One of the mistakes I consistently make about sport and football in particular, is to assume that if England won a major competition, then it would mean something fundamental about the state of the nation. I know its a rather risible conclusion to reach and it demonstrates an incurable callowness on my part but I tend to believe it, despite all calls from rather more mature intellects, to acquaint myself with the reality.
But despite wishing otherwise, I can’t really help myself and for obvious reasons to do with education and the indoctrination implicit in popular culture, I cling on to the association of national strength with sporting competence. Whether it is associating the days of Empire with having a football team which tended to win or the boys of ’66 with the cultural dominance generated by the Beatles, for me the link is just unavoidable. And there alas, is the rub. I am left to ask myself, whether I want the present state the nation finds itself in, to be vindicated; and I can only conclude with a resounding, No!, No!, No!. I can’t help but feel that the values which this country seems to stand for these days, would be better off left with no such endorsement.
Not as though there is much chance of that happening from what we saw this week and even qualification for the World Cup was put in serious doubt, as England reverted very much to type as they both individually and collectively revealed the true extent of their over-hyped status against Wales and Northern Ireland.
For some reason which I can’t quite understand, there is a prejudice at large in the media and echoed in the opinions of the fans, that England possesses a squad of world-class players these days but frankly I can’t see it. The fact that most of these England players play for the top sides in an horrendously unequal Premiership, where they are likely to dominate over 80% of the games they play in, does not, as far I’m concerned, offer much proof of world-class status, it just means they are highly flattered by playing for teams who expect to win most of their games. But once they are assembled into the national team, most evidence of their so-called world-class status vanishes altogether. England might have one world star in Beckham, who at least can hold down a place at Real Madrid but England’s star striker returned home recently, just like so many others did in years gone by, from Greaves to Linekar.
So as far as I’m concerned its very much a case of same-as-it-ever-was but I suspect that this persistent and groundless myth, is inspired by the simple desire of the media to supply some leverage and vaguely tenable grounds for criticising the manager. They are just impatient to get some other sucker in the job, so the whole process of building them up and grinding them down can start all over again. I don’t think anyone actually thinks England can win a major tournament but the headline writers are running out of copy and just as they got rid of Robson without good reason, they are determined to get rid of Eriksson.
England have enough talent to match the Greeks but will never have the cohesiveness – every social sanction and every media aspiration works against that possibility.
It just seems to me that the constant drip-drip of the twin poisons of over-inflating the players’ egos, while always blaming the manager every time they fail, has gradually eroded the squads cohesiveness and their belief in the manager. The media are now desperately attempting to line-up some latter-day Perkin Warbeck or Lambert Simnel, to be the next fall-guy but are desperately short of a single candidate, who comes anywhere near being qualified for the job. The idea of an Englishman taking the job, makes about as much sense as the Phoenix Four taking over Sunderland’s Nissan plant. The fact that Eriksson can produce a team that has on occasions looked very capable, if not world-beaters, while working for an organisation like the FA, is an unacknowledged miracle. The fact that the FA seems to suffer from every stereo-typical organisational and management fault, which is endemic throughout British government, commerce and industry, seems to have escaped the notice, of those who think there is an Englishman who can do a better job than the Swede.
The fact that there was such a scramble for his resignation, after he lost his very first qualifying match is truly dishonourable and quite shameful. The players lost the game against Northern Ireland and the failure of the manager to explode in the dug-out, in a frenzy of Strachanesque hysteria, had nothing to do with it.
But besides the fact that a lot of England players lack a bit of bottle and know-how, when it comes to breaking down a team which implacably defends, there was plenty else to learn. Beckham just looked fantastic, while Stevie Gerrard (pretender to Beckham’s crown as best English midfielder) looked s**te. Rooney is easily frustrated when things don’t go his way – surprise. Wright-Phillips squandered some of the best service any winger is ever likely to get and seemed to prove that being a great club player does not make you a natural or effective International. Being able to concentrate for 80 minutes as a defender, is probably not quite good enough.
And, thinking you are world class is just not enough and sometimes you have to play like you are.
But whatever they are paying Eriksson and it is a hell of a lot, it is but a pittance for anyone who can actually make the FA seem even slightly competent, for even some of the time.
By Steve Wade