Sunday, March 25, 2007

No Surprises There, Then

I didn't see it, myself. I managed to find a nice little table in a pub in the town centre that wasn't showing it, and it was like the whole thing never even happened - at least until I got home. Bearing this in mind, let me just take a quick moment to review England's performance. No imagination, a team of players who seem to be incapable of being motivated for anything, and completely unable to break down a limited, but moderately well organised team. How close did I get? I haven't even read any reports on the web yet, either. If they're anything like as predictable to their opponents as they are to those of us that watch from the stands and on the television, it's no wonder they've now gone five matches without a win.

What surprises me most of all, though, is that three thousand people travelled to Tel Aviv last night to support them. Who are these people? Do they not stop and think, "hang on, this is going to cost me over £500, and all the evidence suggests that England will be rubbish"? Their loyalty (although some might call it foolhardiness) deserves some sort of applause. I can only assume that they booed the players off the pitch last night, and would suggest to all supporters of Premiership clubs that this booing should continue every time they touch the ball for their own sides, as a bit of a reminder. The circus, meanwhile, rolls on to Barcelona on Wednesday night for the next match against the mighty Andorra. It is surely inconceivable that they could drop points in this match too, and there is no question that McClaren's job will be even more untenable than it is now if they don't win in some style. Such has been the damage done to their reputation, however, that any success will only paper over the cracks until the next disaster. It could be in Tallinn against Estonia in June, or it could be at Wembley against Israel in September, but you just know that it's going to happen at some point in the not too distant future.

The question is this: this is the worst England team since... when? The England teams that failed to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups were, to a point, unfortunate. In those days, when only one team qualified per group for sixteen team World Cup finals, getting there at all was, in itself, something of an achievement. In 1974, it took a virtuoso performance by Jan Tomaszewski at Wembley to knock them out, and this failure meant that their job was doubly difficult four years later, by which time they were seeded second and knocked out by Italy. The team that failed to get to the final of the 1984 European Championships weren't up to much either, but they had the excuse of coming up against a Denmark team that would be one of Europe's best by the mid-1980s, with again only one qualifier from their group. Graham Taylor's team circa 1993 is generally held up to be the worst England team of recent times, but they were in a transitional phase, with Waddle, Barnes and Beardsley past their best, Lineker recently retired and Gascoigne long-term injured. The 1990 World Cup semi-finalists had started to break up within a year of the match against West Germany in Turin, and it's hardly Taylor's fault that the English game hadn't provided any him with sufficient replacements. Even then, they were still only beaten by a very strong Dutch team with the assistance of some very peculiar refereeing in their penultimate qualifying match in Rotterdam. That was a match which could have gone either way. Even Kevin Keegan's team, which lost so spinelessly in the last match at the old Wembley against Germany managed to turn itself around and qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

This lot, I have to say, are every bit as bad as any of the above, and have none of the mitigating circumstances. UEFA have changed to format for qualifying for Euro 2008, one suspects to ensure that all of the "big" names are there. They can't say that they're not being given ample opportunity to get through - Croatia and Russia are capable sides, but there's no Italy, Denmark, Germany or Holland laying ahead. Also, this is not a transitional time for English football. The enforced retirement of David Beckham from the international game wasn't somehow a watershed for them. The likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Terry and Ferdinand should all still be at their prime, and there's a case for saying that they are at their prime when they're playing for their club sides. However, when they play for their national team, they're almost unrecognisable. Without being able to see inside their heads, it's difficult to say how much they care about playing for England, but if they do, they do a damn good job of masking it.

Then, there's the coach. If there's one thing that the FA still don't appear to have grasped, it's that the England team dressing room is possibly the biggest collection of egos on the planet. They need someone that will break down those egos, tell a few home truths and knock a few heads together. What they absolutely, categorically don't need is a grinning buffoon who, seven months into his tenure, still carries himself with the demeanour of a man that simply can't believe his luck at having been given the job in the first place. Maybe Martin O'Neill could have beaten some of this arrogance out of them. It's difficult to say for sure. I simply cannot see, however, how Steve McClaren could possibly sit his team down in the dressing room and motivate the players, who've always got half of their minds on the Premiership and the Champions League, to play against teams who don't even require any motivation to stick one over the bloated, arrogant, over-rated English.

McClaren has to go - that much is self-evident - but he'll most likely buy himself a bit of time with the Andorra match on Wednesday night. What is troubling, however, is the medium to long-term prognosis for the England team. This team is supposed to be somewhere near its prime, and I don't see that many promising young players coming through the ranks at Stamford Bridge, Ashburton Grove, Anfield or Old Trafford at the moment. In five years time, today's "superstars" will be gone, but the concern is that the replacements will be even worse. The big clubs are far more likely to spend their youth budgets buying in young foreign players and buying clubs on each continent to run as nursery clubs than they are to put time and investment into trying to teach young English players how to control and pass a football properly. One would have hoped that one of the welcome side-effects of the Premiership boom might have been that young England players of the future would have had the best environment in the world to hone their craft. England's second choice goalkeeper is currently on loan from Manchester United to Watford. The future doesn't look particularly bright.


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