England: Four More Years of Hurt, Believe Me

Sean O'Conor

USA | Japan

The night before the World Cup Final I had the dubious pleasure of being in the audience for ITV's "World Cuppa" show.

During the transmission, former England boss Graham Taylor's contention that England would struggle to win another World Cup in his lifetime was offered up to the attendees to either cheer or boo, as part of a section entitled 'Fame or Shame'. No surprise then when the crowd, myself apart, held up cards saying 'Shame', a sentiment reinforced automatically by the host Christian O'Connell, who replied 'We are going to win in 2010!' with typical bulldog spirit.

Alas he did not spot my 'Fame' card or else was bound to keep idealism and not reality as the order of the day but I would have given the nation a piece of my mind given the chance, and doubtless been booed as a result.

England have little chance of winning a tournament and it is about time we all accepted that blatant truth without feeling ashamed or unpatriotic.

Does anyone seriously believe we will all be watching John Terry lift the FIFA World Cup in Soccer City, Johannesburg in 2010, two years after England stun the continent with some dazzling attacking football on their way to winning Euro 2008?

An innate belief in superiority 'because we're England' is really not that much different to the contemptuous hurt inflicted by our nation's soccer yobs on other nationalities for having committed the crime of not being English.

But the fact is the home of football will underachieve again, with its new coach Steve McClaren, because of deep-rooted inadequacies within the national game that a new face alone will not be able to rectify.

Aside from the 1966 win, courtesy of home advantage and a goal that was not, England's tournament performances portray a consistent mediocrity and certainly no record to be spoken of in the same breath as those of international heavyweights Italy, Germany, Brazil and Argentina.

The fifteen World Cups England have entered have resulted in one win, one semi-final, six quarter finals, two second round finishes, two first rounds and three failures to make the finals - hardly the stuff of champions.

Considering this is one of the world's major football nations when it comes to countrywide participation and the money involved at the top level, there has clearly been something rotten in the state of Denmark since day one. Indeed, one wonders whether England would have cake-walked the first three World Cups they deigned not to enter, as is popularly supposed, given the quality of European and South American nations in the 1930s.

England

On paper, the 2006 team looked the best in living memory a year ago, but left with a whimper, succumbing lamely on penalties after failing to dominate a limited Portugal eleven in normal time.

The best example of our national football hubris was surely England's first outing in 1950, when the masters of football were expected to challenge for the trophy but ended up exiting the first round after defeats to Spain and the USA. That was a bona fide 'dream team' featuring Jackie Milburn, Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion and Stan Mortensen, of whom a lot was reasonably expected given their stellar domestic form.

But the most telling England failure was surely the 6-3 mauling handed out by Hungary at Wembley three years later, a devastating thump in the face of anyone who thought we were still the best at 'our' game. The Mighty Magyars were streets, if not boulevards ahead in the beautiful game, deploying a tactical acumen far advanced from the simple game plan England had used for years.

Fast forward fifty three years to Germany 2006 and while Hungary might have vanished from the centre stage of international football (how tragic given they were the world's best half a century ago), England are still, depressingly, guilty of believing too much in their limited ability.

Dip a sheet of litmus paper into England a month ago and the tableau revealed was that of a nation swept up in blind faith. 'If they had only believed in themselves a bit more' were the actual words I heard someone use to ascribe another failure.

This misguided tidal wave of drunken fan fervour survives because enough people really believe that England can win a major tournament and that their support can actually help propel the eleven men to glory, the classic blind optimism of the football fan turned up to the max at World Cup time.

England When you watch England's heroes perform miracles in the Premiership you could be forgiven for thinking they could do it against any opposition, but the World Cup entails taking on foreign football cultures to which we are not truly exposed on a regular basis.

Moreover, the best teams in the Premiership are not coached by Englishmen and in the case of Arsenal and Chelsea have only a scattering of natives in their squad. Both London giants have also fielded teams entirely devoid of Englishmen.

But despite the influx of foreigners, the pervading football culture is still one that favours direct attacking over possession. More than a less than scientific preparation for penalty kicks, that is the hub of our cycle of inadequacy: we don't keep the ball long enough and our technique suffers as a result.

Can you imagine England scoring a goal like Argentina's 24-pass strike at the World Cup? Of course not. I recall the Netherlands' Johnny Bosman netting a similar goal at Wembley in 1988, a few weeks before Marco Van Basten undid England with a hat-trick at Euro '88 but lessons were not learnt then.

So many times during World Cup 2006 England looked lethargic and uninspired, relying too much on a solid defence and individual talents in midfield to cover up for a lack of a fluid system and with a preponderance of hitting hopeful balls upfield for knock-downs instead of retaining the ball in a controlled, yet offensive manner.

What have we learnt since 1950? Nothing that can be rectified in four years, that is for sure. And when we do lose out it is too convenient and self-exonerating to blame individuals – Gazza, Beckham, Rooney, Urs Meier, Bobby Robson etc instead of addressing the fundamental flaws in our football.

So McClaren's era will end in failure, I have no doubt in saying. The Southern-based media will relish another Northern coach sticking his head in the lion's mouth, after the relentless savaging they gave Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor.

At least those two had successful club records to commend their initial appointments but McClaren guided Middlesbrough to a lowly fourteenth last season before taking the reins at Soho Square.

In addition, from what we can gather, the former Man United assistant coach played more than an assistant role for the national team under Sven-Goran Eriksson's tenure, which included heavy friendly defeats to Australia (3-1) and Denmark (4-1), a 2-2 draw with Macedonia and a 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland in competitive internationals and two penalty exits to Portugal at the quarter-final stage of tournaments.

And let us not forget the inexcusable second half against Brazil in 2002 when England mustered a lamentable one shot on goal.

The odds are just stacked too highly for McClaren to succeed.

The press and the nation confuse hoping with expecting, dreaming with actualizing, and expect nothing more than permanent success, a demand so unrealistic Graham Taylor chuckled that his advice to the next manager would be to 'win every game.'

But the real tragedy is that the millions of Englishmen and women who latch on to the national team at tournament time will be fired by the same specious faith in the power of the three lions to beat the world, when our national style of play is plainly not good enough to beat the world's best, however much we believe in ourselves.

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