They used to say that in Newcastle, long ago. These days, we’d be shouting into an American knee clinic.
It was a pub discussion, of course – (The Polar Bear in Hampstead if you must know) – and the subject: is it time for a middle class takeover of English football?
Well, it was in the pub, because in the full light of day you realise that it’s already happened. We just haven’t seen the results yet. What we do have, for all its faults, is a transformed football landscape. Better stadia at every level of the game, for instance. Infinitely improved training facilities at most clubs of any size, and a determined effort both by the FA and by the likes of Simon Clifford to improve skills coaching at youth level. A change in the image of the game, making it possible for anyone short of royalty to take an unembarrassed interest in what is, after all, our invention and our national winter game.
Although the England performance against Macedonia was execrable, it’s still the case that England’s top players are a cut above their immediate predecessors. Peter Shilton aside, it would be hard to say which of the 1982 England World Cup team would have forced its way into the current squad. Coppell, perhaps, if speed and strength on the flanks was wanted? From 1990’s squad, things get a little bit better – Lineker, of course, Gascoigne definitely, but even Waddle and Barnes might have been in for a battle to supersede Joe Cole and Aaron Lennon. From 1996, Shearer and, at that age, Sheringham, and Seaman. Perhaps Adams in the squad. (Pearce, from ’90 and ’96, for all his on-the-sleeve patriotism, simply isn’t in the same league as Ashley Cole or Wayne Bridge in terms of skill or all-round game).
What has been lacking – still lacking – and this becomes increasingly apparent – isn’t necessarily intelligence, but a willingness to use it. It’s one wing of the persistent and bizarre confusion of sports psychology with psychiatry, which reared its head yet again in Richard Williams’ column in today’s Guardian.
This passage, taken from Gianluca Vialli’s excellent book, The Italian Job, illustrates the difference.
In Italy, footballers revel in tactical talk but in England it’s greeted with the same enthusiasm as a trip to the dentist.
“There is no question that the Italian footballer is stimulated by talk of various systems and the movement of players on the pitch,” says David Platt. “On the other hand, these things are of little interest to the English players. I notice it every time I talk to my players about tactics. After about twenty minutes I realise that I’ve lost them, their eyes glaze over, you can tell they’re thinking of something else. If I don’t do a single tactical session over the course of an entire week the English player either wouldn’t notice or would notice and wouldn’t care. But the thought of spending a whole week without any kind of tactical work would terrify the Italian. To him, tactics are an essential part of the game. And if he hasn’t prepared tactically, he doesn’t feel prepared on the pitch. And that scares him and makes him very uncomfortable…”
That puts the various rumours of England squad members refusing to venture beyond a familiar 4-4-2 into a kind of context, doesn’t it? It’s not that the English players are lacking in the ability to understand tactics. What isn’t there is the attitude that detailed tactical approaches matter. At present, all that goes under the big tarpaulin labelled “bullshit” along with the other useful things that require effort.
Take the skill of England’s current and future crop of players, and add to it a genuine interest and curiousity in the technical, tactical wing of the game, and you get a squad who gain at least 10% – and isn’t that the 10% we’ve been lacking? But I can’t help feeling that that requires a further step in the direction of the middle-classization of football – something that, as I say, might already be well advanced. Give it six or seven more years and we’ll know. Poor Steve McClaren only has two more days.
Aside: a scan of the BBC talkboards shows fan reaction to Macedonia splitting two ways. One faction says, bring back Becks (some say, Sven and Becks). The other, reading between the lines, advocates ever harsher treatment of players (shouting, dropping players, more shouting) in the belief that from that will come flowing, effective football. As a footballing country, we really don’t know what to do about this, do we?