In Part One of this article, I looked back at Sven Goran Ericksson’s time in charge of England. I reflected that he’d been a man with a plan, specific ideas of how to build a winning team – I reflected on the immediate impact of these ideas, and how the ultimate aim, winning the World Cup, was foiled by a combination of fear and the disruption that comes from injuries to key players.
I didn’t mention the way the extreme focus on the ultimate goal achieved by Clive Woodward and his team in the game of rugby was not emulated by the Football Association, the Premier League or the English game as a whole. Once Adam Crozier left Lancaster Gate, whatever intent and drive remained behind Sven more or less evaporated. Sven’s success at gaining the players a winter break and a slightly shorter season is to be applauded, but doesn’t really add up to very much.
People are hoping, in unenthusiastic fashion, that Steve McClaren can build an England team that can win in Switzerland/Austria in 2008. But there’s no great sense of belief about it. I want to propose that this might actually be a good thing..
The gargantuan efforts that ended in a Rugby World Cup and the Ashes were a sight to see. Both victories came at the price of huge mental exhaustion and physical degradation on the part of the players. Far from building on success, both cricket and rugby teams have had their form collapse. We’ve discovered that we can win these things if we exert ourselves.. and we’d still like to win.. but we don’t really have to. The Australians always have to: whatever that may mean for them, it obviously isn’t meaningful for us. Whatever it proves for them, we don’t need to have proved on our own account. That’s my sense of it, at any rate.
Given that the football authorities haven’t matched the focus of rugby and cricket, and aren’t planning on doing so any time soon, it’s worth asking why – and worth asking whether, when it comes down to it, we agree with that attitude.
What do we want to win the World Cup for?
Even five years ago, the answer was obvious – we had’t done so for ages, and we felt embarrassed and second class about it. In 1996, “Thirty Years of Hurt” needed little explanation. But I don’t think it’s hurting so much after forty years – and the media’s reflex obsession with ’66 didn’t quite chime with public opinion as it might once have done.
And we wanted to win the World Cup, back then, because it would compensate, somehow, for something that was always on the tip of the tongue. Dark thoughts, frustrations. Things that went so easily with the time between the 1973 oil crisis and the end of the second Conservative recession. The days when you would scan books of then and now photographs, looking in vain for a now that was any kind of improvement. It was an industrial gloom, an end of the Welfare dream gloom, rather than a post-Imperial one, sharpened by the way everything improved so effortlessly the minute your car pulled off the ferry and onto the wrong side of the road.
Realistically, the eclipse of the England team that started that whole period off served to exaggerate feelings of decline rather than our relative decline spark feelings about our football. But nevertheless, it had come about that winning at football was about more than just football. We wanted, needed to win, and hadn’t the faintest idea of how to go about it, any more than we knew how to catch up economically with West Germany or France.
I think that’s gone now. We didn’t want to win the World Cup in 2006 for all that.
I noticed the change in atmosphere on the D-Day anniversay in 1995. Recovery from the recession was well under way; the weather was beautiful, and as the flypast moved over London, I felt it take with it all of the sense of failure, the early ’80s grime, the Merchant-Ivory regret and guilt.. it felt as if we’d got over it all, and there was a new sensibility abroad, one that simply said, it’s alright; we’re OK.
In 1992, it had been the English invasion of Germany at the European Championships. In 1996, the Achtung – Surrender! headline was met with embarrassment, as though some tasteless childhood joke had been revived that everyone had felt best forgotten. And the semi-final, the penalties, just seemed to burn off the last of the shame and the humiliation that had been about more than football. As Adams left the field with his team, they still looked good, and they looked a little like us.
I’m tempted to add that Adams’ exemplary handling of his alcohol problems in the wake of Euro ’96 keyed into the general it’s-behind-us-now feeling, but that would be taking the comparison far too far.
In 2006, we didn’t want to win the World Cup to compensate for our failures, or to prove that the old lion still had teeth. We don’t care if it still has teeth. And anyway, we thought it was a bulldog. We want to win because we think it would realistically reflect the qualities of a good number of our players. We want to win because it would be fun, because it would kind of chime in with the easier, more confident, less dependent feeling that’s been around recently. That comparative relaxation England’s been feeling – certainly compared with the seventies, eighties and early nineties – hasn’t been cut into by defeat. I’d go so far as to suggest that each successive exit from a tournament – 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, has hurt slightly less than the last. Yes, 2006 was about spoilt expectations, but – the wounds feel shallow, somehow.
After missing his penalty in 1996, the story goes that Gareth Southgate went on holiday to some lonely part of the Far East, and one day, ascended a mountain to visit a local holy man, a hermit living a life of total simplicity and isolation, devoted to God. The journey took most of the day, on foot, and towards sunset, Southgate finally entered the hermit’s simple shack. The hermit looked up at Southgate, shading his eyes; after a moment, he pointed, and cried – Hey, You! Penalty Drama!
Lampard, Gerrard and co. will be spared all of that.
There are other reasons why England’s football team won’t be subject to a rugby-cricket-style World Cup project. Those reasons are all part of –
What do we want football for?
We’ve already looked at one part of this – and decided that we don’t want football to speak for England. England can speak for itself, thank you very much, and in any case, doesn’t feel much need to at the moment. We’re a country with some troubles, but no longer really a troubled country. For now.
Nor do we want football to show that we’re clever. The English don’t hold intelligence in high esteem – one phrase I’m always expecting to hear aimed at this site, for instance, is the old one of Are You Trying to Be Clever? And of course, the answer’s yes, I am. But although cleverness and leprosy are closely associated in the English psyche, we do, quietly, rate ourselves. It’s a literate nation – travel on public transport, and almost everyone will be reading something. We publish more new books every year than the entire United States. Our universities still rate more highly than their competitors in Europe.
Football is our chance to be stupid. It’s our chance to be outspokenly wrong and get clean away with it. Take all that stuff about motivation – Churchillian speeches etc. It’s absolute cloud-cuckoo nonsense, yet read the comments on this site.. you can sense the longing for it to be correct, you can feel the sense that even though it’s wrong, in some special way it’s “right”, you can detect that people would choose it for the feel of it, the pleasure of it, over something more effective, more intelligent, but strangely dead and cold for all that.
Some countries – Argentina, for instance, or Portugal – value cunning and craft, at the level of virtue. What we see as cheating etc… we don’t want football to express our intelligence, and that a country such as Iran sees us as the craftiest nation on the surface of the Earth, pulling Stupid Uncle Sam this way and that for our own purposes, is bewildering.
Does that sound as though it might be ever so slightly anti-skill? It is, to some extent. The very name of this website, More Than Mind Games, is a reverse tribute to the deliberately-stupid attitude the English take to the mental side of the game, to the demands of taking penalties for instance, where Clive Woodward’s excellent advice was so rudely ignored. And Joe Cole’s ability with the ball was so often seen as a disreputable add-on, as.. “tricks.”
But there is a place for skill in the English game. And the fans are all for it – witness the high regard and memory kept for the likes of Matthews, Finney and Best, the regret hung over Paul Gascoigne and Robin Friday. But the skill has to be dramatic, and put to thrilling use. Because we want football to stir our blood – more, than we want it to bring us victory. Had Ericksson taken a look at his injury list, torn it up and played 2-3-5 in every match, losing every one 6-5, I strongly suspect he’d be a hero now, for all that we’d have come home early. We’d have loved it – we’d never forget it. Docherty’s 1976 team won nothing, but what Manchester United team is remembered with more real love and fondness than that D’Artagnan outfit?
The English use football to emote. It’s an old one, but true. When the footie is on, that’s the time to shout and scream, to really let go. The advent of large-screen pub football has made a whole new group experience available – and what a new group experience. Because there are relatively few such moments in English life, it’s important that the football actually makes us emote – those long, tense, frustrating games we were given in the 2006 World Cup aren’t what we want – but Joe Cole’s goal was, and ten men against Portugal was – sort of.
A word here about the flag of St. George. Again, a few years ago, that flag might have been the preserve of a violent minority who were even more sure than the rest of us that things had taken a wrong turn. They’ve evidently lost the exclusive rights now: I’ve seen such flags in the hands of.. everyone. And it’s not about that old reassertion in the face of decline; it’s not about race or empire; it’s not jingoism. It’s not even about what I felt in 1995, that whisper of it’s alright; we’re OK. The flags were for.. fun. Just fun. They were flying because we were out to have a good time.
The English don’t need football to rescue them, or to represent a return to past greatness, anymore. In a way, I think we want it to catch up with us now, to get with the programme. Sometimes, I feel it’s reluctant to. Listening to John Motson commentate, I feel I’m listening to the voice of a devoted but frightened man. Every time England lose the ball, every time the opposition launches an attack, there it is again in his tone – he’s seen him, the great, long, red-legged scissorman, back from behind the curtains to cut off our thumbs.
I’d say much the same for the press, but I’ve said enough about them lately.
Back in 1990, I remember Des Lynam closing up another agonising England game with the phrase “We’ll be back on ________ for more enjoyment – if you call this enjoyment, that is..” and that was just right, then. It would jar, now. Because I sense, beyond the echo-chambers of the press and television, still presenting football as though nothing’s changed, a desire for football to just chill out and enjoy itself some more. To relax and play. To live up to the party atmosphere, the flags on expensive cars and white vans, the flags in the hands of Sikhs and Whites and ex-pat Americans.
We’d really, really like to win – it’s more fun than losing, and we’ve got the players after all – but we want to do it properly, and we want the chance to cheer, and cheer, and cheer as it happens. We don’t want to be mature about it – we don’t want to scrape through. We want to scrape the opposition off the back of their goal at the end of the game. That’s not quite the same as the press expecting us to win every match 8-0. But we do want to make a serious attempt to do so.. and if we go down, then..
If I’m right, then all of this has to percolate through eventually. The message has to reach the team one day: don’t be afraid – just go for it – we’re not going to kill you if you lose – we’re not the greater losers for your defeat. When it does, I think the fear, so obvious in our players this summer, might just begin to fade a little. It only has to be a little.
Because fear’s very much a part of the league game, and it won’t go away from that. Gary Neville tells the story of his early years at Manchester United:-
I still remember Steve Bruce ripping me to shreds at Elland Road, Mark Hughes charging at me just because I hadn’t played the ball into the channel, Eric Cantona giving me the stare, Keaney and Incey snarling. And that was before you had to face the manager. It was a hard school…
Fear’s a drag on performance, encouraging you to play safe rather than gamble between a masterstroke and a killing error.
Different things are changing at league level, and, again, I think they might contribute to a significant drop in the pressure around the England team.
Changing Football Cultures
The ingress of significant numbers of the middle class into outspoken fanhood after 1990 was seen as a fad at first, a temporary thing brought on by too much Gazza and Nick Hornby. It’s endured. To the frustration of many lifelong fans, and fans at clubs lower down the league structure that don’t share the Middle Class Experience to the same degree, football’s century-long Working Class character has faded away.
The immediate relevance to this insofar as England are concerned is that the game of football really is the national game now – and it’s the game as much of the professional classes as it is the game of the men who built it, kept it going, and saw it through to 1990. Even the players are now more middle class than they once were – Frank Lampard was privately educated; the rest of the squad have spent most of their lives a long, long way away from anyone involved in hard manual labour. In this, the ’66 men are right: there is a contrast between their day and ours.
In some senses the players are more isolated from the fans than ever before – income, of course.. but so familiar are they on television, I wonder. I can identify most of the England team from their voice alone. I can see my local side’s ground from my living room window, but I don’t think I could identify one of them, for all that they live and work within a couple of miles of me. Was it exaggerated, all that “footballers going to the game on the bus, accessible to their fans” stuff…
It’s not obvious yet where the Middle-Classization of English football is going to go. It might yet go away, although I doubt it. My bet – and that’s the level I’m at here – is that it will contribute to a drop in tension around the national side, simply because there’s less fear in the middle classes – after all, these are the classes where you always get a second chance, as Leonard Bast would have it.
Graham Taylor has gone on record since the end of the World Cup pointing out that England’s football is dominated by the clubs, to the detriment of the national team. Other voices have expressed the fear that too many foreign players in the Premiership threatens a repeat of the Scottish experience, a sudden drying-up of the flow of new talent.
Taylor’s quite right. It’s unimaginable that the England football team could enjoy the privileges of the successful Ashes cricket team, whose members were at the beck and call not of their counties, but of their country. Mexico, with a population and an interest in football that might have produced more in terms of international success, did so privilege their national team, unwittingly demonstrating in the process that superior coaching trumps team familiarity every time. The Football Association are in the early stages of a process that is intended to drastically improve the standards of coaching in England, a project that had much to do with the eventual appointment of Steve McClaren. It’s the right policy – and, with the academies also being run by clubs and with UEFA moving towards limiting the number of foreign players held by clubs, it might well turn up trumps in a very serious way.
Interestingly, and at the same time, the race by the clubs “away” from their supporters for commercial reasons seems to have run out of steam. The Glazer takeover of Manchester United and the creation of MK Dons were the “high” water mark of all that kind of thing, and all the signs now are of the reversal of the process. Groups such as Clubs in Crisis, who organise cross-club supporter cooperation in the effort to keep much loved but penniless clubs on the road – and even completely new clubs, such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United (like Barcelona, they refuse sponsorship for their shirts) are new developments and represent something for the future that might not have been expected.
What do FC United and AFC Wimbledon and CiC mean for the England side? They mean that, for an important part of the support structure for the game in England, the game is actually more important than results; the relationship of the game to its supporters is becoming more important than the results. Results still matter – of course they do – but not to the exclusion of everything else.
I sense something similar overtook England at the World Cup. The results still mattered – and the pain of ejection was real enough. But it’s said again and again, how much less it would have hurt had England only turned it on at some stage.. and that’s the relationship of the England team with the fans now. It’s not what it was when Sven was appointed, when the mood was serious: “let’s get this right..” Getting it right isn’t just winning – it’s also exciting, and thrilling, and giving us reason to cheer, and I think we’ll take the thrill and the defeat over the dull victory.
As for the danger of a repeat of the Scottish experience – it’s hard to call. On the one hand, it’s clear that there are fewer English players making it through to the top level. On the other, the standards required to get there have risen, and the demands – especially when it comes to lifestyle choices and attitudes – have hardened and shifted. English players are finally having to grow up in order to survive. The more time goes by, the more there seems to be a curse on young English players who appear on the front pages of the tabloids. They flake off the top of the game and blow away. Jody Morris? Kieran Dyer played in England’s 1-0 horrorshow “victory” (one there for those of you who thought 2006 our worst tournament since 1950) over Germany. I think he’s up north somewhere.
The Technical Future of the Game
As I’ve already mentioned, the Football Association is working on a long-term project to transform the standards of coaching in this country. It’s something of a novelty: in the past, our best coaches have all ended up abroad for long periods – Jack Reynolds, Walter Hagen, Vic Buckingham, George Raynor, Bobby Robson after 1990 – because good coaching hasn’t been a priority at most clubs. Where it has been important, the difference has been obvious. West Ham, under Greenwood, who, in the early 1960s, was one of the most innovative coaches in Europe, produced the core of Ramsey’s England team. Liverpool under Paisley – the greatest coach qua coach of his day – dominated European football on a Welfare budget. Busby’s babes.. Clough’s Derby, even more than his Forest (how many people remember Derby County’s European Cup semi-final, and how it ended?). So, discounting everything else, a change is on the way. Most of all, this might be a way, finally, to harness the experience of our great retired players. Up until now, great players haven’t often made great managers, and even fewer of them have been English.
When Brazil and Hungary overtook us in the 1950s, a few farsighted men – Stan Matthews, Joe Mercer and Ron Greenwood, sought to respond. The ’66 and ’70 teams were partly down to their positive influence. Something far more interesting is going on now… and there is one name to conjure with: Simon Clifford. Clifford’s project – to use an improved version of Brazilian coaching methods with children from an early age with the ultimate goal of creating “the ultimate footballer” is still at an early stage, and his first contacts with professional football clubs unsurprisingly bitter, but he already has a graduate in the Premiership in Micah Richards, and three players in England’s World Cup squad – Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott – have worked with him.
I think we have a genius in our midst. Southampton’s loss will be someone else’s gain. I note that Clive Woodward is also in the football world these days – and, but for Clifford, would have been provoking a unique amount of pique and resentment.
The two men had the misfortune to enter the game via an unusually insular door. It won’t always be that way – and Clifford doesn’t need the clubs to achieve his goals in any case.
Innovation is back in the English game, and coming from English coaches, in a way that hasn’t been seen in this country hitherto. I must admit I look back at what Walter Hagen did for the Hungarians – and Hagen was no Clifford, who is something of a force of nature if reports are to be believed.
It’s all in time. For England, I think the fear will fade. In due course, a new generation of technically superior players will feed through. Experienced coaches, familiar with the international scene, will be there ready for them. And those players won’t have to carry quite the same burdens as their predecessors. As the voice of the fan stops being “Vindaloo” and becomes the worried, geeky caller to Five Live or the passionate Clubs in Crisis advocate – as football becomes more for fun and thrills than compensatory victory – then, you know, it might just happen for England again. And when it does, we’ll love it – but we won’t need it like we might have needed it once upon a time.
Oh, shut up and give us some names.
Dean Ashton, especially if Owen proves to have lost his pace after injury. Not either Bent, for heaven’s sake. There’s a very good young player tucked away in the West Ham squad who’ll break through next year.
And, let’s just dump the 4-4-2. Here’s my team to beat Greece:
Kirkland (even if injured. We’re not going to give him anything to do)
Beckham, Hargreaves, Cole A
Lennon, Ashton, Rooney, Crouch, Downing.
Let’s just go for it, and blow the consequences. We don’t know what will happen – but won’t it be fun?