Wednesday 18 October 2017

Dion Fanning: Foreign legion an easy target when truth is closer to home

Dion Fanning

If the intention of an underage tournament is to prepare players for the brutal reality of a World Cup or European Championships then the England under 21 side can be proud of a job well done.

As Stuart Pearce's side struggled to pass the ball to anyone who might have resembled a team-mate, it was easy to see them as recidivist con Uncle Joey in Back to the Future: "Better get used to these bars, kid."

They are imprisoned by the failures of the past but the search for a scapegoat has begun and when English football needs a scapegoat, there is always somebody suitable to blame first: foreigners.

England's failure to qualify for two World Cups in the 1970s doesn't fit this thesis unless Ardiles and Villa were the cause of it.

The truth, more glaring than ever, is that foreign players are bought because players from these islands aren't good enough. The mistake is to think they aren't good enough because of foreign players.

This may be a result of coaching or it may be something more profound. If there is an identifiable characteristic of England teams at major tournaments, it is the almost comic absence of what might be called a collective intelligence.

On the surface, a failure of technique or a lack of tactical appreciation will be identified as the cause but beneath those factors lies the stultifying effects of an absence of curiosity.

At the street league tournament in Johannesburg three years ago, the England team recruited two boys from the township for their side because a couple of players had decided at Heathrow that they couldn't be bothered to fly.

This swagger which conceals a fear is the cultural problem which stretches beyond football, and England's failures predate the Premier League.

In the soul of the English game, there remains a belief that the fundamentals are sound. They would dispute that, insisting that they are undergoing a thorough review of all coaching infrastructures at St George's Park, but as they embrace the world of corporate bullshit, they move further from the solution, which is essentially a creative one.

It is obvious that they have to make their players better rather than simply making the Premier League worse but the lesson may be to open their minds, to allow them, as they do with young players in Germany, to be educated beyond football, not simply taught different things about the game.

The idea that this stuff is window-dressing persists. English football's relationship with the maverick is one example.

Some of these mavericks are mavericks for a reason but for generations – Barnes in '86, Hoddle in '88 – they have been thrown in when it is too late.

Meanwhile, other players become establishment figures. It is significant that when Roy Keane encountered Jamie Redknapp in a bar many years ago, his line of attack was Redknapp's "record number of under 21 caps".

For Keane, they represented not an achievement but a failure, or at least a stasis. To play a record number of times for the England under 21s was to achieve a certain position in the bureaucracy, like being elected to Aosdána or appointed to a quango.

It was an achievement but nobody could be sure what had been achieved. Keane, at that time, was busy winning the double with Manchester United so it must have been a curious prize to him.

Some of England's problems are shared across the islands. In Ireland, we are at least benefiting from plummeting expectations, a sort of football austerity which has driven people away.

Those who are left behind are forced to live on a lower standard of expectation where anything that isn't serfdom represents a wild and crazy dream.

If Giovanni Trapattoni had stood in the RDS five years ago and promised that he would take Ireland to a place where they would avoid humiliation except on those nights when they would be humiliated, a few voices might have wondered if it was worth it.

Under Steve Staunton, Ireland were being humiliated by the worst teams in the world, so there is a different texture to recent humiliations. There is also a real sense of triumph when, as happened in New York last week, Ireland avoid humiliation and suffer a simple run-of-the-mill defeat.

Yet whenever Ireland come up against a side such as, say, Macedonia, it is dispiriting to watch the ball being knocked around by one team while Ireland also reveal the familiar lack of collective intelligence which is something that can't be entirely blamed on Trap.

Those failings are shared failings and again they stretch beyond football. A man will be mocked for quoting Proust or Nietzsche but if somebody pulls himself up to his full height and says, "It is like the Skibbereen Eagle keeping an eye on the Russian Tzar", he will be guaranteed a laugh. The fact that he has been guaranteed a laugh since about 1956 only encourages him to say the same thing again, to be clubbable and to resist the eccentric opinion.

As England pursues foreigners, they are also searching for other scapegoats and Pearce will be sacrificed. Glenn Hoddle is talked of as a replacement and would be a fine choice for many reasons. His reported lack of empathy could be a strength. Hoddle is said to be an excellent coach but to have failings in "man-management" due to his core oddness.

Wealthy young footballers may need to be told what to do, instead of being praised, often by themselves, for what they've already achieved. If the message can be an educational one, then it may be for the better.

Most importantly, as the only man forced to resign as a manager due to his views on the transmigration of souls, Hoddle cannot be accused of lacking curiosity. In fact, if anything, he might be too curious. And about the wrong things. Still, look and learn, boys. Look and learn.

Irish Independent

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