I can’t help but think that the Guardian’s Rob Smyth said it best the other day when he blamed overly-high expectations for England on two things: the mass-marketed ‘Golden Generation’ featuring the usual suspects – Gerrard, Lamps, Becks, Rio, Rooney and so on – and more importantly, on England’s famous 5-1 brutalization of Germany in Germany back in 2001.
These days, when reality is knock knock knocking on England’s door seemingly in every fixture both major and minor, the boo-brigade still comes out expecting, nay, demanding, a rout of the type we haven’t seen from England, oh, since 2001’s brutalization of Germany in Germany.
Perhaps it’s time the English press, both yellow and proper, get over England and cover them the same way they would cover the cricket — that is to say with low expectations raised once in a while by something exciting like the Ashes.
The insane demands laid on the national team have prevented any levelheaded assessment of an England performance in the press. For the tabloids, it’s blame the foreign manager and then rail how the players are overpaid; for the Guardian and their ilk, it’s blame England’s national program and then rail how the players are overpaid (Editor: and for the blogs, it’s rail against international football and how it’s hurting their clubs, before turning around and railing against how players are overpaid…).
Surely the team wouldn’t receive this amount of vitriol if we finally assessed them at their proper level — at best, Spain; at worst, Denmark. What’s the hold-up? Shouldn’t years of turgid mediocrity have slapped them down a few pegs by now?
There are probably many reasons for our continued adoration of the England shirt – the all-important 1966 World Cup win, the rose-coloured view of the intervening years (perhaps aided by the fact that all the interesting moments get on Youtube while the duds are in a BBC film bucket somewhere), the flattering FIFA rankings, and in my mind the biggest reason, the rise of the Premier League and its influential English stars.
This leads me to admit an unpopular truth — players within the English national team are probably worth the amount relative to other players in the Premiership. The efforts of a Gerrard, a Rooney, a Ferdinand or a Barry are considered vital for their respective clubs. Sure, like most footballers these players have peaks and valleys, yet injuries to any of them make front page news and garner a lot of managerial quotes, a telling indication of their worth. In any case, a brief glance at their individual stats should end the argument.
So goes the common refrain, why don’t these same star players play well for their national team? The simple reason is that English players cannot adapt when they play outside of their clubs. English football is the most static form of the game in the world.
There is a reason, for example, why continental clubs don’t often seek talented English players — they can’t adjust to foreign playing styles. Think Gazza at Lazio, or Rush at Juventus. The national team presents a similar challenge because international football has its own unique style of play distinct from that of the Premier League. You can’t just switch from playing Chelsea or Manchester United to England and expect the demands will be the same.
Most national teams worth their weight in hype recognized this long ago — France, Germany, and now Russia have a separate and distinct ethos with regard to international play. Players who excel in these national teams aren’t exactly household names within their clubs, but they win because they are moulded to the distinct demands of international football. This distinction has never been understood in England.
England doesn’t even have a national training ground but borrows space from other clubs like vagabonds. The team, a sort of Premier League Greatest Hits, comes together out of the blue for a kick around once every couple of months, a friendly and then right into the qualifiers. Talented younger players like Young, Agbonlahor, and Wheater are told to stay home. There is no attempt at building a proper national side with its own distinct approach.
England has been lucky in that some players are born with a natural ability to adapt. It’s no coincidence that the English player with the greatest stint at a foreign club, Lineker at Barcelona, was one of England’s best goal scorers and contributors to the national team.
However, for most players, this sort of flexibility must be taught. The micromanaging in the press about English player positions – Gerrard should not play on the left, Beckham moves too much to the centre, Rooney must play farther forward — underlines how English players paid millions of pounds are simply unable to adjust to the slightest changes in play. Gerrard the goal-hungry playmaker in the centre becomes Gerrard the ball-shanking bumbler on the left? This is completely unacceptable for a player expected to excel in the international stage.
Yet Gerrard is not alone. English players for the most part look completely clueless outside of the cozy comforts of their coddling English clubs. Debates about positioning don’t have the same measure of importance in other national set-ups because players are used to adjusting to international football. Why not England?
Richard Whittall lives in Toronto and is the author of A More Splendid Life.