I missed the game, just as I said I would. My Thursday evening football came courtesy of a little portable Roberts Radio, bringing me ten minutes of ecstatic mayhem from Belfast whilst I waited for my train on platform 9 at Wimbledon. From the other side of the station, a single voice intoned “Engerland, Englerland, Enger-land!” to itself. The “nation”, as Radio 5’s Tyneside commentator insists on referring to us, was no doubt celebrating long into the night, but if so, they weren’t doing it close to me, and I am duly grateful.
A brief scan of the papers has failed to turn up anything about the joint failure of Steve McClaren and Captain Fantastic John Terry to “inspire” Frank Lampard. But then, all that stuff about Sven’s inability to “inspire” players wasn’t really about that, was it? It’s not the done thing to say that we don’t want a foreign manager because at heart we’re xenophobes, so some covering excuse is needed. And now the alien cancer-cum-coach has succumbed to the press’s homeopathy, and the media caravan moves on. Forgive me for suggesting that England have not.
We always seem to be at this particular point – doing well in qualifiers, a couple of young players impressing with their potential without making a genuine impact, the senior players promising better things. Those young players will mutate silently into regulars, even irreplaceable stalwarts, without ever truly imposing themselves. Neither Lampard or Gerrard have ever produced a performance in an England shirt – the odd decent moment, yes, but never taking a match by the scruff of the neck. It was what John Barnes was accused of – never quite doing it in an England shirt, but even he left us “that” goal against Brazil. Sometimes I feel the shape of something missing from the golden generation, a sense that there is something to be done now ; it’s all the more noticeable when Rooney is playing, because he has what the others haven’t. Or Owen, when fit. Owen, fit – the stuff of legend and crackly, sepia scenes shone on white walls in hot, pre-War village schools.
There are rumours of an FA investigation into the “failure” at the World Cup. Judge its seriousness by the absence of the man who was England’s coach at the time. Really, there’s already been a collective decision on why failure happened. It wasn’t injuries to key players – Neville, Rooney, Owen. It wasn’t the inability of Gerrard or Lampard to play together (Lampard’s performances haven’t improved since he got what he wanted, something he’ll be keen no doubt to account for in his next frank volume). It wasn’t the players’ lack of mental strength when taking penalties. It wasn’t even the missed chances against Portugal that would have won the match had they been on target. It was because the manager came from another country, and didn’t shout at the players..
Which makes it all the odder that the early stars of McClaren’s reign have been two players – Crouch and Hargreaves – that the man from abroad kept faith with in the face of intense criticism, and another – Lennon – that he gave a start to, in a World Cup finals, at an astonishingly early age.
It’s long forgotten how eager everyone was to see Robson go as England manager in 1990. Then, like today, the solutions to England’s woes seemed obvious. Just like then, the idea was that the man taken in the face of criticism – David Platt – should fade into the background from whence he came, and the man left behind should step up and show the world the error of Robson’s ways. Now, the man left behind is Jermaine Defoe. Has he spent the last three internationals proving his point, do you think? And can you remember the name of the player left behind in 1990?
David Rocastle played 11 times for Bobby Robson – but only twice for Graham Taylor, the last time being in 1992 when he was still aged only 25. After the 1990 World Cup, the rest of his career was dogged by injury and a string of inadequate coaches and managers. He died, aged 33, of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
England, after Robson, were supposed to be all about building on that semi-final appearance. Now, we were to ensure that we turned in that kind of result in every tournament, just as Germany and Italy seemed to do. And, with Graham Taylor in charge, we’d see the end of men being played out of position, the end of daft picks like Platt, the end of inexplicable exclusions like Rocastle’s. At last, a little bit of good old English common sense, and all would be well.
Of course, we’ve all approached the McClaren reign with a maturity that puts the hysterical 1990 generation to shame. How gauche they were, how naive. We’ve indulged in no over-expectation, no excessive demands. All we want is a bit of passion, and a return to old values. Those old values must be very old – very, very old – practically pre-phylloxera – because I can’t find a time in living memory when they applied. But never mind, all we want is.. and all will be well again.
It won’t, of course. When Sven was appointed, it was as a result of an outsider – Adam Crozier – correctly identifying the lack of an England coach possessing the tactical knowledge (not “nous”, for heaven’s sake) to compete on the international stage. I suspect that over his five/six years, Sven slowly discovered that English players aren’t interested in matters tactical, for all the influence their better-informed continental colleagues have had in Premiership clubs. Like McClaren, Sven evolved two or three systems of play to fit different kinds of opponent, and, like McClaren, he found that whatever he asked of his players, they would always resort, in the end, to the long ball to the big man. I’m told it happened again, last night..
On November 15th, England play Holland, away. Why, when I think about that, do I get these mental pictures of Lowe and Mesurier? At least it’s them for now; by November, I fear it’ll be Clive Dunn leering at me in my dreams.