England expects – perhaps too much?

Posted by ap507 at Jun 30, 2016 01:40 PM |
John Williams discusses England's Euro 2016 loss to Iceland and mourning for national sport

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk

The English invented the modern game of football more than 150 years ago but, according to a torrent of media and public comment this week, we can no longer play it. The recent Euros defeat to ‘little’ Iceland (population the size of Leicester; 1 in 2000 eligible males are in the national team, which is co-managed by a dentist) has pretty much sent the country into a frenzy of recrimination and despair.  The video of Welsh players in France wildly celebrating the Iceland winning goal has not improved matters. Frankly, if you like sport, are proud of being part of Europe, and you care at all about the future of the Labour Party, let’s face it, there have been better weeks.

National wailing about the ‘condition’ of English football might sounds familiar. It should. Football’s current cross-class popularity and its extraordinary commercial power here in England often blinds us to the fact that we have a very poor record at international football tournaments.  One major final and one trophy won, Alf Ramsey’s World Cup, a distant 50 years ago this year.  Most football supporters in England have seen very little return from the national team in their own lifetime.  So, what happened in France this week is actually less a case of woeful underachievement and more the continuation of a consistent pattern of very average England tournament performances since our first World Cup entry in 1950. This is especially true for competition abroad.  Some British newspapers reported England’s 0-1 loss to the USA in the first post-war World Cup, in Brazil in 1950, as a 10-0 win, assuming the agency reports had messed up the score. Old habits die hard.

All this evidence means, of course, that our national default position before major tournaments should always be low expectations (gag the tabloid press), occasionally undermined perhaps by an unusually capable squad of hungry players, an uncharacteristically resourceful and inventive coach, and/or slabs of good fortune in the draw and on the pitch. From time to time, as in Euro 2016, none of these really apply – which can produce apparently catastrophic outcomes.  Cue the national hand-wringing we have seen this week.

All the usual suspects have been lined up for public scrutiny since.  We need here to be a little more reflexive and try to combine a micro focus on the current situation - how we actually prepared and played in France -  to the more macro one, the historical and contemporary context in which English footballers and coaches are produced.  Get ready – it is not a pretty picture.

Critics have argued, with some reason, that many of the top English players today are overvalued and mollycoddled:  that they live in a too-much-too-soon protective bubble produced by the hot-house climate of a new generation of club football academies - which means they have too little heart or the leadership skills required for international battle when the pressure rises.  Talent-spotted from very young, often living life in a consumption-driven, celebrity-frenzy, and usually lacking a strong educational or community base, too many top young English players these days, it is claimed, make no decisions of their own either off or on the field: and good decision making is central to international football success. Often moderate players are paid far too much by their clubs and actually seem more interested in lifestyle than the game itself. They lack the nous and the need to compete with real passion and commitment for the national team.  Why should they care?

These arguments seem quite sweeping and somewhat overblown. The England players seemed devastated by their elimination in France and players from older generations can be brutal in their treatment of current stars, especially those with burgeoning wage packets.  But evidence for some of these so-called failings seemed ever-present in France – players complaining, even in the best hotels; rehearsing their moves in implacably hyper-secretive coaching sessions; and acting as media-trained clones, babbling on about not very much in managed press conferences to unimpressed journalists. What really came across here is how little players can speak meaningfully about the game and how utterly joyless an activity playing for England seems to be these days. 

These sorts of problems were compounded in France by an England coach who was probably too old and out of his time, a gentleman throwback selected for his character more than his acumen. The best paid coach (naturally) in the entire tournament, Roy Hodgson, condescendingly a ‘decent’ man, palpably lacked the motivational skills needed to cajole modern players, and was tactically naïve.  For all his international experience, Hodgson is certainly the product of a country that pays top dollar but still undervalues cutting edge coaching and input from its own best retired top players and coaches. None of the victorious 1966 England squad was ever invited back into the England fold, for example.  Today the most intelligent ex-players in England seek lucrative media work rather than national team duty.

Which brings us to the national body, The FA.  It is still arguably mired in the past, caught between its controlling county associations, its attempts to get to grips with diversity and social change, and the incongruous public demand for international success. The FA continues to resist core structural re-organisation, despite its new St George’s Park development and recent improvements in funding for the grassroots game in England.  Moderniser Greg Dyke is the latest FA leader to be jumping ship, frustrated by the awesome power of the professionals at the Premier League and the glacial pace of change at the FA’s Wembley HQ. 

The need for a strong FA is demonstrated of course by England’s current woes – who trusts the current hierarchy to reform coaching effectively and select a dynamic new head coach?  Even the blazers in English rugby union finally realized that the right man for the Twickenham job might not actually be the sort of chap you might want to spend the evening with downing convivial G&Ts. But The FA’s problems are also shown in its limp attempts to regulate the Premier League and channel the latter’s success more adequately for the benefit of the wider English game.  Instead, domestic football in England stands accused of being in hock to all powerful, money-grabbing, foreign-owned Premier League clubs, which have little or no interest in the national team, and whose cheaper foreign players consistently squeeze out nascent English talent rather than inspire it.

Frankly, all of these issues are probably part of the overall picture.  We have a globally successful, multi-national, commercially powerful, national league and the price is a poor international team – though England was failing in international football competition well before the Premier League was launched in 1992.  Too few English players have the cultural or social capital needed to play abroad and expand their horizons. Add to all the above the creaming off of top middle-class English sporting stock to play professional rugby union at world level instead of football, and you probably have the makings of something approaching the full story.  

It may never change, this national mourning for the national sport. But even when all these deep structural matters and history tell us we are simply not really that good, that the sport’s inventors have long been caught and passed by those to whom we once taught the game, we still harbour hope. Why? Because we all know, even from recent events in this city, Leicester, that with some talent, lots of collective belief, and indefatigable team spirit, one can still confound all known evidence in sport.  Now that is really not too much to ask – is it?

Share this page: