Friday 19 January 2018

England expects answers but they're asking wrong question

Dion Fanning

Anyone who has witnessed England entering a tournament crippled by expectation would understand that if you want to set England the target of winning the World Cup in 2022, the first thing you should do is not set them the target of winning it.

England may never win a World Cup again as long as it continues to ask itself during its traditional postmortem, 'Can we win it?'

Greg Dyke, the new chairman of the FA, articulated his vision for English football last week which included setting England the target of winning the 2022 World Cup.

Dyke was criticised for setting this impossible target and then criticised for stating in subsequent interviews that nobody "realistically" thought England could win next summer's competition.

English football cannot bear much reality. It is an awkward business for footballers on these islands who experience the extent of their limitations when they play teams from anywhere that isn't on these islands.

Dyke is the latest to want to address the failures of English players and look at all the possible causes but there was one thing at the forefront of his mind.

"The issue, quite simply," he said, "is this: in the future it's quite possible we won't have enough players qualified to play for England who are playing regularly at the highest level in this country or elsewhere in the world. As a result, it could well mean England's teams are unable to compete seriously on the world stage."

As some people tried to remember when England had competed seriously on the world stage, Dyke announced that he will now head a commission which will investigate why there are so few English players starting for clubs in the Premier League.

The short answer is, of course, that they aren't good enough. Dyke wondered if the fact that so many clubs were foreign-owned meant the clubs didn't care about the national team. Most fans of Premier League clubs wouldn't tolerate their own side being weakened even if they were told it was for the benefit of the national team. Nationality has nothing to do with it.

Presumably those who want the English player elevated in the Premier League would have welcomed the six months in which Liverpool spent £55m on Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing with hilarious consequences. Or they would celebrate Ashley Young's performances for Manchester United. At Anfield last week, Young spent his time on the field in a battle with himself, selling himself a dummy on one occasion but, unfortunately, not coming out on top.

Tom Huddlestone left Tottenham last month bemoaning the abandonment of the club's 'Buy British' policy, a complaint which would have had more substance if he hadn't name-checked David Bentley as one of the primary victims. Tottenham are now aggressively pursuing a 'Sell British' policy.

Roy Hodgson has recently disputed Premier League claims that there are a couple of hundred English players available to him each week. Hodgson puts the figure at closer to 40 of the required ability.

Yet those who promote quotas for the clubs should be happy for Hodgson to select from the two hundred. If they are inferior players then so will be the players forced on the clubs in any quota system.

If anything it needs to get harder not easier for English players to succeed in the Premier League, or at least to feel that they've succeeded.

Right now, they are being encouraged to believe that forces beyond their control are preventing their advancement. They are right but it is not the forces they believe.

In Germany, a club like Freiburg emphasises education, believing they have a moral obligation to those who won't make the grade. But education also helps those who do make it, providing an assurance that may be helpful in those times when a player needs assurance.

Questioning the Premier League and the motivation of foreign owners won't rid English football of its crippling suspicion. Those who arrive from outside Britain are being viewed warily and said to be taking the place of talented youngsters from England. There is nothing stopping the talented English footballer going abroad himself, but then one recalls that Joe Cole was said to find it hard to adapt to life outside London during his brief time in Liverpool.

Dyke mentioned in passing that English players were not playing in other leagues but this only seemed to make him more determined to find ways for them to be promoted in English leagues when he could have been encouraging English players and coaches to go abroad.

This resentful lack of curiosity touches at the wider cultural reasons for England's demise. They are not unique in their failure to encourage intelligence or a broader worldview in their footballers (it is mimicked in certain Irish football circles) but when players from these islands repeatedly face footballers who seem to have a greater intelligence on a football field, it might be worth considering all the reasons for their inferiority.

The Premier League may be a symptom not a cause of this cultural atrophy. The number of English players has declined in 20 years but England's results have, if anything, improved. Between 1974 and 1994, England failed to qualify for five tournaments. It has only happened once since 1994.

At least Dyke made no claims to hark back to a golden age. If the numbers of English players have dwindled in the Premier League since its creation then all the Premier League has done is ruthlessly and without sentiment confirm that English players aren't good enough. It was too easy for them before. The Premier League is a ruthless market which has no particular allegiance to its host nation, yet it serves as a handy distraction as England wrestles with its problems.

In some ways, they have the ideal manager. Roy Hodgson is adept at lowering expectation but his curious talent is to lower expectations without the customary benefits of lower expectations materialising.

His teams seem more burdened, not less, by this process, assuming the collective air of the worried well who populate GPs' surgeries fearing the worst. Except, in England's case, they may have something to be worried about. As always, it's not what they think it is.

Sunday Independent

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