Archive | England

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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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…

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I Had Not Thought Death Had Undone So Many

Posted on 26 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

I’ve just been groping through piles of statistics and have come across a thoroughly melancholy fact, namely that there are no survivors of England’s pre-War internationals.

The earliest international match for which we have a living English representative is Northern Ireland v England on 28th September 1946: Sir Tom Finney (b. 5th April 1922) scored on his war-delayed debut.

But there’s relief in that Sir Tom isn’t actually the oldest surviving international: that honour belongs to Phil Taylor of Liverpool, born on 18th September 1917. Taylor actually made his league debut on 28th March 1936, so we are still in the company of pre-War footballers, if only just.

Bert Williams, goalkeeper against the USA in 1950, is also still in the land of the living. “The Cat” may be the oldest surviving player with a nickname: he was born on 31st January 1920.

All this means that there are at least three former league players who predate the grouping of the railways.

Here’s Sir Tom Finney, combining with Sir Stanley Matthews to score against Uruguay in the 1954 World Cup:

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Belgium v England 1954

Posted on 26 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

This isn’t a memorable game, but one rarely seen I suspect.

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Owen, Beckham: it feels like growing old

Posted on 15 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Beckham out. Thus passes a generation of English players who came to prominence at the very end of my twenties. This is how the story ends, then: that group have indeed passed on without winning an international trophy. What Gary Neville feared, and perhaps expected, has come true.

Truth to tell, England’s teams since 1998 have always fallen well short. First France, then Spain, have produced better squads and performances. Holland have also just lost a generation – one which began with the astonishing Ajax European Cup winners of 1995 – but one that always seemed more likely than England’s to succeed.

Moreover, the best players of the 1998-2010 era have always been prone to injuries. Owen and Beckham were doubtful for both 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and weren’t fully fit at either. But for 1998 and the era of AOL, Freeserve and BoL, we’d never have seen either man playing at full tilt at the top level.

So much for a golden generation: England’s 1998 team, were, after all, the best of modern times. What would you give to have even an ageing Shearer now?

But these are the thoughts of someone for whom Owen, Beckham and co. were the last players to arrive when they themselves could still conceivably play.

For anyone now in their late 20s, the attachment to Owen and Beckham might not be there. Instead, each injury to the Old Guard brings Milner, Huddlestone, Lennon and now Adam Johnson closer to their destiny.

And there’s little doubt that Capello, for all his regret at losing players through injury, is capable of picking and organizing replacements. Only Wayne Rooney, of the 23-man squad, lacks an equivalent, although there are other capable goalscorers. Unlike in 2002, the injuries to Beckham and Owen make little difference to England’s chances. Beckham’s dead ball skills would have made him a useful substitute, but it is more than time that someone made the right wing their own and remade it in their own style.

It might not be over for either Beckham or Owen. Owen will play for another couple of years, and although at present it would take some real slapstick on the injuries front to knock over everyone who stands between him and the squad, it can’t be ruled out altogether. And Beckham was supposed to be gone after 2006. The man’s ability to dig himself out of the grave faster than his critics’ spades can bury him is a source of lasting entertainment and amusement.

But across the rest of the established squad, there are injuries, losses of form, ennui, niggles, an accumulating depression. Under any other manager, this would be worrying. It would prompt reflections that perhaps the time to rebuild the team is now: to use the World Cup to rebuild around the Huddlestones and Johnstones. But Capello doesn’t work like that or think like that.

So while Capello gets on with the job of seamlessly closing the gaps opened by injuries and turning James Milner into a kind of calm Paul Gascoigne, let’ s reflect on how Owen and Beckham will be remembered.

Not, I dare say, like Shearer and Adams are remembered. At his peak, Shearer gave England the sort of security you feel when you’ve been trapped by freak weather in a millionaire’s pantry: that feeling of infinite backup. Both he and Tony Adams had a football fan’s sense of priorities (which Shearer comically rehearsed all over again in this Smalltalk interview). I approve of footballers having hinterland – Owen’s racing, Beckham’s… skiing. But I know that most fans would rather their heroes be as obsessed as they are.

There’s some chance that Beckham will morph into something Charltonesque: he’s already to some extent a go-to-guy when it comes to competing for Olympics and World Cups. He’s good at being an ambassador, and if English football needs anything, it needs a sunny exterior to show the world. Beckham will not be wasted as Bobby Moore was wasted.

Owen’s own future is already well mapped out. A bit more football, then training racehorses. He’ll pop up on television now and again as a contemporary, relevant figure in a different sport, one which some suspect he prefers. His relatively closed personality will leave him with an enigmatic air around him: a man who appeared very suddenly, scored 40 goals for his country, and then went away again little older than George Best.

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England, Scotland and World Cup Ennui

Posted on 02 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

I know I’m not the only one who isn’t really looking forward to the World Cup.  But your reasons will be different from mine. I don’t enjoy tournaments which feature home nations – too tense, too much hoopla. And I enjoy ones with only England in even less – the loneliness leaves them even more exposed than they already were. Oh, to be in 1998, in the summertime, with a beer.

There have been so many World Cups now, and they aren’t getting better. This is to contrast them both with the Olympics and the European Championships. World Cup piles onto World Cup and each one squashes flat beneath the last like the ingredients in some kind of ever-accumulating Double Whopper.

Scotland aren’t there, of course, and Craig Levein gets his tenure off to an unpromising-sounding start against the Czech Republic having had almost no time to gather his thoughts. He should, if he keeps things calm and relatively quiet, steer Scotland into a play-off place without too much trouble. His successors ten years down the line will have an easier time of it: this is the muddy bottom of Scotland’s lean period, and it’s Levein’s unenviable task to steer the team out of it.

The England situation is depressing for different reasons.

This is still Ericksson’s 2001 team in many respects. John Terry and Wayne Rooney have arrived, but – and this is just astonishing – with the sole exception of David Seaman, every member of the starting XI, and two out of the three substitutes, is still a regular Premiership player or playing in Serie A (or Owen Hargreaves would be, barring injury). Scholes and Carragher have retired from international football, sadly, and Nicky Barmby is no longer considered a serious candidate for selection. Otherwise, it’s very much the same names.

When you consider that 5-1 squad absentees Lampard and Barry had both made their England debuts prior to the Munich game, it becomes clear that for the core established squad, 2010 is the last chance to win an international trophy. I think 2004 and 2006 were the years for these players. It’s probably too late now.

Always with the injuries, England. Terry’s back problems, Ferdinand’s back problems, Ashley Cole’s broken ankle, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Michael Owen.. Owen might not have been a major candidate for the plane, but this point is not about him. It’s about the way England have gone into tournaments with what would be a very serious team, if fit, but one in fact hastily recruited from the squad’s unfashionable outer regions. Sometimes it can work – Danny Mills was an effective stand-in for Gary Neville in 2002, and.. no, there weren’t any successful stand-ins in 2004 and 2006, were there?

Too many front pages: say no more, really. All that started with Lampard and Terry at the airport a week and a day after Munich (because the core of this team have been around more or less since the foundation of Blogger) and there’s usually been something or other on the boil ever since. Frankly, were the UK press less nosey, prurient and possessed of such peculiar priorities, we’d neither know nor care. But it’s still depressing.

The fringe players: I wish I didn’t count Jermaine Defoe in this bracket, but he’s only two years younger than Michael Owen, and the gap between the careers of the two men – to say nothing of other members of the squad – is impossible to ignore. His Spurs partner Peter Crouch is a little over a year younger than Owen, and the same comments apply. The main hope has to be that Defoe and Crouch continue on this dream-like season of theirs (surely the one which will define them) and carry all that confidence into the World Cup. And Crouch is no certainty to travel.  Injuries have robbed us of what might have been a thrilling season-long duel for Beckham’s spot on the right wing between Lennon and Walcott: all we can hope for now is that one or other of them is fit. Let’s skip over the goalkeeping situation.

The Good News: Carlton Cole has grown up, and is a kind of prozac every time one reflects on what’s happened to Michael Owen. Tom Huddlestone, but he’s injured, of course… And Capello doesn’t seem to understand the idea that England might perform less well when essential players are missing. It’s the kind of blind spot I don’t remember an England manager having in the past, save for Ericksson during his early, experimental line-ups (Chris Powell – remember his nutmegging Guardiola?).

No, the real good news is this: barring something from left of field, the rebuilding England will need to do will be done by Capello, whose contract, let’s not forget, continues until the end of the European Championship in 2012. Who, given how consummately well he has done so far (I called him a “More Than Mind Games manager” when he was appointed, and he hasn’t let me down) would you rather have the job?

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Anyone But England’s 1966!

Posted on 28 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

English football doesn’t obsess about 1966 as much as Scottish fans might like to think.

My first post on this is here; Alex Massie here and Rob Marrs here have taken the subject further.

Rob, being English, won’t shut up about 1966:

Scots talk about the English bringing up 1966 far more than English folk ever bring it up. I would note to Celtic fans reading if you tire of people talking of 1966 you might wish to put 1967 in a box. This very day, I sat in Kay’s Bar in Edinburgh and heard four Scots moan endlessly that the English talked about 1966. I was drinking with another English chap and neither of us had brought it up, the TV presenters hadn’t brought it up… the four Scots had brought it up.

I can still remember how surprised – shocked, even – I was on the rainy day in 1979/80 when I discovered that England had once won the World Cup. I was 11 or 12: My Manchester United-supporting stepfather had lived with us for seven years. I’d played at right-back for my football playing schools and sat through Argentina ’78 without once hearing anyone mention it.

So the news had to find its own way to me. Rummaging through a pile of old books in a junkshop in some left-over of a Bedfordshire village, in the last days of Callaghan’s Britain, I came across a battered Pan paperback about great postwar sporting moments. The usual list, but I was getting it for the first time: Maureen Connolly, Tommy Simpson, Gary Player, Cassius Clay, Celtic 1967. Oh, and England.

Well, the first thing I read about sex was a “found” copy of “Letters to the Happy Hooker” by Xaviera Hollander. She invites an American footballer over and, you’re joking..

In the late 1970s, England were a team of tired cloggers, playing heavy football in a wet, bored country without wine. Surely they’d never…and I wanted to run into the street to collar passers-by for confirmation: is this real? yet part of me thought I could believe it.. because I have early memories of a very different world and of a sunlight streaming into my pram, sunlight rich with colour and promise. 1960s sunlight, always dappling through leaves or through the long hair of the mini-skirted blonde who has bent down to pet me. A modern, confident light, shining on Alan Whicker and the Banana Splits and me, last seen at the 1970 World Cup and never again. In that light, anything can happen. Moonshots. Bob Beamon’s jump. An English World Cup win.

I had eleven months in which to enjoy the sixties, and, for want of better information, I trust I made the most of them. And I’d have eleven years in which I didn’t know about 1966: I hope I made the most of that, too. Because to listen to anyone who thinks the English don’t shut up about all that, you’d believe that we’re boasting about it: that England thinks itself, as of right, World Cup Winners, in the sunshine, top of the tree. Nothing could be further from the truth.

1966 is spoken about more than it was. Three contrasting things brought that about.

One is the 1990 World Cup, when England stumbled through the nettles to a semi-final that no one saw coming.  Before the semi against West Germany, English mood was split. The casual fan, who hadn’t seen the horrible earlier games, was excited. Those of us who had watched them, through our fingers, felt only dread. The West Germans forecast they’d win 4-0. Most English opinion worth having agreed. The English opinion that wasn’t worth having, however, had had old memories stirred.

In the event, England played quite well. The luck tank was dry, but the performance inspired hope for the future. The very quality of that gallant defeat, and it was real enough, did something quite peculiar and contradictory to the English footballing mind. Without any change in the fundamental belief that England just weren’t on a level with Italy, Holland, Brazil and the West Germans, an expectation formed. From here, England could kick on… 16 years later, Charlton fans would have the same thought, as they bid farewell to underperforming Alan Curbishley. Over all who would kick on, a great dark bird silently circles..

And of course, (don’t blame Nick Hornby for this) in the wake of 1990, literary types took an interest. I’d like to, but can’t, pass over the nausea, the disgust-inducing nature of some of the TLS-style stuff that’s been poured over English football since 1990. Think yourselves lucky, Scotland, that you had Irvine Welsh. Because England got David Winner…

So here the TLSers come, like missionaries and anthropologists, and all of the fan violence and the decaying stadia and the obvious clicheed football things have to acquire context and meaning and they become a subculture and it all gets plugged into history, and what’s in history? 1966 is in history, and, lovers of clumsy lecture-room humour as the TLSers are, look! it’s just like “1066 and All That”. Which is  really awfully amusing! And on the TLSers went, in Granta and the London Review of Books, taking from football  such insights into post-industrial alienation and radical politics and the working class..

Thirdly, and most regrettably, in February 1993, Bobby Moore died.

Bobby Moore’s death was, and felt, premature. It hurt in the gut: shouldn’t people survive cancer, these days? There was a general sense that, although he’d not followed up on his football career, he still had time. And, if there was still time for him, there was still time for his playing colleagues to do whatever it was that you might call writing another chapter. Jack Charlton and Alan Ball were both still managers, weren’t they? Contemporary figures, men busy in the active present, not ready, yet, to be rounded up with Ramsey and the rest and frozen in carbonite..

More time for Moore would have been more time for us. When he died, death lurched a lot closer. It felt a lot later in the day, all of a sudden: no more pretending that the the 1960s have only just finished. No more pretending that all that brilliant sunshine is just waiting its opportunity to return.

With Moore dead, it became important to remember, and to gather the memories of those who had taken part in it all, whilst they were still around and able to reflect.

Idiots got their piece of the late captain too. Moore’s death amplified a thought that had always been there and thereabouts in the minds of control freaks and anal salt-of-the-earth types. England’s 1966 side, according to this thought, were the last of a better breed. What that breed was, no one could decide, but no matter. The last street footballers. The last real grafting working-class team who rode the bus to matches with the fans (no one ever refers to players riding the bus home with the fans afterwards, do they?)  The last to cut their hair short/drink mild/use dubbin/pinch matron/shovel coal/wear slippers/wear lipstick.

The purpose of this particular, and very footballing, narrative is clear: it’s to rough up the moderns. To lay a punch on those long-haired types with their skinhead cuts, who’ve been made soft by the abolition of national service, white collar jobs, comprehensive school, Eagle Magazine, foreign cars, pretty girlfriends, Central London, not drinking with journalists, Southport, Dubai, Ipod Twitbook, corporal punishment, sex with nuns and the horrors of NuLab Thatcherism.

What it isn’t about, most emphatically, is English arrogance. If only it were so.

Because if you’ve read all of this up until now, you’ll know that although I’ve tried to tell it from the English point of view, I’ve missed out on the Scottish. Because I’ve been trying to say to the Kay’s Bar guys that it ain’t so. I’ve been trying to give them reasons to think more kindly, with more gentleness than they do, about England. But it’s not about that, is it? There are no reasons. What reason do you need to be shown?

The myths that sustain a nation and its sense of self, after all,  can be about other nations. It’s a Scottish myth, that England go on about 1966 all the time. They don’t; it isn’t true. More than they did, but not all the time, and not like that. But the Scottish myth has its place in a much wider conversation. Argue, if you like, that it’s projection: Scottish insecurity, confronted with an English achievement that Scotland has undeniably failed to come close to matching, creates a mitigating counter-factual to reduce the pain of it all. But why bother?

Because they may be bigger than us, for all that we’re bigger than Scotland, more successful than us, they may have more money – but they’re more stupid than we are, they’re loud, arrogant, blundering, badly-dressed, less cultured, less educated and short on common sense. And this is all good news. Because without it, how could we English go on? Go on, being English, in a world we lost to the United States… (This isn’t a narrative I buy into – but you can see the parallels I’m sure).

I didn’t hear about 1966 until I was almost in my teens. This despite growing up playing the game and reading about it and watching it on television at every opportunity. (I discovered 1966 in the same year I found out about Munich, which says something) It wasn’t a topic of constant discussion in England then, and if it is a topic for some discussion now, it’s because the men behind it are dying like  Beatles. And, to tell the truth, because we’re afraid we can never match them. And not just at football.

(And it’s a comparatively gentle myth, isn’t it? Typical of Kay’s Bar, really – the best sporting pub in the UK, a place where I once spilt a stranger’s drink and found him buying us a pair of replacement pints…)

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