Can English Football Ever Recover?

In the cult 1980s TV comedy series The Comic Strip Presents, there was a wonderful parody that explored how England might fare under occupation by international military forces. In one scene, a man is incarcerated in a bamboo cage, and ‘tortured’ by being forced to watch a television screen showing a shower head and a single droplet of water dripping relentlessly without let up. Over 30 years later and I was reminded of that very sequence when watching the England football team face the Republic Of Ireland last weekend in a friendly.

Some friends of mine missed it as they were very busy that day – one was out with his family counting grains of sand on Brighton beach and another was trying to alleviate boredom by poking cocktail sticks into his eyeballs – both infinitely more exciting tasks than the agonizing, drab, soulless affair that was served up to football fans. And this is the modern state of English football today – or, at least, the parlous nature of the game at international level. In my admittedly rose-tinted childhood,  summers were long and hot, the streets were safe and England were a football team that – while maybe not feared, exactly – certainly had pedigree and respect within world football. So how did it ever come to this a generation later?

Only the most ridiculous of deluded die-hard fans will choose to accentuate the positive ahead of the Euro qualifier away to Slovenia this weekend. It looks good doesn’t it? Top of the qualifying group with maximum points having conceded only 1 goal, fans may as well book those French hotels right now for next year’s tournament, surely? Yet last weekend’s ‘performance’ showed once more that the moribund national team are still light years away from the more sophisticated, visionary approach to the game of those countries who have happily left England in their slipstream. The reason for this must lie firmly at the feet of the Premiership – a valley of untold riches that has nevertheless delivered two decades of slow burning pain to the international side. Britain’s most robust and rapacious export is now a colossus – club comes before country.

The Premier League devours everything in its path, only occasionally stopping to spit out the bones of the National side when they become indigestible. England’s good fortune is that geographically, they will almost always get drawn into qualifying groups full of minnows, which help them paper over the cracks and will make qualification for tournaments almost a done deal – for now.

My own wake up call to the sheer impossibility of a strong England team came after the long, almost publicly drawn out execution that was the South Africa World Cup of 2010. I would love nothing more than for the England team to restore its own, long gone pride – not to mention that of its nation. But the plain facts are obvious: the horse bolted long, long ago and many are still stood staring at the stable door – unsure what is wrong. I take comfort from the fact that I made a willing choice that the Premiership – the very bread and butter of our football – is largely an exciting, fist pumping product that is as compelling as it is controversial. Yet I also readily reconciled this with a view that the exploits of the national side were best left in isolation – to be treated like a side show or a vacation.

The demands of the Premier League are such that most England players will arrive at a major tournament having already completed a back breaking season of emotional, mental and physical sacrifice – with very little left to give. Yet there surely has to be a mentality that also – however vehemently denied – sees these players far more devoted to their clubs than to wearing the Three Lions shirt with any great intention or purpose. Playing for England is now almost an irritation. An afterthought. A bit like a long car journey back from a holiday with your girlfriend and you then decide to stop off at the mother in law’s house – because it is on the way and the right, respectful thing to do.

The media haven’t helped, either. Focus on England games in the past has been as intense and unforgiving as an outraged wasp let out of a plastic bottle – for years the media knew that patriotic coverage sold newspapers or encouraged website hits – and they peddled fantastical stories of England’s prowess. Frank Lampard was given a big headline prior to the 2010 World Cup – boldly predicting ‘we can win it’. Yet those column inches never went on to say that aside from the swashbuckling dismantling of Holland in 1996 – England has never – at a major summer tournament – beaten anyone of footballing note by any convincing manner by more than a 1 goal margin. And that remains the case today. So, good luck Roy Hodgson and the English players – you will probably beat Slovenia in a workmanlike, sturdy fashion. But I for one won’t be getting too excited for that last bastion of positivity – hope – has long since gone. The bamboo cage looms…

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