the best centre forward in England since Dean.

The stats bear Rob’s point out. As the Busby Babes were fed into the England team after the 1954 World Cup, results began to improve – and then, as the Manchester contingent gathered European experience, the pace quickened considerably:

With the World Cup in Sweden on the near horizon, these were exciting results.  The defence had pulled itself together, and up front, England were scoring at an average of more than three goals per game.

The effect of Munich is immediate, accumulative and catastrophic:

Even bare football stats can be memorials to the dead.

Comments (1)

Tags: , , ,

Low Expectations in the International Arena

Posted on 25 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Craig Levein

Interesting words from Craig Levein in the Scotsman:

He says he watched his first match at the helm like a scientist analysing matter through a microscope and he was baffled by what he saw. The lack of self-belief in the players was “strange”. He had expected players who are big performers at club level to walk out at Hampden, in front of their own fans, their heads held high, their chests puffed out. Instead, they seemed timid, shrinking within themselves and the shirts which had appeared to fit perfectly in the dressing room minutes earlier.

This echoes what Fabio Capello said in similar circumstances when taking England over two years ago. “Fatigue” seems to have overtaken “confidence” as the “expert” diagnosis on England, for the time being: it’ll be interesting to see how the Scottish dialogue shapes up as Levein gets through his first round of games.

In Levein’s mind things are that positive. The cynicism which seems to grow in the Scottish psyche as prevalently as the heather on the hills is kept at bay. He feels there is a change in the national mood. Instead of just moaning about what is wrong, he thinks there are a growing number of people keen to get together and actually do something constructive.

There has been a change in that direction, and it’s been good to see. And Scotland only thinks that it’s more cynical and defeatist than other countries.

Only in the job seven months and with a solitary game under his belt, he has not had enough time to gauge which players amongst the current first-team contenders get the biggest buzz from representing their country but he will. And if there are two people vying for the same position, then he would be inclined to give the nod to the one who values the cap the most.

“But the fact is, there shouldn’t be a situation like that. It should be the case that every player wants to play for Scotland and, you know, I think of people like Davie Narey, who probably went along to 80 Scotland gatherings and hardly played any games but he saw it as representing his country and he knew it was an honour and he would never have dreamed of saying ‘sod that’. And he was a top, top player.

Given that the pay gap between footballers in Scotland and Scots on average earnings is less than that between Premier League players and the English general public, Levein is saying something here that’s more interesting than a repeat of that old English control-freak canard about overpaid primadonnas. This is about low expectations.

At club level, it’s far more easy for a player to conceptualize some kind of success and to believe in it. That’s partly from necessity. The club pays the wages. But it’s also from experience: only clubs that are really trapped in a relegation spiral won’t win or draw some games along the line.

At international level, with so many fewer games, so much less continuity, and a different kind of “home advantage”, history, you might think, hangs much heavier on the players. Scotland go into qualifying tournaments leaden with previous all-so-nears. And a great deal else besides. England arrive at tournaments with an “experienced” team whose experience consists of fickle support, evisceration by the media at the first hint of failure, long years of their privacy being constantly and hideously violated, and the knowledge that anything short of a semi-final will leave them regarded as traitors to the nation.

Scottish fans – insofar as I’ve seen – don’t share the English view that high wages “should and therefore do” discount all questions of pressure, confidence, mental energy, tiredness and what happens to you after you’ve been subjected to the Premiership circus for ten or more of your more emotionally-vulnerable years. Only the Rangers-Celtic divide generates anything like the acutely personal and constant hatred that is directed at a large chunk of the England squad for a great deal of the time.

But at least England do have some unquestionably fine performances to draw upon – it’s been some time since Scotland enjoyed a comfortable victory over opponents at their own level to compare with England’s home and away wins against Croatia. Fighting rearguard wins over France, as experience has shown, are hugely cheering, good to look back on, and useless as measures of progress or builders of momentum.

Scotland have to find that momentum: no one wants to wait twenty years for the McLeish report to work whatever magic it has to offer. The mix of profound realism in Scotland about the quality of the players available, combined with Levein’s morale-boosting energy and excitement, makes this a good moment to start.

Long-term, though, it will take more than Levein to cure the ills. He talks openly about the amatuerishness of certain aspects of the SFA and having come from a club background he claims there are faults there as well. But he believes there is now a willingness to look into the mirror held up to them all by the Henry McLeish report and work together to improve the game.

And why not Scotland, after all? There’s nothing inevitable about decline and poor performance. But shifting low expectations is hard, harder even than an experienced, successful manager like Fabio Capello once thought. But Capello’s travails are an opportunity for Levein. Capello solved England’s self-inflicted qualification woes: now he is determined to repeat the trick and do the same at tournament level. If Levein can do likewise – that will be the standard he’ll have matched. It’s a target worth the shooting.

Comments (5)

Tags: , , , , , ,

Agincourt and England 2010

Posted on 18 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Paul Carpenter (Carpsio) takes the “passion and commitment” line of England criticism in an interesting direction with an informed comparison of Agincourt to that 4-1 defeat to Germany:

In all these cases (Agincourt, Waterloo, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, Rorke’s Drift), we are assured that it was English ‘spirit’ that was critical to our victory against the odds (or more commonly British, but that’s splitting hairs). All battles are framed thus in the national mind: outnumbered and outgunned by foreign forces and perfidy, our innate spunk and refusal to concede defeat see us through.

It’s a good place to start. Most of the popular reaction to England’s 2006 and 2010 World Cups has been to deride the team for spineslessness and lack of courage. The spunk and refusal to concede defeat that are, we must assume, typical of the fans, were not, we are told, seen in the behaviour of the “overpaid privileged primadonnnas” – and you can put your own choice of words between those inverted commas.

We see this unspoken story in our sports. Recall us to Beckham’s game against Greece in 2002 or “Botham’s Ashes” in 1981. In the iconography of the game, Terry Butcher’s heroics against Sweden in 1989 gave us the defining image of English sport: a man covered in blood yet unyielding in his defiance, a performance which single handedly gave us the result we needed (i.e. a draw with the footballing giants of Sweden when viewed more prosaically).

Yes, and some of us will be able to remember the 1980 Winter Olympics and a programme on the BBC called “Come on Cousins” in which this principle was extended to figure skating…

Typically, we have learned entirely the wrong set of lessons from these games. These events were exceptions - not rules.  The Beckham who charged around the pitch, tackling anything that moved might have stirred the blood – but ultimately delivered nothing. It was Beckham the dead-ball specialist who ultimately won the game by doing something he’d practised until it was a personal art form. There is no greater lesson to be taken from Beckham’s game against Greece other than clichés about “heroism”.

It’s worth noting at this point that Beckham himself used to be seen as the epitome of the weak-willed unEnglish pampered ego who, along with Sven, was keeping all of those English lions from making the nation proud. This, despite having kept going through being burnt in effigy, having abusive chants about his wife recited by English crowds, being dropped by McClaren and Capello..

The popular reaction to the World Cup in general, and the Germany match in particular, has been to accuse the team of spineless cowardice and letting the country down, of not trying, of not showing passion. Carpenter disagrees, provides a succinct alternative analysis, and caps it off quite brilliantly:

So we end up at Bloemfontaine, where Gerrard’s desire to win the game himself by himself through English virtues like willpower and passion and grit meant that he consistently drifted from his position on the left in the game plan that Capello had set for him. Terry likewise pushed ever higher up the pitch, trying to will the team to victory while Johnson uselessly attempted to conjure blood and thunder via clumsy challenges (no doubt “letting the Germans know he was there”).

Sadly, the Germans even knew that this would happen. Coach Joachim Löw:

“We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces. Our objective was to use Miroslav Klose to draw out John Terry, to force him to come out of the defence. We knew that the fullbacks would be very much to the side and this would create the spaces between the English defenders that would help us penetrate their defence”

Far from being our killer app, those English virtues of ‘commitment’ and ‘desire’ are our achilles heel.

Read the rest.

I watched the entire Germany game again this afternoon, and once again failed to recognize any of the popular criticisms that have been levelled at the team. I agree with George Szirtes’ analysis – this was a game in which Upson, Terry and Barry played unusually poorly. That’s true. I also find myself amongst that tiny number of people who see the disallowing of Lampard’s goal as a turning point: England troubled Germany deeply at times, and although Germany were the better side, it wasn’t 4-1 better, or even 4-2.

What did for England was the speed of attack Germany’s youngsters could provide. Muller and Ozil were just faster than the men assigned to stop them, and Klose not far behind on the day. That use of speed is worth reflecting on: both McClaren and Capello felt that speed out wide was the future for England – as it has proved to be for Germany.

Some fans felt so too, in 2006, although that had more to do with a reflexive desire to punish Beckham for not being a shouting neckless skinhead than anything else. It’s precisely the failure of England’s fast young wide players that has marked both the Englands of McClaren and Capello.

Injury has had much to do with it. Aaron Lennon spent most of 2010 “coming back from..” one worrying setback after another. Walcott, the younger of the two, didn’t play a full match until December, but was nonetheless a surprising omission from the World Cup 23.

Both Lennon and Walcott are very young men with developing still to do. Lennon’s 23, and Walcott 21. I want to be fair to them. For comparison, Germany’s Mueller is 20, and Ozil 21. Neither of these men is as yet a club player of the stature of Lennon or Walcott, and it might yet prove that their 2010 will be a version of Michael Owen’s 1998: a footballing demonstration of a kind that we would never really see in the same way again. It wasn’t that Owen who scored the bulk of his 40 international goals.

At least the Lennon and Walcott stories aren’t about lack of first team opportunities. Both have had exactly the careers you’d have wanted for them – barring the injuries, of course.

But if England’s fast players really are key – and the success of Mueller and Ozil suggest as much – then what Lennon and Walcott serve to underline is that there really was something about the real Golden Generation – the United kids plus Owen, Fowler, Campbell and the Cole brothers – that set them apart from the usual products of the English system. The excitement about that group was not completely delusional, and neither was the desire to find them proper European management.

Lennon’s injury struggles this year make it unfair, as I’ve said, to set him up against his predecessor on England’s right.  Lennon at his best is fast – really fast – a Finney on skates. A player who can get you on your feet in a second. So is Walcott.

But just look at David Beckham, aged 23..

Comments (9)

Tags:

Real World Football

Posted on 13 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Whatever you might say about the professionalism controversies in England in the 1880s, it was the case then, and has been ever since, that practically all the actual football is played by amateurs.

Snopes-type legends about amateur football abound. About street football, which is alleged to have honed ballplaying skills so well – you can see an October 1930 clip of a street game here and decide for yourself. (British Movietone: registration possibly required). In other countries, it’s beach football, or a relationship between football and forms of dance, forms of self-defence, or football and dances which are self-defence in disguise.

At any rate, the Snopes-style myth connects poverty with skill on the ball.

South American countries were the first to truly value that kind of skill, and were the first to use football as a specific means of national self-expression. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina went from football beginners to the best in the World in about 20 years – i.e. their very first footballing generation came up trumps (I’m assuming here that the 1924-1930 Uruguayans were a match for England and Scotland, which they almost certainly were).

By modern standards, these were poor countries whose kids did not allow poverty to keep them from taking up the craze. But I wonder. Not all of their best players came from the humblest backgrounds. And the pre-War period was South America’s golden age of growth and reform and relative prosperity.

Things are getting better in parts of Africa, but for much of the continent, “golden age of growth and reform and relative prosperity” aren’t the ones you’d choose to describe, say, 1970-1995. I’d like to know more than I do about the comparative levels of coaching and football education in early-century South America as compared to post-colonial Africa.

Here are two interesting sets of photographs which show two aspects of the contemporary scene in either place. David Thompson of the eponymous comment site brings us images of some extraordinary grounds in Brazil. And here is Jessica Hilltout’s fascinating series about contemporary African street football.

Comments (6)

Tags: , , , , ,

The World Cup Final 2010

Posted on 12 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

It was, in the end, a Final for people who enjoy complex, technical, thinking football. There has been plenty of this throughout the tournament, especially from the three European semi-finalists, and the standard of commentary on television and in the press has struggled to keep up. It struggled in the Final too. In musical terms, this was late Bach and late Beethoven, interpreted on screen by fans of Korngold.

Radio 5 have been a cut apart as ever, but even they have had low moments. Graham Taylor and Mark Pougatch proposing an Argentina-style set-up for England (“a morale-raising figure – an Alan Shearer – with experienced coaches around him to help him out”), for instance, although that idea didn’t survive Argentina’s encounter with Germany. And last night, Alan Green decrying an enthralling and skilful stand-off as “one of the worst finals ever” which is an opinion he’s entitled to of course.

For me, the best part was simply being able to sit back and watch Howard Webb cope with the quite incredible levels of psychological pressure which the two teams deliberately placed upon him. Such is the fear factor at huge games like this that even experienced and capable sides like Spain and Holland can spend them doing more to deflect the blame for defeat than to win the thing. And they asked the question of Howard Webb in the first half: are you going to ruin the game? Because we’ll push and push and push and make it hard for you. Because it’s the World Cup Final, ref. And when you’ve given way, and splashed out the red cards, we’ll relax and play – because whatever happens from then on is your fault, Webb, and not ours.

They couldn’t break him. Time and time again Webb’s calm and good judgement kept the lid on things. By the end, the behaviour of the Dutch in particular had shaded into the embarrassing, and Iniesta’s goal, for which he and Spain had waited with such patience and strength of mind, prevented injustice and fiasco.

Webb made one error over 120 minutes – a minor error, which only overheated minds could see as having any effect on the outcome of the game. And even that error could be put down to the Dutch, who were pulling on Webb’s attention yet again as the shot was tipped over.

I was proud of Howard Webb. And, as I’m declaring that the refereeing was successful, only the football questions are left, and there’s only one of those: what happened to Holland?

In the end, Spain were a step too far for them of course, but nonetheless Holland have played better than that against tough opposition. The patience and clever passing which they displayed against Brazil were absent here. It was as if for all their pre-match talk about their long unbeaten run, and their sense of invulnerability, they went into the Final nonetheless with low expectations. What fragile belief they retained didn’t last out Spain’s scintillating first fifteen minutes. Thereafter, the game plan was to kick and harry, and trust that Arjen Robben’s bullet-proof sense of entitlement would pull them out of trouble.

He had the chance to do it, but even he, a man who has never doubted his own ability nor his own right to win despite the most unencouraging of circumstances, went into that chance with one eye over his shoulder for help from the referee.

At least the Dutch knew that they weren’t quite good enough. I don’t think the commentary teams on UK television or in the UK press have that kind of self-knowledge. Anyone who has read Italian sports newspapers, or seen reports from Dutch youth training camps, or (insert your own alternative) must find themselves wondering at the state of football thinking here. Perhaps the idea that what we have here amounts to a football culture is one of the few remaining hangovers from our invention of the modern game in 1870-1885. I didn’t see a football culture in the UK this World Cup. Yes, the usual recycled footie tropes were there, but these don’t change and the Brits rehearse them like lines from a foreign phrasebook or Proverbs. The UK interacts with football with the same personality-driven, storyline approach that it brings to novels, TV drama and reality television.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It works with George Eliot, or Alexander McCall Smith, or Ashes to Ashes. But I worry that the UK wants this approach to deliver footballing success. And the only things down that road are yet more faux outrage and yet more lingering bitterness, betrayal and disappointment.

Comments (9)

Tags: ,

Putting a Curse Upon Uruguay

Posted on 10 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Given that I’ll be shouting for the Germans in tonight’s 3rd place playoff, I thought it appropriate to show this clip of the Uruguayans – when the South American team were still World Champions – coming a horrible cropper against Scotland:

Comments (6)

Tags: , , , , ,

England v Algeria: Not Fear, But F*** Off

Posted on 19 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Four years ago, the press wanted an English manager who understood English players and the English culture. They got one. It didn’t work.  Then they wanted the players’ backsides (so arrogant! so wealthy! so.. what that bloke just said!) given a kicking. A disciplinarian – all Capello will now be remembered as – was duly imported, at great expense.

It seemed to “work” for a while. And the sadistic wing of English football journalism thrilled to tales of enforced mealtimes, restricted conjugality and millionaires scrambling for the approval of “Mr Capello.” All that’s forgotten now.

Truth to tell, the press were already tiring of Capello, and the tide had turned against him before the match against the USA. Such was the atmosphere amongst the splendid gentlemen of our broadsheets and redtops that only a series of Croatia-like results could have kept them at bay. I think this difficult start to the World Cup, combined with British reporters’ bleating, churlish desire for more “access” to the manager (and they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them) has most likely ended his tenure.

I have no sympathy with press turnabouts, nor with “fans” who complain about the money they’ve spent to go to South Africa. The latter at least still have the money to spend – they are English, not Icelandic, Greek or Irish or Spanish – and they are, after all, still on holiday. But there is something happening here, with England, and if I’m right, it’s something we’ve not seen with the international team for a decade. I think the players are on psychological strike.

There are three separate but interlinked components to this.

The first is the very discipline and distance that brought England to South Africa in such good style. For Capello, the players-as-pawns strategy is a given. It’s what he’s always done. The principal advantage to the players is its simplicity: as a player,you are to focus on getting your game right, you are responsible for that, and, by and large, your shirt depends on it. During qualifying, English players always had something to play for: it was quite clear what they had to achieve. But I suspect that, unlike the manager, the players saw all this work and discipline as something with a natural end-point. The prize on offer to them was qualification and a recovery of pride after the McClaren debacle, then, that achieved, a place in the squad. And, with a place in the squad achieved, the proper work could begin. The real business of the World Cup would get underway with a squad secure in the knowledge that they had won their coach’s esteem and trust.

It didn’t work that way. The squad arrived in South Africa to find nothing had changed between themselves and their coach. In a sense, the prize wasn’t the World Cup, not at first: what they wanted was the trust of Fabio Capello. But it wasn’t granted them, nor will it be, that trust: the players understand this at an intuitive level. Despite qualifying so well, what they felt was meant to be punishment for the sins of the McClaren era grinds on, with no sign of an end.

The second is best summed up as “Robert Green.” My heart sank when I heard that he’d been dropped. Dropped, indeed, after a week of what amounted to psychological torture from the management team, made worse by gruesome press coverage. Reflect on the patient years Green has spent, never complaining, in working his way up to the no. 1 spot, reflect on the moral courage with which he faced up to what happened last week, reflect on the betrayal of one of the genuinely good guys of an England squad not overloaded with them. (Do all top managers have a goalkeeping blind spot? Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger do, and so it would seem does Capello). I suspect that, to the England squad, Green isn’t a pawn or a keeper needing to prove himself all over again at this climax of his career, but a mate and a colleague, and one who is being ripped apart in public to no purpose, abandoned and humiliated. It could be them next. After Green, what safety and solidarity can there be for this England squad?

The third point relates to the press. When it comes to the hacks, Capello is not Mourinho, or Ferguson, or Wenger, or Clough: he does not seem to see the need to shield his players from the worst of the criticism. The sudden, press-driven intimacy of a World Cup, with every player the subject of remorseless speculation and destabilising criticism, changes the nature of what Capello calls “the group.” It’s no longer something you fight to get into: it’s where you are, inescapably, wagons circled. The dropped – Green, Milner – can’t escape back to their clubs. The underperforming – Rooney – find themselves trapped in the searchlights, ripped by offensive fire. This morning, had Mourinho taken the job, the Special One would be in the most almightly contrived battle with FIFA or the FA, and those searchlights, that fire, would be his and his alone. I say this with reluctance, but I think Capello is using the players as human shields for himself, and David James’ interview, in which England’s fair-minded, intelligent and articulate veteran could scarcely keep the note of contempt out of his voice, shows the result.

All of a sudden, England’s an unhappy camp, and last night’s body language said it as loudly as did the performance. As had some of the comments made by players in the run-up: Terry and Gerrard have lapsed back into McClaren-era declarations that the team can play better than this, into promises that the team know what they have to do, into flat predictions that the next game will put it all right. That tells me that something has fractured: that the trust and belief are gone.

It’s as if only by downing tools as a team, without actually sacrificing the game altogether, could the England squad communicate the depth of their unhappiness to the manager. That’s how I read Rooney’s parting comments:

“Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is … for fuck’s sake.”

There’s been no loyal support, not since arriving, not from the fans, from whom it is no longer expected, and not from the manager. Rooney’s come in for criticism for this, but he’s absolutely right. The time for punishment for the past has been over since the squad was announced. Yet it’s gone on regardless, and fan narcissism doesn’t help.

Cast your minds back to the qualification games for the 2000 European Championships. Glenn Hoddle had made an excellent start as England manager. A side built around Adams, Ince and Shearer had come home early from the World Cup, but on the back of the best all-round set of performances since 1970.  The young Manchester United midfield were bedding in, Michael Owen had arrived, and the future looked bright. But, a couple of lacklustre games into Euro 200o qualifying, Hoddle rowed with Alan Shearer, saying “Tell me why you are producing performances like this.”

Shearer replied: “Have you ever thought the problem might be you?”

It’s not pressure. It’s not nerves. It’s not fear. It’s a message to Capello, and it reads f*** off.

Postscript:

All of the above is speculative to a large degree, and were England to go in at half-time 2-0 up over Slovakia, my guess is that a great deal will be forgiven and forgotten. What I mean is: we’ll know by then.

Comments (28)

Tags: , ,

Slapstick

Posted on 17 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

THAT Pires/Henry penalty

Athletics, cricket and swimming have their blooper reels and ice hockey its fights. But only football has cock-up at its core. Only in football is savage and ridiculous public error key to so many significant moments and germaine to so many results.

That’s down to the random element, of course, and (let’s get it over with) the ball is round. But the slapstick element at the top of the game is in decline. Increased fitness, tactical sophistication and technical ability conspire and the outcome is Portugal v Ivory Coast.

Nevertheless, even this World Cup has had its moments, and can I just say that subsequent first round matches have made England’s performance and result look better and better?

But it’s not England who have impressed me the most. They’re in the second rank, alongside buccaneering Chile, the US (those boxers’ names: Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Clarence Goodson..) and Germany.

No, it’s Brazil I’m admiring – that mix of strong, capable defence, patient midfield and two wild talents up front. So that’s what Robinho is really about.. and it’s good to see a country developing from backwoodsmen into a major sporting power. This Brazil is a mature, rounded squad, tactically and technically capable of taking on the Italys and Spains. Compare the 2010 team’s skill and efficiency with the hapless, ill-disciplined, panic-ridden and gallumphing Brazil of 40 years ago:

Comments (1)

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Review: James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team”

Posted on 03 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Steve Bloomer: 19 goals in 23 England Appearances 1895-1907

The first edition of James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team” has sat somewhere near my desk since about a fortnight after its initial publication. There hadn’t really been a proper full England history before. Of course, there’d been books about England managers - but that’s not quite the same thing, and in any event, by the time Ramsey was appointed, the first proper England manager as we know them, English international football was already 90 years old. So Corbett’s huge red hardback, which combined concise match reporting from the very start, concentrated on players and audience as much as managers, and in sharp, clean prose avoided all of the usual laddish clichees, was extremely welcome.

The second edition is a reillustrated, tightened-up paperback, and it gives a reader confidence when a photograph of Edwardian striking star Steve Bloomer is captioned author’s own collection. For James Corbett, the first half century of international football – 1870-1920 – isn’t the usual source of sneering fun, and his account has none of the usual sense that writers give of waiting for the real business to begin. So this is the best short account of the amateur-versus-professional controversy. The wealthy pioneers like Lord Kinnaird are proper sportsmen, not moustache-twiddling sexual obsessives. Snobbery is not the only reason keeping the Football Association out of FIFA. Professional league football is not the usual unmitigated triumph for the working man. Corbett lets the game grow in its own time and context, and that time and context are assuredly not ours.

Even non-fiction accounts, when done properly, fall into one or another of the seven plots, and there’s an enjoyable debate to be had about which one the England football team follows and at what speed. The usual unconscious pick of football writers is decline, fall, recovery, triumph! fall again, recovery, Gazzamania, and (insert blur of journalism to bring us “up to date”). Corbett avoids this. The inter-war period, badly filmed and so little-known to most fans, is closely covered without distracting references to past and future, making good use of what are actually fairly extensive primary autobiographical sources. The great England side of the war years and after – Lawton, Mannion, Matthews, Finney, Carter and co. – are recorded and celebrated for their own sake, not for that of Hungary and 1953.

Not that 1953 came out of the blue: Corbett incorporates it into a longer account of relative decline after the wartime side broke up, and remarks that the 6-3 defeat itself caused less upset amongst the game’s players and administrators than you might think. 1950-55 was one of a number of the fallow periods that England’s team have passed through – the 1920s, either side of Dixie Dean, was another, and so was 1975-80, and 1991-5. How would the Hungarians of ’53 gotten on against the Byrne-Edwards-Taylor England of 1957, or the Charlton-Greaves England of 1962? England’s recovery after the 1954 World Cup, in both club and international terms, was real enough, and Corbett’s chapter about those sunnier last years of the Winterbottom regime is headed by a fine meditative photo of Stanley Matthews besuited, new holder of the ballon d’or, gazing into the future from the sand dunes at Blackpool.

That future would be one in which England built three separate teams, in the space of twelve years, which were capable of frightening anyone, even the 1970 Brazilians. Three good sides – without revolutions in training, without changes to the league system (save the scrapping of the regional divisions in favour of a national Division Four), and without reform at the FA. Some things had changed: the ’57-58 pre-Munich side were the best nourished in history, thanks to rationing, and, thanks to education reforms and Walter Winterbottom, many of the ’66 and ’70 sides had received proper coaching in good conditions at school at the right age. But the biggest change of all was the ending of committee selection, partially under Winterbottom and finally under Ramsey. Corbett’s long, detailed examination of Ramsey’s construction of the ’66 side against strong and vocal opposition is the deserved highlight of the book. If you want to know what the verrou system is, you’ll have to buy a copy.

What follows ’66 is a kind of flatlining: the endless, exhausting efforts to do it again, to retrieve some footballing self-esteem, all while the game goes on about its own, quite separate business elsewhere. There are ways to make sense of this. It comes back to plot again: and Corbett, confronted by the triumph/disaster dichotomy that night/days its way out of the mouths of fans and journalists, opts instead for theme:

the insatiable burden of expectation facing our footballers and the way they have often been overwhelmed by it..shattered dreams and unyielding expectation (stretching from) origins among the mid-Victorians through to a modern era defined by money, massive egos and chronic underachievement(..) the monstrous expectation.. rears its head again and again and in so many different ways. There is, alas, no happy ending.

But there is happiness along the way. Hudson’s match in 1975 against West Germany; Keegan and Brooking’s attacking 2-0 Wembley win over Italy two years later; the vindication of Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer’s romp in the sunshine against Holland. Before that game, Terry Venables summed it up: “We are inclined to be a nation (which thinks) we are the worst team in the world or the best. Neither is true.”

The final chapters cover England’s progress during what will have been the period of James Corbett’s own writing career. Unlike many journalists, he’s resisted the temptation to place himself at the centre of events, appearing only when doing so adds an essential psychological point (Corbett’s meeting with Steve McClaren six months before the future Eredivisie winner’s England sacking for example). Nor, while writing about the unbearable expectations placed on England, does he overpromote the issue: what keeps us interested, in the end, isn’t expectation, he says, but something lighter and better: hope.

England Expects is fully footnoted and contains a comprehensive bibliography and is published by De Coubertin at £12.99.

Comments (1)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

An Ageing England Squad

Posted on 02 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Mike Adamson, writing in the Guardian, points out that this is the oldest England squad to travel to a finals. It surprises Rob Marrs too. The squad’s average age is 28.7, older than England’s awful nadir squad of 1954. It could have been older. Over at Attacking Soccer, Anthony reminds us that Joe Hart has a real chance to become the youngest keeper to turn out for England at the World Cup. Anthony’s survey of Hart’s predecessors throws up something interesting: at their first Finals, most of England’s keepers have been 27 or 28. But the greatest performances – Banks in 1970, and Shilton twenty years later (plus a mention for David Seaman’s pre-2002 performances, especially Euro 96) – have come from men in their 30s.

It’s interesting too, because one story of the 2010 squad is of goalkeeping decline. No Robinson (aged 30), no Foster (aged 27), no Scott Carson (aged 25), no Chris Kirkland (aged 29). Hart is on the plane aged 23.

Of course, form (Foster), fitness (Kirkland, most regrettably) and luck (Robinson and Carson) account for much of this, and in any case, I’ve not heard any great outcry at England’s failure to pack 7 keepers in the bag. But the squad tells that story nonetheless, and there are others.

Survivors from 1998

For instance, who would have imagined, back in 1998, that no fewer than six of that squad would be plausible selections for the 2010 party? Having won nothing for their country in the meantime? Rio Ferdinand went to France as a young hopeful to gain experience, of course, and this is now his fourth World Cup. But Paul Scholes was sought out by Capello, Beckham is injured, and Gary Neville may have been only another right-back injury away from at least a squad place. Michael Owen is injured, and had he not been, there are those of us who can’t quite see why Defoe would travel in front of him. And then there is Sol Campbell’s extraordinary return to Arsenal, and some fine performances which must have at least brought him up in Capello’s conversation.

In 1998, and even more so in 2002, there was a feeling of youth breaking through: Joe Hart aside, there has been nothing of that this time. Adam Johnson has considerable support amongst both fans and journalists, more than SWP. But put up against the ’98 group of Scholes, Beckham, Owen and, but for injury, a 23-year-old Robbie Fowler, and the class gap becomes more obvious. Johnson is a good player. But no one would argue that he is in that kind of class, at least not yet.

It isn’t a failure of England’s young players. Both the U-21s and U-17s have enjoyed great success recently. Arsene Wenger has spoken warmly of the coming generation, now in their mid teens, and even Trevor Brooking has begun to change his tune. It’s more that for Huddlestone, for Walcott, for Johnson, for Carlton Cole even, 2010 is tangibly too soon. If Capello stays, and rebuilds England in time for 2012, their time will come. Don’t worry for Walcott: take comfort in the criticisms that Joe Cole and Cristiano Ronaldo had at one stage. He’s not the first talent to be accused, when young, of having no game or team awareness.

Unfulfilled Potential

A look at previous squads reveals that even in this most consistent and medal-laden of England cores, there have been drop-outs. What an exciting player Kieron Dyer once was – a match for Lennon and far superior to SWP. And how promising Jermaine Jenas too – possessed of a captain’s temperament and the energy of a Roy Keane. All he had to do, it seemed, was bulk out a little. There are others: Jonathan Woodgate, once considered worthy of a starting place at Real Madrid, but always, heartbreakingly, injured. In an alternative universe, somewhere, he has 80 caps and has partnered King at the heart of the England defence for the best part of six years.

Missing Front Men

And how many strikers – Michael Bridges and Alan Smith stand out, two men who looked the part at first, but were carried away by injury and bad luck as time went by. Dean Ashton, a man in the Alan Shearer mould, never got a chance. There are so many nearly but not quites: genuine Premiership strikers who look just a little lost in a three lions shirt. Will Bobby Zamora be one? Already paid-up members from the post-98 era: Darren Bent, Andy Cole, Kevin Philips, Andy Johnson, Franny Jeffers, David Nugent..

Reasons for optimism

This England squad would do superbly well by reaching a semi-final, but I’d settle for a quarter: Gerrard is already coming out with the “we can play better than this and we will” comments familiar to anyone who followed the 2006 campaign and the 2008 qualifiers. But Capello does seem to know what he’s doing – as has been pointed out elsewhere, Ericksson’s “first half good, second half not so good” has been usefully reversed. The United States will beat England and win the group, but beyond that – not banana skin, more landmine – there are only three teams who are really streets ahead (the two South Americans plus Spain) and if England can avoid them, find form and find goals, they’ve a three-week stay ahead of them.

And there is a story for the manager to tell them. There is still, just about, a narrative here. It’s one more thing that Capello has given England: plot. Once it was that a brilliant European manager would find his talents just a little too young and too soon for 2002, but 2004, 2006… and then 2006 came and went empty, to be followed by a kind of John Major interregnum, a downward spiral, corrosion, chaos. Now there are rumours of one last twist in the story, perhaps even a shot at redemption. Lampard will show his tiny grandkids that Ayia Napa video, chuckle, and say, but let me tell you how it ends..

When Capello was appointed, Micah Richards looked forward to hearing his new ideas for England…

The Passionate Sergeant-Major

After Hoddle, after Ericksson, came the calls for a manager who understood the players, who showed his passion: a traditional man who could motivate the team, a bulldog. And this we learn, like Micah Richards, from Capello: that there are no traditional bulldog managers left in England, that these, like so much else, we now have to buy in from abroad.

For all that, I do owe an apology to those journalists who called for this after Ericksson. They didn’t expect to get what they wanted quite in this manner, and neither did I. But, nevertheless, it does seem to be working, and by working, gives the lie to a lot of what I’ve written here in past seasons. But never mind. Anecdotes from the Capello days, when they finally start to leak out after 2012, will be worth that and more. I hear he won’t let them have tomato ketchup…

Comments (8)

Advertise Here
Advertise Here