History repeating itself

If you’re anything like me – and the fact you’re reading this says you are – then you’ll be football mad. For me, and you, Summer as a season just doesn’t exist. It’s the time spent between one football season ending, and another starting. A few of you may like cricket, or even Rugby League, but we’re merely ticking off the day’s til the next round ball fix. However, every other year we are spoilt, as both the World Cup and European Championship’s kick into life. For five or six weeks, the whole country gets engrossed in yet another campaign to bring home a major International trophy. This years Euro’s saw the hopes of the English nation joined by those of Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. Scotland missed out on a full-house of representation by the slightest of margins. By the end of June however, only Wales still remained in the tournament. At the time of writing, they are preparing for a Semi Final against Portugal, an amazing achievement for a team not tipped to get much past the last 16. Northern Ireland enjoyed mixed fortunes, despite two defeats, a new format meant they qualified for the last 16 for the first time in their history. Likewise the Republic of Ireland, a dramatic late winner against Italy saw them finish the group stages with a record of One win, one draw, and one defeat. Both would bow out at the next stage, losing to Wales and hosts France respectively, but both showed signs of improvement and hope for future campaigns. Which leaves us with England……….

Once again a nation got it’s hopes up, and once again was left disappointed with events on the pitch. A draw in the opening game with Russia wasn’t a disaster, despite leading until the final few minutes. Certain aspects of the game were pleasing from a playing point of view. All that was missing was the result. The second match saw England dominate Wales, despite going a goal down, and the 2-1 victory was deserved  if not a little scrappy. By the time the third group game came round, against Slovakia, many were expecting an England win, and progression into the last 16 as group winners. Unfortunately a bizarre tactical decision from manager Roy Hodgson to rest players resulted in a frustrating draw, allowing Wales to steal first place in the group. A twist of fate would see England then handed a last 16 game with minnows Iceland. Deemed by many as a given, and an almost certain bye into the Quarter Finals, England managed to turn in one of the worst performances in tournament history to lose 2-1. In the space of 20 days, misplaced optimism turned into the stark reality of another major tournament failure.

So where did it all go wrong ? How did the country that founded the game way back, lose to a country with more volcanoes than professional footballer’s ? You’ve all seen and read the stats on Iceland – a country of circa 330,000 people, the size of Leicester – with a part-time dentist as coach. The smallest nation with the smallest talent pool to chose from. But what they lacked in numbers and arguably talent, they made up for in teamwork and tactics. It’s the proverbial chicken and egg scenario. You can have all the talented players in the world, but if they fail to perform to a designated game plan, or even basic instruction, then success will be hard to come by. As anyone that witnessed the Iceland game will testify, not only did the players not perform technically and ability wise, nor did they seem to have a grasp on any sort of formation or plan. The signs were there as early as the week before the tournament, as England made hard work of 10-man Portugal in a friendly at Wembley. Hodgson went with a previously untried formation, but scrapped it at half time. Any optimism went out the window right then. Two years on from World Cup failure, and the England manager had learned nothing of his players or their favoured positions. He would compound this by picking a squad short of wide men, bar the massively out-of-form Raheem Sterling. Furthermore, he would struggle to accommodate Rooney, Kane and Vardy in any sort of attacking formation, his insistence on playing Rooney deep only nullified midfield options further. In the end results spoke for themselves. An appalling defeat on the pitch to Iceland, was followed by an equally ignominious resignation from Hodgson, his final speech thanking the players for their efforts, and doing ” everything that was asked of them “. An embarrassing turn of phrase, even by the media men of the FA’s standards.

So where to now ? The usual hysterics where abound in the first 48 hours of the defeat. Too many foreign players, Winter break, 3g pitches, grass roots, too much money too young, no pride or passion for International football. Perhaps it’s all of the above. The Premier League rely’s on nearly 75% non-English players. We do have a long season, players are tired at the end of it. Too much money does make it’s way into players pockets. But then don’t the Welsh players play in the same league’s  ?  On the same pitches, under the same conditions ? Over the same length of season ?  Perhaps it’s not so much a lack of passion playing for England, maybe it’s more the weight of expectation that surrounds them. But what exactly do we have an expectation for ? It’s 50 years since we won anything. FIFTY. In that time we’ve reached the Semi Finals of a major tournament just twice. Compare this to Germany, with 21 Semi Final appearances. What gives us the right to think we can genuinely win something ? We have no track record whatsoever in comparison to countries like Spain, France and Italy. We are no longer a force in world football, just a country and a team swept along in some sort of national pride placed on the shoulders of 11 young men. This level of expectation is proving to be more of a hindrance than a help. We may have the self-proclaimed “Best league in the World”, but this has become a detriment to the National side, infighting between the self-serving FA and Premier League not helping matters. Caught in all this are the long suffering England fans. We’re no better off now than we were in 1996 at the Euro’s, under Terry Venables ( arguably our last successful campaign ) Twenty years have passed, and Millions spent, and yet we’ve gone backwards, especially in comparison to countries like Iceland, who have invested money in training facilities and qualified coaches – numbering more than any other European country – apparently. All we have done is re-build Wembley, and opened St. George’s Park, to the countries elite players. Clearly the “Build from the bottom up” mantra, adopted by Iceland, has bypassed the games hierarchy. Lets hope its not another 50 years without a trophy, that pass by with it.

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