Monday, June 28, 2010
Exit exposes deep-rooted flaws
In seeking to find answers to the England question it is most difficult to avoid the knee-jerk. Failure at international competitions can be acceptable. After all, only one team can win a tournament leaving the others each with their own measure of disappointment. But this time, more than any other time, England depart with serious discredit. Unloved and unloveable, most of the main men will not be playing at a World Cup for their country again, and relief must be drawn from that.
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• England blog: My lowest point
• Top Five: World Cup controversies
• Capello won't resign as coach
Old, sluggish, slow, unfocused: all accusations that have been rightly levelled at the England team. Right-thinking Englishmen were shrugging their shoulders about their team's hopes even after the USA game. Algeria was so bad as to seem like it could only be the nadir. Far from it, we find ourselves remembering a 1-0 defeat of a Slovenia team thinking such a result was enough to qualify for the last 16 as some form of a high point.
I write as someone who decided that it would be a good idea to predict his country as potential winners in the Soccernet pre-tournament preview. The yolk has been wiped from my face but the tears were never shed. In making my prediction I had fallen into the confidence trick and I was not alone. I had followed the reasoning offered by Fabio Capello, a man I had been impressed by, that if England's players performed as they did in the Premier League then they had a good chance. I had drawn myself into the all-pervading hype of England's top division and its recent pre-eminence in the continental club game when in fact it may well be the overriding cause of international ignominy.
The Champions League has seen most of England's putative stars shine. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Wayne Rooney have all performed well in its very latest stages so surely they can perform at international level? Such an equation has been proved to be fatally flawed and it is not difficult to discern why. Lampard and Terry's performances for Chelsea are augmented by having an all-star cast of foreign talent around them. Gerrard has played his best football in recent years when in tandem with a Spaniard and an Argentine. Rooney's goals came last season when supported by raiding foreign wingers in Nani and Valencia; there was no more indicative sight of Rooney's frustrated plight than with his back to goal and no options to pass to.
The likes of Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips lack the dimensions to play with a forward of his positional expectations. They may have speed but they do not deliver and neither were they found to be anticipating the telling pass. The supporting cast for Rooney and co is not good enough to bring the best from him, a legacy of the small amount of Englishmen plying their trade in the top echelon. A lack of competition for places pervaded Capello's thinking. However, having made the bold and reasonable decision to omit Theo Walcott to then not take a chance on Adam Johnson when the Manchester City winger offered different facets to his game to the same-indifference of Lennon and Wright-Phillips must go down as a serious error.
This was an England team with no mystery about it. An Englishman can look back on the last two decades and feel pride in the moments when a young star not yet steeped in the pretensions of footballers' lives has lit up a tournament in the style of a Gascoigne, an Owen or the Rooney of 2004. That we have to wait a generation for each may say it all. Innate conservatism and the clubbable clique that is playing for England soon beats it out of them.
This tournament has seen a lid lifted on the internal workings of that hated phrase, the "England camp". The players would seem to have behaved as if on an ill-fated field-trip from a school for the over-privileged. Whinges about not being allowed beer or extended golf sessions can only look small-minded in the face of ruinous performances. Immature as well as ageing, there seems little hope for the olden, "golden" generation.
To rip it up and start again can seem like the only course of action, yet the short-termism inherent in English football will likely prevent it. A qualification campaign for Euro 2012 begins in September. There is no time to replace with young bucks, if there were any. A glance across at the team that did make it to face Argentina can only deepen the gloom. Where were our equivalents of Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira and Mezut Ozil?
They are homegrown talents playing at the top level of their country's football. "Bundesliga, who's heard of the Bundesliga?" Those are the words of West Ham co-owner David Gold when asked this year about the financial controls put in place among clubs in Europe's most-spectated league. Cast that shameful ignorance aside to consider that such restrictions engender a need to farm young talent, rather than get it in from overseas. Long-term benefits from a decision to prevent hunger for short-term gain? What will those crazy Germans think of next?
And England may have a window to effect their own change. Much of Germany's squad came through in the preparation for their hosting of the 2006 tournament, when qualification was not required and a team could be built organically. England has 2018 on the horizon, a World Cup that they should hope to host. Yet the cash-rich Premier League is non-commital in its support for the bid. As a body whose original blueprint back in 1992 was supposedly to aid the England team - laughable to consider now - they must consider if they want to be part of the problem or solution. It will very soon be 48 years of dreaming, and by then most should have woken up to the realities of expected failure.