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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: English Football Fans in Scotland

Posted on 25 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

It wasn’t so long ago when the English felt free to mock inhabitants of Her Majesty’s erstwhile and remaining possessions(start at 2m 16 secs)…

..and going further back still, most early histories of the Football Association refer to Scottish professional players in alienating terms: they were foreigners, come from outside to take the shilling and pollute the holy amateur game of England.

Those Edwardians angry at the incomers were administrators and (a few) journalists. There’s no hint that the Preston or Blackburn or Villa fan at the turnstile minded their Scottish players at all. And one hundred years on, I don’t even want to contemplate what the Football League would have lost had it not enjoyed Nevin, Dalglish, Law, Alex James and what must be thousands of others.

Some Scottish fans will know how hard many English find it, to feel how they’d like to feel about the Premier League and the England national team. “Is Wayne Rooney England’s only likeable player?” asks Football 365. “Anyone But England” has never hurt less than it does now. What might have been an insult of real force – when an England team could contain a Charlton brother, a Brooking, a Mick Mills or a Gordon Banks – now sounds, in the era of Cole, Terry, and Ferdinand, no more than a sound but slightly exaggerated opinion that many disillusioned Englanders quietly share.

“Anyone But England” isn’t, of course, anything to do with the rise and fall of the England moral barometer. Neither is it reciprocated. There are a few English fans who become exasperated enough by ABE to stop actively supporting Scotland’s teams in European or international competition, and a small number who go further and cheer on Scotland’s opponents. But we really are talking about very tiny minorities: the English tradition is to support the other British Isles nations and, where available, other Anglophone countries too (USA excepted, if not by me personally).

Not all English traditions are so evenhanded. Especially when it comes to other countries, and that’s why I’d defend Scotland’s silent but mutually-reinforced decision not to adopt this one. Nevertheless, it’s true to say that Scottish fans can go to English pubs to cheer Scotland on and, for the most part, not have to give it a second thought. What happens to England fans, going to Scottish pubs, to cheer on England? I’ve done it, and here’s what I have to say:

The number of Scots who express ABE in anger is vanishingly small, and any discussion of ABE on talkboards will attract comment from Scots who disagree with it and dislike it as a childish hangover and a block on Scottish development.

The golden rule about ABE is that it must be expressed in a humorous tone. Serious use of ABE is considered de trop. But so is energetic argument against it from an Englishman, which is why the wearing of an England shirt in a Scottish pub, whilst unlikely to inspire anything worse than brief comment, is seen as inappropriate, a misjudgement of the situation. That shirt, there, is such an energetic argument.

You are highly unlikely to meet anyone who wants to press the ABE point  even amongst those Scots for whom ABE is an important fact of life. The conversation always moves on. There are other things to talk about, and this is especially so when it comes to football.

Much ABE isn’t about England at all. It’s not about hating the elderly in their freezing deckchairs at Morecambe, for goodness’ sake,  or a playground of children in Gateshead or a Leytonstone mum struggling to stretch her pennies. And there’s always a note of regret behind the humour, a sorrow that Scotland isn’t better than she is, an indefinable if-only..

The expression of a small measure of ABE is expected of you if you are Scottish and part of a group of fans whose teams have made contact with the auld enemy. But you don’t actually have to believe it. And you are, remember, expected to use inverted commas as you say it. Fail that test and it isn’t ABE at all, but something more serious, something nastier that Scottish football is keen to leave in the past.

ABE is not a first-order expression of Scottish nationality. It isn’t the equivalent of wearing a kilt, or a Scotland shirt, or of flying the flag of St Andrew or making a Burns Night toast or climbing your last Munro. Next to these things, ABE is a ginger wig on match day, ABE is an inflatable haggis.

In this sense, then, wearing an England shirt in a Scottish pub is a betrayal of the principles of ABE - it’s missing the joke, missing the point, ignoring house rules. You’re unlikely to get any worse for it than a comment or two, if even that. But you’ll have insulted your hosts. Your England shirt – boorish and aggressive in most places even in England – is a tiresome, humourless and provocative rag up here. It is, above all, boring, dull as a wet day and just as depressing. Don’t forget, either, that there are still amends to be made, all around the world, for what louts in England shirts did in the years between the Heysel ban and the Beatles last LP. This is not just about Scotland.

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World Cup 2006: Significant Injuries

Posted on 01 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

The news that Brazil’s excellent holding midfielder, Edmilson, is out through injury, constitutes the second major blow to the tournament. Wayne Rooney – not entirely out yet, but definitely hampered in making any sort of impact in Germany, was the first.

There are two ways of looking at these things. You can either celebrate the fact that Brazil, the most talented team on show, aren’t going to be as difficult to get past as they might have been, meaning that your own team, whoever they are, will have an easier time of it. Or, you can feel disappointment at losing the prospect of seeing the best team playing at their best.

I take the second position. Neither of Edmilson’s understudies – Mineiro and Arsenal’s Gilberto Silva – are particularly mouth-watering.

But there’s more to it from England’s perspective. England reserve their best performances for their fiercest opponents.

The way I see it, before Eriksson, England used to have three kinds of opponents in football. There were the “minnows”, teams like Cyprus, Luxembourg, Turkey as were. Faced with such opposition, England would be flat-track bullies, and would usually score more than three goals. Then there were what you might regard as the moderate sides, like Sweden, Denmark, Austria. England would often beat these teams, but not by any great distance and with a great deal of huffing and puffing. Finally, there were the “class” sides, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy. Against these teams, England would lose – gallantly, all guns blazing, but lose. All that has changed.

Against what minnows remain, England now try to get a victory with the least possible effort. As we saw in the defeat to Northern Ireland, this can backfire. It’s not lack of enthusiasm for the cause. England have top players across the whole of the team now, who have long and competitive seasons. They pace themselves. Every other class of athlete understands this, but football fans, on the whole, don’t. Against decent, but not top, sides, England will win, but without playing that elusive superb football that we’ve never really seen but Eriksson stands charged of not producing. Against the top sides, England now really produce, and as we have seen recently, win.

So what might it mean for England to come up against a top side, but one weakened significantly by injury?

I worry. I think it takes the whole challenge of facing the very best at their very best to bring out the best in England’s players. This team has a confidence in its own ability that has been lacking in all its predecessors save the great 1970 side. That confidence means that they’ll stand up to Brazil, this time. But if they feel that Brazil is within their competence to too great a degree, will they misjudge the situation and play at too low a level?

If they get it right, I think they’ll win – Brazil are astonishingly good in attack, and Sunderland in defence. And we have one of the great defences in football. We’ll win – if, if.

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