Friday 24 November 2017

Helter-skelter England are back at the top of the slide

Dion Fanning

Whenever the state of English football is discussed, you have to start at the humiliating end. Only when England are disgraced as they were in South Africa against Germany, does the brutal truth hit them.

Suddenly their TV analysts speak with perception and insight. They prostrate themselves with humility and accept they have so much to learn. Over time, say the period between major tournaments, these endearing qualities fade.

One of the many great aspects of the English personality is their ability to be unflinchingly hard on themselves and encourage others to do the same. The Irish are able to beat themselves up but once they hear the English on the line, making monkey noises, the old defensiveness returns,

Of course, there are historic reasons for this. When Tony Blair invaded Iraq, England was not that concerned what the world thought of them, they just felt shame. When Brian Cowen sounds drunk, Ireland feels shame and its haunted, historic companion: what do people think of us? England, when it is in self-flagellating mood, would welcome your thoughts.

Last week the BBC allowed Gary Lineker to go around Europe so that England could be told what it was doing wrong and what it needed to do right if it was to win the World Cup again.

At some point they might have to ask was 1966 worth it? Certainly this one-off victory in a tournament they hosted and where they played all their games in front of 100,000 home fans at Wembley has ruined many successive tournaments for England. This one summer of joy has led to many, many summers of hysterical anticipation swiftly followed by hysterical doom -- 1966 made England hysterical. Perhaps the first thing they could do is accept that 1966 won't be repeated. It was not just a once-in-a-lifetime event, it may have been a once in many, many lifetimes event.

There is the appalling thought that England might not be able to do anything that would help them to win the World Cup. The acceptance of this fact might allow them to enjoy a World Cup with the same freedom as other countries do.

The obvious conclusion from this programme and many others was that England needed to produce more footballers. We don't really need Gary Lineker making those self-deprecating little jokes that somehow remind you that he used to play for Barcelona and won the Golden Boot in Mexico '86 to discover that.

Now they have a quota system but more will be needed. England's full-back, Glen Johnson, revealed last week that he was learning Spanish and said it was "like a secret weapon".

Certainly the English footballer has lowered expectations to such a degree that the experience of hearing him speak any language would probably be quite startling.

Johnson will have to deal with the mockery of his English team-mates who wonder why a multi-millionaire needs to educate himself and the quizzical look from his foreign team-mates who wonder why being multi-lingual should even merit a headline, let alone be viewed as a secret weapon.

During Lineker's Grand Tour, the Germans were put forward as an example. After several barren months during which they failed to reach a World Cup final, they overhauled their coaching system. This process began at the turn of the century, following their early exit from the European Championships. Two years later, under the old system, they reached the World Cup final. The new system seems to have produced a more inspiring type of footballer, but there is also a more inspiring type of cultural mix in Germany. Clairefontaine was once promoted as the model but they haven't been minting too many commemorative medals outside Paris recently.

For all the people with a vested interest insisting they have the formula, it could be that, once some conditions are met, success is cyclical or at least based on elements over which the FA have no control. English football now reflects the culture of the country, a combination of timidity and aggression.

During the World Cup, the Football for Hope tournament took place with teams from countries around the world. The English squad was short of players because when two of their team arrived at the airport for the flight to South Africa, they digested the information, the long-haul flight, the weeks living in a dormitory, decided they couldn't be arsed and went back home.

So this defeatist cloud hangs over everything. Jose Mourinho made a moving speech in response to Lineker's doom-laden request, "Give me some hope?"

"You are the country of football . . . you are very patriotic . . . everybody together . . . not criticising players, putting pressure on coaches . . . a complete union . . . also with the press . . . a global project . . . look at the players not as players, look at the players as Englishmen, like you are, like a policeman is, like a teacher is, like a doctor is. Englishmen and English people together, we can do it." By the time of his peroration I was ready to go over the top or at least shout something out the sitting room window, so who knows what it did to the Englishmen watching.

Mourinho is another man they lost. They look at him now as they looked at Brian Clough once and grieve. Clough complicated things by his arrogance and refusal to bend. Mourinho has these qualities too but also he is not English and they cleave to the idea that an Englishman is what they need.

Not only has England forgotten they recently had one, they are now putting forward Steve McClaren as Capello's successor on the basis that he is English and working abroad. McClaren's achievements since he left the England job are impressive, but the most impressive thing is that he left England in the first place. This should be normal but instead managers like Alan Curbishley appear on TV panels whenever a job becomes vacant.

McClaren now has a secret weapon: the decision to live as others do, to test himself in alien territory. It's not much, but it's enough.

Lineker turned to Terry Venables for a final reflection. They consider themselves pessimists but it is their hopefulness that drags them down. Lineker wanted to know if England could win the next World Cup. It seems a pointless question after all that had gone before but there is nothing as pointless as hope. "Why not?" Venables chortled. The BBC had spent an hour explaining why not. The programme had screamed why not. They get to the bottom and they go back to the top of the slide.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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