Tuesday 25 June 2019

Ewan MacKenna: We'll smirk and sneer when England crash again - but enjoy their failure while it lasts

Wayne Rooney of England walks from the pitch as Dele Alli and Daniel Sturridge show their disappointment after defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016
Wayne Rooney of England walks from the pitch as Dele Alli and Daniel Sturridge show their disappointment after defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

The story went that, 2-1 down at half-time in their Euro 2016 game with Iceland, Harry Kane and Joe Hart were shooting the breeze as they came back out onto the pitch. Amongst the nuggets they allegedly fired off in conversation were how they'd need to be much better in the next game versus France, that they couldn't lose to "this shit" and, best of all, there was even a question put to referee Damir Skomina about whether a loss in this knock-out tie would mean their elimination.

Of course all of that lot turned out to be completely made up via a viral online meme falsely quoting Kari Arnason but it didn't stop it growing legs, before going from a crawl to a sprint in the space of a pint. It perfectly demonstrated and backed up whatever the agenda was to begin with as, across the water, it was used to destroy that squad further.

Back here it was used as one more excuse to smirk and sneer. And you know what, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that if it gives you your kick, even though there are plenty who try and pigeon hole our complex relationship with English soccer.

It's contradictory and hypocritical given our love of the Premier League.

It's ungrateful given the work put in to and outlet provided for our own best and brightest.

It's introverted and insecure given we ought to have outgrown the past.

It's snide given we hide it when face to face.

It's the wrong priority given we should get our own house in order before slagging others.

All of those elements may be completely true, but let's not forget that first and foremost it's fun. It may not be mature, but sport was never meant to be, and it's here we can over-question, over-complicate and over-intellectualise one of the great joys of sport. The truth is, it's completely natural as we are far from the only ones to cheer against the neighbours, or dislike them in a sporting sense because of the history that exists. In fact tribalism is a foundation of all sport.

When your side isn't at a major tournament, as Ireland usually aren't, it's far more entertaining and emotive to roar against traditional rivals who consume you, however negatively, rather than try and force a connection and a care for some place you've no connection with and no care for.

We owe England a lot on that front as, in wishing them ill, they've not only left us feeling like winners but been showmen in doing so. Often it's had a feel of three stooges rather than three lions. Once-upon-a-time there was the hype and hysteria that resulted in what anyone outside the bubble could see was a lunatic arrogance considering what they'd to offer outside rhetoric. It reached a point that by Euro 2008, a journalist in a frenzy had Bryan Robson by the neck against a wall, lecturing him on set-up and selection, as if the Generals were beating his Globetrotters.

Even as those expectations died in recent years, it remained hard to look away for it's pantomime, an ever-growing parody of itself, a stereotype that not even Apres Match could do justice to. Such a team was always about a degree of nationalism, but that nationalism again became toxic to the point that in Marseille in 2016, there was something pathetic but unmissable about fat, topless, beer-bellied fans getting a thumping on the streets. It provided for much intrigued rubber-necking.

And there's now a feeling that it would be foolish to turn your back at this World Cup, despite just 2,000 of their fans going, and despite a universal knowledge they have a second-tier team. Sure they've a young squad with speed, a togetherness, devoid of the usual egos, a truly world-class striker in Kane, and while Gareth Southgate may be vanilla that's a tone they need.

But all that is waiting to be dragged down by his lack of his experience, the lack of world-class players outside of Kane, so little relative depth compared to the big boys, and a really average midfield. But while a quarter-final is their zenith, it's also started to be accepted as the minimum level too. It's as if they've backed themselves into a corner, and there's now little room for maneuver.

It's set up for another failure so many in Ireland will relish. Although if you're getting ready to indulge in England's short-comings as if a bi-annual ritual, we suggest you enjoy while you still can.

* * * * * * * ** * * *

Every mile starts with a small step.

The triteness of such a saying, combined with the size of the task, means we oft ignore such basic logic. England however took that much on board and we've seen huge and terrifying change. The results of alterations in their approach and attitude have been everywhere in very recent times.

At European under-17 level they've been finalists and semi-finalists these past two years, losing both on penalties; at under-19 level they've been semi-finalists and champions in the last two editions and are highly fancied at this summer's version; at under-21 level only penalties kept them away from a continental final last time out; at the weekend they made it a hat-trick in the prestigious Toulon Tournament, going unbeaten; and last summer having won a first World Cup in 51 years via their under-20s – they hadn't won so much as a game at the tournament for the previous 20 years - 139 days later they added the under-17 version by putting five past Spain.

England celebrate winning the Under-17 World Cup

That's a serious body of work, and if there's enough quality and quantity kicking at the senior door, it tends to be forced open to some degree.

Small steps. Many miles.

Where it began, it's hard to say as evolution is quietly done via many tiny moments. But in the mid-1990s, Howard Wilkinson suggested that the national team responsibility at under-15 and under-16 level be taken from their Schools FA and that began a shift in thinking. "But it's not a transformation, this has been a long progression," he said. "That started with the building of St George's Park. Once that was in place, it's all been about the benefit of having a plan and sticking to it."

Brazil's Philippe Coutinho (C) controls the ball next to Douglas Costa (L), Casemiro (2nd-L) and Neymar (R)
Brazil's Philippe Coutinho (C) controls the ball next to Douglas Costa (L), Casemiro (2nd-L) and Neymar (R)

What followed may have been obvious introductions, but they weren't previously there. Changes like all the national coaches working out of the one office. The academy system that sees all coaches nationwide invited there to buy into the vision. The England DNA programme around joined-up thinking and links between age groups to create world-class senior skill and talent rather than to look for instant success through size and strength at underage.

Some semblance of continuity around style, tactics, training and goals all the way up. As FA director of elite development Dan Ashworth said of it, "The only thing that should change is the size of the shirt."

There are no guarantees, but what all that does is decrease the variables and, besides, such sensible structures have worked in places with comparable culture and potential. In France with the 30,000 coaches in the Paris area alone, in Germany who have poured €1bn into youth coaching since 2001, in Spain who reformed to the point of a three-in-a-row of major tournaments along with a conveyor belt of talent, in Belgium who've gone from obscurity to massive relevance.

And if that isn't proof of the value of such modern, scientific, and almost industrialised systems, look at those that have been left behind such as Italy, and even the Netherlands who failed to move with the times and are now rebooting their model. They are a warning to all that football systems are fluid and what works now won't always.

What England had was the financial clout, the depth of interest, the playing numbers and the history. What they hadn't was sense around that. Indeed more and more, in western Europe in particular, if you don't have that you have nothing.

Look at Brazil this tournament as Philippe Coutinho and Neymar both came from the street-football-esque world of futsal while Gabriel Jesus was being threatened a few short years ago for being too good in what amounted to brutal pick-up games against older kids. But in our society where that element has slowly disappeared – and this is of huge importance to Ireland's future too – science and academies have to pick up the pieces.

At Manchester United, they've tried to recreate the environment of the past where kids become an athlete not through gym conditioning but by simply playing the game naturally. With England you get a sense of that transition as well as, looking at their underage successes, they aren't based on what's artificial and robotic. Instead they are producing the same sort of natural and cosmopolitan footballers they grew up with on TV, a generation after kids had Keys and Gray talking over hoof-it football.

Not that it's all perfect, in part due to the strength of their own top flight. Take Chelsea and their FA Youth Cup domination, winning six of the last seven titles, as a demonstration of the gap between winning young and men getting a chance. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was perhaps the best Englishman on all those teams yet played just 1,170 minutes for the club, or the equivalent of 13 games. Many more are discarded, lost down the divisions or lost altogether. Granted, the FA's consultation and engagement with the expertise of their leading clubs has increased drastically in recent years.

None of that will make a difference in the coming weeks, but it is a sign of what's hurtling down the tracks. Just a few years back when Greg Dyke said their aim was to win the World Cup by 2022 we all pointed and laughed and now we are getting ready for more of the same. Soon though, even if our similarities are limited while significant, we'll be looking on and realising that there's a lot we can learn.

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