Once again the late Linda Smith’s immortal line about New Labour can be adapted to describe another lamentable English performance: even though we went to France with zero expectation we still managed to end up disappointed.
The issue that needs confronting before the FA’s gang of three decide which poor sap is going to carry the can for the next few years of failure is a stark one. England are becoming worse at tournaments, practically inventing new ways to cover themselves in ignominy and invite ridicule from fellow footballing nations.
Even though it did not seem possible to fall any further than the abysmal standard set in South Africa in 2010, England managed it quite comfortably at the next World Cup in Brazil. Fair enough, that was a tough group and events can easily overtake teams who lose their first game. Italy won theirs and still went home early. But no such excuses were possible in Euro 2016.
It was not a tough group. England did not lose their first game. They could have done better in the first stage than manage a single victory by virtue of a goal in the second added minute, but let that pass. No one cares about it now. England were a goal up against Iceland inside five minutes. And then they were a goal down inside 20. That still left 70-odd minutes to find some sort of response against a nation with more volcanos than professional footballers but England played such dumb football they could not manage it. Iceland were great. Good luck to them in Paris. Yet England gave such a wretched account of themselves it was no wonder the rest of the tournament found it amusing or that it was soon being suggested that the players were more in need of a psychologist than a new manager.
Meanwhile Italy, the same Italy who flew home with England from Brazil, were advancing into the quarter-finals by virtue of eliminating Spain, in spite of Antonio Conte’s reasonable protestations that this was far from the most illustrious Azzurri squad seen at a tournament. Italy in transition, complete with Graziano Pellè who plays for Southampton and Emanuele Giaccherini who was unable to make a first-team place his own at Sunderland, almost casually put out the holders. That is progress.
Football often goes in cycles and even the best sides can put up with occasional disappointments if they can come back stronger and more prepared next time. England have somehow managed to make themselves an exception to this rule. They are not on a roundabout they are in a vortex. They never learn, they never improve, they never bounce back. That is why Roy Hodgson’s parting regret about the damage caused by playing badly in a single game failed to cover the facts.
It is now more than a decade since England played well in a tournament, at least well enough to win a knockout round and look as if they might contest the final stages and the record on Hodgson’s watch is particularly grim. This is the manager who said he did not understand what was meant by a tournament mentality, who responded sarcastically to a journalist who asked whether England had a problem gelling as a team. “Football success mostly boils down to winning games,” he said before leaving for France. “I don’t think tournaments are any different.” Number of games won by England in past two tournaments: one. In a single appearance Wales have already won more knockout matches than England have managed in their last seven tournaments.
It is tempting to agree with Jamie Carragher that the players are somehow to blame, that what he refers to as the academy generation is too soft, too rich or too anaemic to deal with the rigours of international football. All the managerial options have been tried, after all, and England stubbornly remain tournament chumps, perennial flops. Yet why would only they be affected by the amount of wealth in the game? It is hardly the case that elite players in Germany, Italy or Spain go unrewarded. Are Wayne Rooney, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli really pampered, spineless types?
Every time a tournament ends like this for England, for which read every time a tournament comes around, there is general perplexity about why players who perform so well in the Premier League completely fail to do themselves justice at international level. Its detractors often argue that the competitiveness of the Premier League is a gigantic delusion based on the contributions of foreign imports, though the evidence of one’s own eyes suggests otherwise. Players such as Vardy, Alli, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford have not only had good seasons, they have done so at clubs where foreign players are fighting for every first-team place.
If foreign players have raised the overall standard of football in England, which seems unarguable, then it must follow that English players who break through have to try that bit harder to make the grade. There could be a bigger pool of qualified players for Hodgson or his successor to look at, though that is a separate argument. More does not necessarily mean better.
There are enough decent English players around to form a team, they have all gained prominence in what is universally recognised as a highly challenging league, but what damns Hodgson and the coaching set-up around him is that England returned home from France, just as they returned home from Brazil, without moving forward a single inch as a team. There has been no development in the past four years, no recognisable style of play has emerged. Sven-Goran Eriksson used to be slaughtered for having no plan B, yet he has been followed by a man with no plan A.
The personable and persuasive Conte, who will be a bright addition to the Premier League at Chelsea next season, has been working hard to instil a club mentality into his players because he recognises that Italy do not possess the superstars of previous eras. Wales do have an outstanding talent in Gareth Bale but their team spirit has been the talk of the tournament because their self-belief comes from surviving tough times together. Not so much was heard of England’s team spirit or club mentality. When they were looking for something to fall back on in that long 70 minutes against Iceland, they found nothing.
That, surely, is what the manager of a national side is paid to provide. A plan, a system, a way of obtaining a result. Do not fall for the impossible job line. Just look at the difference a change at the top has made in English rugby union. English footballers are no different from others around the world. They are not so talented that they can do without direction, though while Jürgen Klinsmann or Arsène Wenger are understandably being touted as the nearest football equivalents of Eddie Jones, this observer happens to believe that England should not go down the foreign route again because it is cheating. Especially at a time when the Premier League is so brazenly cosmopolitan, the national team should play by the rules.
Casting covetous eyes around Europe also promotes the ridiculous notion that England deserve the best, when their performances in recent years have been so dire they should consider themselves lucky to get any manager currently in a job to agree to work with them. In that respect England are a bit like Sunderland, so the FA might as well get it over with and give Sam Allardyce or Steve Bruce a call. If they want someone younger and livelier they could consider Sean Dyche. They might not be the most fashionable candidates but their records suggest they improve teams.
England did not improve one jot under Hodgson and it should not be imagined that after an event as catastrophic as elimination by Iceland the only way is up. If the FA can bear to look at the example set by Wales, they might see that the way forward is not to try to find a magic bullet but to take the safe option and work at it.
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