I’m not going to enter into any detailed analysis here, but these are some pointers as to why I think England have only one World Cup star on their shirts:
- England’s best teams have almost always peaked outside World Cup years – the 46-48 side, the 60-61 team, and the 75-78 side that Revie never picked are just 3 examples.
- Although the press and the fans prioritise World Cup success, the FA haven’t on the whole, preferring to see the England team as an enjoyable adjunct to the real business of maintaining the best grass-roots game in the world. Choosing the England manager has been a case of finding someone who will take care of far more than just the international side – one reason among others for the appointment of Bobby Robson and Ron Greenwood; similarly, the non-appointment of Brian Clough.
- For the first half of the twentieth century – the half that gave Italy two of their three World Cups, and Uruguay one half of theirs – England were quite correct to focus on the Home Championship as their source of international competition. Between 1900 and 1920, other international matches – such as the Olympic tournaments – were far too one-sided. England, with a fully-fledged league system behind them, got into double figures frequently, and ended up sending an amateur team to the Olympics just to make things more competitive. Between 1920 and 1950, things were a little closer – but when Italy brought their “World Champions” to England, they resorted to thuggish tactics simply to keep England in sight. After the war, England became far more involved in international football, but before 1950 the story was much the same – easy victory. It’s forgotten that England’s defeats abroad – to Spain, for example – were defeats for what was almost certainly a badly hung-over team who were treating the trip as a holiday yet playing hyped-up super-motivated opposition for whom the game was the highlight of their lives.
- What’s seen as England’s fallow period since 1970 was in fact very short – lasting perhaps from 1972 and the Netzer game at Wembley, to 1977 and the defeats to Italy. It’s a period coinciding with Ramsey’s decline and Revie’s failure to pick a team from perhaps the best generation of skilful, inspiring footballers England’s had since the War. The anxieties and lack of confidence that were born in that period are still with us today, and are reflected in the bizarre, Cassandra-esque reporting of international matches. I believe that England teams have, until Erickson, played at 5-10% below their real ability as a consequence of this. By contrast, our success in European club football in the 1970s raised confidence and expectations to such a degree that a mediocre side such as the Aston Villa of 81-2, or the talent-limited Forest teams of 78-9, could expect to win European cups and do so, repeatedly.
It sounds strange to say it, but behind all of this is an unexpected truth: we have cared less than other countries about winning the World Cup. Mexico have gone home already, but their team had six months together to prepare; we negotiated an extra week. During tournaments, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing in the media, but the fact is that we can put up with not winning – and that’s why we don’t.
Four years ago, Clive Woodward decided that nothing was going to stand in the way of England’s rugby men winning the ultimate title, and that was the beginning of a quite extraordinary and utterly focussed effort that just – by the skin of the teeth – succeeded. Such was the mental energy expended that the side have since gone into colossal decline, and have no chance of defending their title next year. Likewise, the England cricket team won the Ashes through what appears now as a moment of decision – that it mattered at the ultimate level to win, and it mattered now. Since then… it’s all gone away. In both rugby and cricket teams, the vital players have been missing through injury almost ever since.
If England win – and they seem to have a similar outlook to the rugby and cricket teams – you can almost guarantee four years of total mediocrity afterwards. You can probably guarantee it anyway – Erickson’s successor has been chosen, not to win trophies, but to facilitate the development of a new generation of English coaches. It needs doing, but it’s not a goal shared by the press or the fans.