I admit that I spent the game reclining on a couch reading Colin Shindler’s Manchester United Ruined My Life and only turned the radio on for the last few seconds. So none of what follows relates to any actual football I might have seen – blame everything on that.
I was surprised by 0-0 though. After all the pre-match talk about “delivering” and “an English performance” (that again), I was rather expecting an Israeli victory, especially given how good Israel is when playing at home. It turns out, reading this morning’s reports, that England actually made a better hash of the game than many sides of equal standing have –
But people are disappointed. And this is the nth disappointment in a row. Disappointment accumulates, and the pressure of its weight is doing interesting things to opinion on the England situation.
Steve McClaren’s appointment came less than a year ago. It didn’t come as a surprise: it’s been FA policy since the late 1980s to attempt to groom coaches who are considered to have “England manager” potential, and McClaren, as assistant to Eriksson and successful Middlesborough manager (first trophy, first European Final) was very much in that category.
At the time of McClaren’s appointment, there was a strong desire for the England manager to be English. Part of that desire was no more than patriotic – it’s a national side, and should be led by someone from that nation. Part of the desire was based on a psychological misapprehension – that an English manager would “understand” English players and thus know how to “inspire” them. From some quarters, the desire was based on ill-disguised bigotry, but those quarters are probably best described as eighths or sixteenths.
It would be fair to say that the national view of events at the 2006 World Cup was to the effect that England had the talent, but the talent hadn’t shown passion for the cause, and that this lack of passion was the great weakness that Eriksson’s successor was going to address.
There are two psychological misapprehensions there, understandable ones in the context, but errors nonetheless.
The first is to assume that the feelings and emotions of a fan are the ones a player needs in order to perform at his best. I’d say that a player needs to want to win – intensely – and needs to believe in his ability to win – but that those are attitudes, not emotions. You need the belief for the desire to show. It shows as implacability – Roy Keane v Juventus in Turin in 1999.
The second error is to assume that apparent “lack of passion” is just that – not caring. Absolutely every football biography, every fly-on-the-wall study like this classic one show soccer changing rooms, not as bundles of boys-own enthusiasm but nests of fear and paranoia, pressure, inarticulate distress, cliques and bullying. Places where there is too much to care about and far too much at stake, not too little.
England aren’t playing like casual playboys – they are playing like men who can’t win, men in an impossible situation where only 5-1 away to Germany is in any sense an acceptable result to their audience. An audience whose most vocal members, press or fans, become ever more vituperative and eager to punish and hurt.
That side of opinion is going on in its own way, madder by the week, the atmosphere of their ravings comparable to contemporary feelings about paedophiles and illegal immigrants. But other strands have emerged.
First up is the reassessment of the Eriksson era. I haven’t quite seen my analysis of it anywhere else yet (mine being the way injuries prevented Sven fielding his best team – that we had eleven or twelve international-class players and no more, that our world-class players were always the first to be injured). Neither columnists or 6-0-6 guests want to be seen to break rank from the Sven-was-rubbish opinion lest they find themselves out on their own.
People are now prepared to remember that Eriksson lost only one qualifying game in three tournaments, and only two tournament matches overall in open play (one, against France, in bizarre, semi-comical circumstances). People are prepared to admit that their expectations for England have dropped since the summer. It’s done grudgingly, not acknowledging out loud that expectations have to drop from somewhere, for to admit that would be to admit that there was a time when it wasn’t English Gospel that Sven was a terrible failure. Even Beckham’s memory has begun to warm, although even those warming it keep to their coward’s caveats.
A second new strand of opinion is out there, which I’d call the “bewildered amnesia” strand. Lacking any form of long-term memory, this strand flip-flops between extreme positions, prevented by its disability from noticing any positional inconsistency or change. Sven lacked a Plan B – McClown’s persisting with that failed 4-3-3/3-5-2 when it’s obvious that our players prefer 4-4-2. Gerrard should play on the right like he does for Liverpool/Gerrard should play in the centre like he does for Liverpool. What is Hargreaves doing in an England shirt/when is Hargreaves going to return from injury? We need an English manager/we need a different English manger/hurrah for renewed rumours about Scolari.
There’s only one way to sum all this up – no one has any idea how to make England better, and that’s why there’s this constant dreaming about some new manager riding to the rescue. None of the candidates to become Sven’s successor have had a good season – even Allardyce’s Bolton have been in relegation form since the New Year. Pardew has been unfortunate, but looks likely to go down with his surprising new ship. Curbishley is faced by a firing squad, or at least they are misfiring, and he’d like to fire them. O’Neill at Villa is failing to match last season’s performance under that other manager, terrible as Sven is terrible, David O’Leary (N.B. I don’t expect that to continue – O’Neill is quite obviously the best manager of his generation). So sack McClown if you must, if you must call him that, but at least first admit that the whole ideological atmosphere around his appointment was stupid and took us all down a blind alley.
Let me make my suggestion, then. England have 11 or 12 or 13 players of international quality, no more. Of those, one has “retired from international football”, four have had season-long injuries (Owen, Joe Cole, Ashton, and the forgotten Ledley King). Some of the current under-21s might step up in the next year or two (Nugent, Huddlestone, Baines, Barnes, the shamefully-treated Walcott) but early promise doesn’t always translate into genuine performances, as Lampard’s England career loudly demonstrates. If the right 11 or 12 players are fit, then, for now, Sven’s first eleven remains the best we have: Robinson, Cole (A), Ferdinand, Terry, Neville, Cole (J), Hargreaves, Gerrard, Lennon, Rooney, Owen. Subs: Crouch, Ashton, Woodgate, Foster, Dyer. Personally, I’d love to have Scholes instead of Gerrard..