Why England continue to lose and what needs to change.
Indicative as that perhaps was of the media's priorities back then, and how, as Roy Greenslade makes clear, there were only two true tabloids at the time, the hysteria which we are now so familiar with every two years only really started in earnest in 1990. Everyone claims to remember Maradona's "Hand of God" in 1986, yet the true turnaround in the fortunes of the English game didn't really begin to start until, as most now recognise, the Hillsborough disaster. The deaths of the 96 and also the media's disgraceful dismissal of the victims caused a fundamental reassessment of the authorities' attitude to the game. Where football fans had previously been regarded as almost another section of "the enemy within", to be stigmatised with personal ID cards and treated like animals, caged in at the grounds, they now finally had to be reappraised. The following summer England went all the way to the semi-finals in Italy, Gazza cried, and the modern relationship with the national team was established.
Not, we should be clear, that everything essentially restarted in that year. The always curious blaming of almost every poor performance or bad result on the manager rather than the players had begun long before. The tabloid press, as it is demanding of Capello today, called repeatedly for Bobby Robson to be either sacked or to do the decent thing and resign, only for him to eventually lead the team to its best showing post-1966, and to be all but beatified when he finally succumbed to cancer last year. Only occasionally has the press ever truly warmed to a manager, such as it did to both Terry Venables and Kevin Keegan; for a time Sven-Goran Eriksson could do no wrong, only to be vilified after the loss to Portugal in 2006. In-between, other managers have been disparaged almost universally: Graham Taylor became a turnip after England lost to Sweden, although his image was not helped by the now infamous documentary where a camera crew followed the team and captured him uttering his equally timeless "do I not like that", while Steve McClaren was immortalised as the "wally with the brolly" after England's capitulation to Croatia in 2008.
Clearly though, the out of all proportion expectation, the demand for endless passion and verve and the subsequent recriminations when the team predictably fails to live up to those ridiculously high standards began in earnest in 1990. The strangest thing about the media's denunciations once the nation exits the global stage is that it seems to manage to include those whom quite reasonably previously didn't believe for a second that the team could win. Even more peculiar is that those same people who didn't hold out any real hope for a victory still feel let down when the inevitable happens, such it seems is the temporary insanity and groupthink which overtakes the country for an incredibly short period.
To even begin to understand why England continue to do so apparently poorly, you have to attempt to examine it from the outside looking in. Using this perspective, England have not failed dismally, but have rather achieved the best they possibly can with a team that has never looked like having the strength in depth to actually win either a European or world tournament. The reasons for why this is do not make for comfortable reading, but do provide something approaching an answer.
First is that to an extent, England's results reflect our current standing in the world. For far too long we've continued to believe that we are this great nation, one of the world's superpowers, strutting the world stage, when we have in fact become as the last few years have demonstrated, little more than in effect a 51st state of America or one of the larger statelets within the European Union. We puff ourselves up on past memories of grandeur, to the dismay and revulsion of those we call allies but whom we still feel vastly superior to, yet when it comes down to it it's all bluff and for appearance. Never is this better illustrated than by the jingoism when we play Germany and almost invariably lose. The popular press simply can't help bringing up allusions to the second world war, even when some of those now reading them were born a full half century after it ended. It doesn't matter that the Germans have done everything and much more besides to make reparation for Nazism, we still feel that we need to remind them of the outrages of their grandfathers. It also doesn't matter that these allusions are usually ahistorical. Just look at Richard Littlejohn's piece, advertised on the front of today's Mail, suggesting that if "the few" had defended as badly as the England team we'd all be speaking German. Admittedly, "the few" refers to the Battle of Britain, where the RAF did triumph against the Luftwaffe, but we often seem to forget that other comment by Churchill, "[B]efore Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat."
One of the best jokes flying around yesterday was that this time round the Americans couldn't join in at half time and save us. It says something about our often undeserved puffed up pride that we do so often forget about the sacrifices of others, even if they joined late. The Americans at least get some recognition; the Russians often get none, despite their equally pivotal role. Littlejohn is by no means the worst offender, even if he fills his opening sentences with heavily laboured war references, only to later suggest dropping the "two world wars and one world cup" refrain for good, as Saturday's Daily Star front page demonstrated and continues today, with the equally ill-judged "Fritz all over", almost Swiftian in its subtlety.
Alongside our undeserved high opinion of ourselves is often the belief that our team should be able to acquit themselves well against the rest of the world because of the undeniable brilliance of the English Premier League and the role which so many of our players have within it. The reality is that the EPL is as much the cause of the malaise as anything else. The current team, which it bears repeating had the highest average age of any of those competing in the World Cup, was for the most part the product of the system either prior to the establishment of the EPL or the first few years before it completely changed the face of English football. Murdoch's money was meant, as well as trickling down to the lower leagues, to help the England team through reducing the EPL to 18 teams and easing the number of fixtures played. Instead the number of matches the top teams play has increased dramatically through European competition. The other change has been to turn the top 20 clubs for the most part into hugely indebted businesses which need results immediately rather than having the time to go through the painstaking and expensive nurturing of grassroots talent. While some teams still have highly praiseworthy youth squads, others have all but abandoned them, relying instead of foreign players brought in by scouts to have an instant effect on performance. The result has been an almost complete lack of quality young English players emerging, and those that have, such as Theo Walcott, were mostly ignored by Capello in favour of experience. The implication has to be that the likes of Lampard, Terry, Cole, Rooney and others are only as great as they are because of the foreign players that compliment them when they play for their club sides. Take them out of their comfort zone and they instead become ordinary.
One of the few lessons that England could have taken from the EPL is that it's no coincidence that two of the most successful clubs, Arsenal and Manchester United, have had managers that have been allowed to build and rebuild rather than dismissed when results have not been going the right way. The exception is Chelsea, and their success has been ensured by the bottomless pockets of Roman Abramovich, something which England can't turn to as an option. As mentioned above, Sven's reign no longer looks like a tale of undisciplined unfulfilled potential when compared to Capello's abject, stern authoritarian regime which only reached the last 16 as opposed to the quarter-finals. McClaren was apparently disliked by the players, but to go from the ridicule he suffered after failing to steer England to qualification in 2008 to winning the Dutch league with FC Twente suggests he must have had something about him which either he couldn't get out of the England players, or they had something which stopped them from performing for him.
Lastly, we have a media whose ficklenesses knows no bounds, resulting exactly in the above. They build up people from all walks of life only to then bring them down, yet never have they done so in such a ludicrous fashion as England managers. Admittedly, they never liked McClaren, but the vitriol he suffered was out of all proportion. Eriksson got the blame in 2006 alongside the Wags, which the media themselves had a major role in creating, following their antics as much as the team's own, and now Capello is facing the same treatment. Before the World Cup he was a genius who had punctured the individual egos of the players and brought them together as a team; now he's a inept tactical pygmy who was far too stifling by insisting on a 4-4-2 formation and on only letting the players have the very occasional beer. Again, the reality is more prosaic: they faced an incredibly easy qualifying group, where only Ukraine and Croatia were any real challenge, only then to come up against what looked an easy initial World Cup group, where they struggled against the USA, were terrible against Algeria and only better against Slovenia and Germany. They were completely outplayed by Germany, despite not being as bad as many are claiming, who were a better team, and lost, deservedly, as a result. It really should be as simple as that. The manager cannot really bear responsibility for a defeat where the team just weren't good enough and when he can only select from the pool he has available to him.
Likewise, you can't blame a team that simply don't have the quality to beat superior opponents. It doesn't how much passion and pride a team has if they can't compete, and the Sun only now attacking the players in a idiotic front page splash when previously they have been far more culpable, screaming "YOU LET YOUR COUNTRY DOWN" when they didn't in the slightest is pathetic. Let's also not forget the role the tabloids had earlier in the year in upsetting the England set-up when they demanded that John Terry should lose the captaincy on moral grounds rather than on his ability to lead on the pitch. It's impossible to know how much impact that had, but that the team then had to change the captaincy again when Rio Ferdinand was injured would have been completely unnecessary had it not been for one of the irregular outbreaks of journalistic humbuggery. The players have to work under pressure all year round, but surely it never feels as crushing as it does when you have the supposed entire hopes of a nation on your shoulders, and when you know the consequences of failure regardless of your ability to have any real influence. Wayne Rooney, built up to be one of the greatest players in the world, almost certainly wilted when he simply didn't get the service he needed to be able to turn on the undeniable skill he possesses.
If 1989 was a turning point, then 2010 should be also. It's time to start again, although not necessarily by dismissing Capello. He clearly needs to dump the "golden generation" with some exceptions, a term incidentally foisted on them by another manager whose failures have been massive but who has never had to face any responsibility for them. The incoming UEFA restrictions on the number of foreign players a club can have registered should be the starting point for the restarting of youth programs, with funding being put aside from the TV rights budget if necessary. A winter break for domestic football should be seriously considered, as should reducing the number of teams in the EPL to the original 18 it was meant to contain. Moreover, EPL teams need to start living within their means, focusing on homegrown talent rather than relying on cheaper in the short term foreign players. More money needs to trickle down to the lower leagues, lessening the yawning gap between the EPL and the lower divisions. All of these things could be easily imposed if the Football Association had any real leadership and believed in the national team rather than the brilliance of the domestic league. Lastly, the media need to show some responsibility themselves, becoming far more realistic in what can be achieved. It will be the latter which will be most difficult to achieve.