Watching England play football is rarely an enjoyable business. For a variety of reasons, we don’t have any world class players which doesn’t help. Because of the Premier League, young players rarely get the opportunity to shine, or even play, at club level and at European club level. The big stars at the big clubs are not usually English. But it all starts long before this.
Our problems start in youth football and younger, where players are taught only to win at all costs by coaches and parents who are desperate to live out their football dreams through their offspring. In countries like Spain and Germany, youngsters are taught first and foremost to play football. This makes sense because the competitive element is either there in a footballer or it isn’t. You don’t need to teach it. This is why this country churns out players who can run and tackle all day but not much else.
All this stuff matters. We are not good for a reason, or rather for reasons. It is not that the manager is crap, or indeed the players are crap, or that neither care. Of course they care, so much it probably hurts. They try too hard which helps no one and they do so under ludicrous levels of expectation. The very people who slag off the England team obviously expect decent but run of the mill club players will morph into Iniesta, Ronaldo and Messi once they pull on an England shirt. When it doesn’t happen, social networks are clogged with criticism by people who seem to be surprised. When England play, twitter looks like the Daily Mail, where everything is broken and nothing works. The players are shit and they don’t care. Oh please.
I am not making excuses for the England performances against Slovenia and Lithuania, two teams that played nine at the back when they were attacking and 11 when they were defending. We weren’t good enough. The thing is that you cannot just magic up abilities you don’t have. Yet here’s the rub: we won both games.
This won’t get any better any time soon. Youth football is still a shambles, top Premier League clubs still prefer to buy ready made off the shelf goods from abroad rather than develop their own talents and we, the great English footballing public, despite all the facts presented to us, are still surprised when the team doesn’t play like Brazil.
The other thing is fear. Our players undoubtedly play with fear. They don’t try stuff, they don’t gamble because they know what will come their way if they do try stuff and gamble. If they try to keep the ball – and all the best teams keep the ball – many people want the players to lump the ball and hope for the best. If they lump the ball, people want them to keep it. And if we don’t put six goals past Slovenia, the abuse rains down from the stands, from the media and from the internet.
Of course, England will not win the world cup next year. As ever, the last sixteen will be an achievement in itself. The quarter finals, for a team of our limited talents, would be the equivalent of 1966. Yet you know what will happen. A couple of good results in pre tournament kickabouts and people will be piling into Sports Direct to buy their memorabilia to see England bring home the trophy. People will say, as individuals, that they expect no such thing, but there will be enough who do.
England can only be as good as they are, which is to say not very. But they can still perform at a level whereby we could safely claim that they did their best and didn’t let us down. And I do not believe that this squad, managed by an intelligent and realistic man in Gareth Southgate, will not try to give of its best.
Yes, moaning about the national football team is the English way. We appear to have an inflated sense of entitlement that so called lesser nations will somehow fall to bended knee whenever we appear and allow us our inevitable victory. Even when we win, which during this straightforward qualification campaign we have managed to do with something to spare, it’s still not good enough.
The likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Adam Lallana, Marcus Rashford and perhaps even Daniel Sturridge have the potential to trouble some of the best teams. Wouldn’t it be great if, just for once, the miserabilists who seem to wallow in and even relish our apparent failure could actually act with a little positivity? Just imagine supporting your national side, just like you support your local one? I suspect there are enough people who couldn’t care less and would prefer to have something to complain about. Anyway, there’s never anything good to watch on telly these days, is there? Everything was better in the old days. I mean, we left all our doors open 24/7 all year round and you know what? If only we could go back to those good old days, even though they never existed?