England: Motivation, Luck and Narrative

Although opinion to the contrary is gathering, it’s still most people’s feeling that this current crop of England players are capable of putting in better performances than the ones we’ve seen. How to get at those performances is the problem. Do you get in one of those mysterious, possibly mythical beasts, the “inspirational” manager? Do you hang the threat of the bench over everyone’s heads? Do you insist on 4-4-2 – or get cross at the lack of a plan “B”?

Do you – and I haven’t seen this one broached yet, perhaps because of its extreme unlikelihood – bring in cricket-style international contracts? Well, this is English football we’re talking about, and the only area of the game we are pioneers in is hooligan control. Noone else has done it (although Mexico did something related in 2006, and the difference was palpable).

Looking at it now, I can’t help wondering if things haven’t gone awry for a quite different reason. Let me import a political meme into the situation. What if history has gone wrong for the England team?

Here’s what I mean. Eriksson’s appointment, and the way he went about the early part of his tenure, was successful in creating something of a “year zero” feel to things. That was helped by the retirement from internationals of some of the more influential old faces like Tony Adams and Alan Shearer, whom Eriksson might have wanted to have available, but nevertheless, the failures of the late Hoddle and Keegan eras were shed like snakeskin with the twin victories over Spain and, of course, Munich.

Eriksson’s brief was to build for the 2006 World Cup. It was felt that a great crop of young players were coming through, and that the chance was there. I’m not sure that rescuing the 2002 World Cup qualification was seen as an essential, but it was duly done. Indeed, when England were given the chance – when they were able to play in near-human conditions – they thrived, despite the absence of Gerrard and Gary Neville, and the injuries carried by Beckham and Owen. That defeat to Brazil came as a disappointment might have surprised some people only a year earlier.

What did Michael Owen say last week that relates to that defeat?

I can count on one hand the times we have played fantastically well through 90 minutes in my decade with England.

Maybe players of other big countries will say the same, but it is definitely true of us. We were great against Germany in the famous 5-1 win in Munich in 2001, but mostly it has only ever been in patches. I don’t go along with the argument that some of our better results have also been good performances.

Beating Argentina at the 2002 World Cup finals, for example, is remembered as a great win, but while we played really well in the first half, we sat back throughout the second. How they didn’t equalise I will never know.

People talk about the victory over Turkey in April 2003 when Wayne Rooney made his full debut, but we should expect to beat Turkey at home. In the first half-hour against Portugal at Euro 2004 we were unbeatable. But we tend to have a subconscious attitude of keeping what we have and sitting back as soon as we get a lead.

It’s an old failing. Get out the video of that 1996 European Championship semi-final against Germany and see if you don’t witness it happening there.

Nevertheless, you have to be in a position to sit back on a lead, and looking at Eriksson’s matches in charge, you see it happening repeatedly.

Against Portugal in 2004, it led to disaster. Rooney’s injury didn’t help, of course, and certainly provided the Portuguese with an entirely undeserved lift, but the fact was that England went for 1-0, and only came back to life in extra time, where, as usual, a disallowed Sol Campbell goal and bad penalties saw the wrong team win.

Some people see this sitting back as a lack of passion and motivation – something some “other” manager – perhaps an English one! would deal with by bouncing about on the touchline like a baby on a racehorse. Or by shouting at people. Or by –

There’s another view, that says that the “subconscious something” mentioned by Owen is that the team know they are better and are saving themselves.

There are two sides to that. On the one hand, England were actually expecting to do well in Euro 2004, something that hadn’t been the case since 1970. With a different referee, that would have been a semi-final finish or better.

On the other, it’s possible that with this set of players, the time to get truly involved is always in the next match, not in this one. A bit like smokers, who are always a week or a month away from giving up, England are always saving their energy and their best efforts for the arrival of proper opposition.

Earlier on this site, I broke “motivation” down into pieces that actually meant something, that could be acted upon in some way. That analysis was badly received, as is any other suggestion than that the team are overpaid jessies who need kicking, shouting, whipping etc. whilst showing their pride in the shirt. I think it might get on better this time:

  1. You have to want to win. (Fairly straightforward. Put me, middle-aged and unfit, into an England shirt, and I will want to win too. There won’t be anything I can do to bring that about, though).
  2. You have to believe that you are capable of winning. You have to see it as genuinely likely. That’s not just skill – that’s also planning, knowing what your role in the team is, and trusting your team mates to perform theirs. This stage is missing at the moment, but was present at Euro 2004.
  3. You have to be comfortable with winning. It has to feel natural. This isn’t a British trait – it’s the opposite of support for the underdog. Not many England players have it. From the last two years, I’d list Sol Campbell, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney (thus his frustration now), Ashley Cole (it ran through his book and got him thoroughly hated as a result). In the past, Tony Adams, Alan Shearer, perhaps Paul Ince. You have to be comfortable with winning for yourself too, as well as for the team, and – this too is unattractive to Brits – you have to be majorly uncomfortable with losing. Lampard and Terry talk about that a lot, but I’m not entirely convinced.
  4. It has to be time to win now. Not tomorrow, not next week, but now. Again, not a trait the British favour – how much do you enjoy playing Christmas games against someone who is far too serious about it, even prepared to cut corners? But that’s what I’m referring to.

Underdog motivation is a temporary thing: how often do you see it fall apart in the last ten minutes of a game? Pride in the shirt can backfire into shame if you are losing and don’t know how to stop losing – and the expression of that can look mightily like not trying at all. Which makes you, if you’re an England player, fodder for the fickle fans.

I think the England team saw it as their destiny to win in 2004, and some of them haven’t yet accepted that they didn’t. Failure to win spoilt the story, lost them momentum, cost them belief: the 2006 World Cup became about putting right what had happened before, about winning that belief back, not about carrying on with a good thing.

And doing so with the best players hobbled. The best players are always hobbled.

History’s gone wrong, and the chance to put it right is always being denied by capricious fate. Injuries and suspensions mean that England haven’t put out their strongest side in a long time.

And no, I don’t really believe that the players trust McClaren, whatever they may say to the contrary. They won’t say it to him, but if you are returning to club managers who are Ferguson, Mourinho, Wenger, or even Benitez after the Champions League win, then the contrast is there. It would have happened to any of the other candidates with the possible exception of Martin O’Neill, so that isn’t necessarily a reflection on McClaren.

Of my five points of motivation, one and a half are present at the moment, which is what we had with Keegan and Taylor. A fully-fit squad would improve matters, but there’d still be a missing piece, quite apart from the sitting-back tendency.

That missing piece is a new narrative to fly by. The old one – the golden generation being prepared for 2006 – is gone, and now it just does damage. It needs replacing.

You could argue that we’ve tried to replace it, with all of the recent Back-To-The-Future stuff about traditional English values, traditional English captains, passion and commitment. But it isn’t working, is it? Nor, to be fair, would Eriksson Mark Two – we can’t just import a foreign manager for the sake of it this time. There wouldn’t be the fresh start or the clean break that’s needed.

But we do have one thing. There’s the new Wembley. It’s ready now, and it’s a chance to start again that we won’t have in the same way in the future. It could be the start of a new story, one that makes sense and gives meaning. I can’t help feeling that a change of management is in the offing whether for fair reasons or foul. If so, let’s get the poison out of the system now, and start afresh at the new stadium.

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6 responses to “England: Motivation, Luck and Narrative

  1. And yet there are reports that the pitch is lousy. You might want to put that right first.

  2. Good sense here again James. I think you are right- we need a narrative to reinvigorate the team. I think there is also the feeling that with many of the players we’ve seen their best- maybe its reflected within themselves that they are trying to live up to their own images which maybe makes them more cautious. Whereas say with Lennon, who would be the biggest exception, he is precisely a young player making a reputation.

  3. There is a sensible point in that in 2002 the heat was against England. England don’t do well in great heat. No northern European team does. There is also tiredness apart from the heat: too many games played, too close together.

    Then the belief goes, and the rest goes. The team doesn’t play together as a team all that often and there are always last minute changes due to injury. I think that if you gave the current team (still ranked quite high in the world) enough time and space they could do well enough to win something or get in a final.

    Ideally I’d lose the so-called supporters too. Let them play in front of hostile foreign crowds.

  4. I’m serious about the pitch. I’d never played football or rugby on a decent pitch until I was 20. Then I had my first game on the stadium pitch at Murrayfield; you feel faster, fitter, stronger and altogether better. So, you may say, does the opposition. But if you want to improve England morale at home, get the pitch right. Put it the other way; how do you think they’ll feel if their new broom sends them out onto a soft surface that cuts up?

  5. But we tend to have a subconscious attitude of keeping what we have and sitting back as soon as we get a lead.

    Jesus, when I watched that Portugal game I nearly threw a barstool in frustration. Having had the very good fortune of going one-up early on, I’d have expected a couple of the players – and here I’m talking Lampard and Gerrard – to have had a quiet word with each other along the lines of “Right, this is our game now. Let’s boot the sh*t out of Figo and Ronaldo in the middle of the park and show ’em who’s game this is.” Instead they allowed one of the best attacking midfields in the tournament to take potshots at goal from the edge of the box for an hour.

    You mentioned Keane’s captaincy in Utd’s win over Juventus in Turin. I saw a great interview with Gary Neville on MUTV a couple of years back. He said that once that goal went in, Beckham came over to him, grabbed his arm, and said “Y’know, we can win this. They’re rattled, you can see it. We can do this. (or something similar). Neville recalled how having Beckham saying this, and genuinely believing it, lifted him onto a new level in which he could do almost nothing wrong. I suppose it could be descrbed as a form of leadership, if not captaincy, and probably plays a huge role in many successful sports teams.

    When I have watched England play, there seems to be a rather obvious lack of leadership on the pitch. Contrast this with Vaughan when England won the ashes, for example. They had a captain, who had one or two highly capable lieutenants. England’s football team not only needs a good captain, he needs two good lieutenants as well, who will ensure that the team does “grab the game by the scruff of the neck” if and when they go 1-0 up.

  6. Tim – that excellent Beckham anecdote – YES: really illustrates the difference between actually believing something (in the sense that I believe myself to be going to work this morning for instance) and what football writers term “belief”, which is a strangely heightened state characterised by grandiosity, delusion and bombast. Thanks!

    Dearieme – in addition to the Wembley pitch, the way things are going, what was already going to be as strange a stadium to England as to their opponents is also going to be an “away” tie for Terry & co. in the sense of them having to face a hostile crowd.

    George – one of my (less serious, admittedly) ideas to improve penalties as a means of deciding matches was to have them taken by 5 random members of the crowd. But as for the bottom feeders from the other night – I agree; crate them off to somewhere unpleasant.