Something For The Weekend (133)
Its easy to take the piss out of us English as we wrestle with the mysteries of why we have ceased to be and possibly never will be, a world power in the game again, just as we must wrestle with the paradox that even though, as we are told, we get richer by the day (if only), things still look squalid and the number of shit-heads on the streets never seems to decrease. It just seems that we love the chaos and squalor, just as we love our working-class sports people to be not quite good enough. Okay, we go through the motions but why is it Steve Ovett got an OBE and Seb Coe is a Lord? Isn't it that Lord Coe is what the establishment and the rest of us prefer, a true blue Tory with the air of a toff, rather than some bolshy oik from Brighton (that beard didn't help either).
Wasn't the whole Henman hysteria inspired by an absolute desire for a member of the establishment to succeed and fulfil the tacit hope that someone would reinforce the idea of the supremacy of the toffs over the peasants, once and for all? Wasn't it why Zara Phillips got all the votes for the BBC's sports personality of the year? Was it ever really possible that Phil Taylor, Joe Calzaghe or Ricky Hatton could win it? I just thought at the time and without detracting from her genuine sporting achievement, that surely, if you are called Princess, you don't need any other titles. I always thought that these things were there entirely to prove to the world, that class or racial origin didn't matter in modern Britain but it seems that the old class thing still prevails.
There's always too much talk and actual belief in the damaging affect of media pressure on footballers - I am not so sure. The attitudes of class seem to have coagulated into set of values and an unwritten contract with the England team, not to defy this national consensus.
I know the media need to sell newspapers and such like but don't Italian players come to this country because there is actually less pressure than back home. And didn't the Germans get slagged off something rotten by their own press prior to the World Cup. Weren't the Argentineans (1978) and the Brazilians (1970) under rather more political pressure when they won it. Hasn't England's perennial failure become a sort of unspoken contract between the team and the rest of the country, a contract the F.A, the manager and the players, are all too willing to fulfil. Isn't it a case of scared to win - scared to lose? The failure always looks built into the system, as both an expectation, requirement and self-fulfilling prophesy.
During the World Cup I watched the other teams and apart from the odd super-star, I never saw many players who were that much better than their English rivals - an opinion based on the English players' performances, when not wearing an England shirt, obviously. And don't those same foreigners always seem to struggle when they cross the channel, when they are confronted with the exact same English players, who just so happen to be wearing a different shirt?
Okay, so we have all enjoyed jumping on McClaren's back this week but surely there is ample evidence that no matter who the manager is, England always look roughly the same, and Sven's team minus Owen and Beckham looked just as bad; just as Taylor's team minus Shearer and with Lineker about to retire, also struggled for goals, save for the contribution of Villa's Platt from midfield. Lacking a prolific striker England went out of Euro 92 early and then failed to qualify for the next World Cup. England once again find themselves seeking goals from midfield to supplement the ones lacking up front. But even with this as the case, there seems an unfathomable lack of belief from the players in other areas of the pitch. Loads of men behind the ball and never enough getting into the box to support the strikers - even against lowly Andorra.
No manager seems to be able to remedy this and even if that McClaren grin can't avoid getting on your tits, his inability to persuade his players not to freeze under this, not exactly untypical pressure, is not unique to him - no pressure - no pride in wearing that shirt. No manager since Ramsey has had the sort of irresistible persona big enough to dominate every ego in the squad. And no manager has had the guts to do the equivalent of dropping Jimmy Greaves and made it work. Only Clough or even Jack Charlton could have imposed his will on the players and so defy the group mentality of fear. No manager seemed to have the power to get that little bit extra out of the squad, and while dominant men failed to get the job, others like Greenwood, never really succeeded with niceness either.
It seems that the present squad is still suffering the mental hangover from the ousting of Beckham, who I am sure McClaren dropped by the popular implicit demand of the other senior players. And having got rid of the 'special one' in the squad, and realising the consequences of being the tall poppy, no one seems too eager to step forward and take on that role. It seemed to take the very real possibility of the team losing to Andorra, to prompt Stevie Gerrard to step up to the plate and put in the sort of performance, rarely, if ever seen in an England shirt. It was exactly the sort of performance for which he got his trip to the palace and it had me wondering what forces are active in the squad, which prevented him from doing it very often before. Is it really the case that when he is playing along side Lampard, who equally seems oppressed by the other half of the partnership, it has become an unwritten contract of, 'After you Claude!'. Is this what Terry really meant by being too nice?
Its no good looking to the manager and expecting him to sort it out. Only the players can change the psychological dynamic of the squad. It is they who must cease to believe that the pressure is too much (the cop-out) and it is they who must allow players to do the annoyingly egotistical thing of looking better than their team-mates. Deep down they must collectively hold beliefs about playing for England, which do not hold true when they play for their clubs. Only the players can change this and the only thing the manager can do, is not get in the way.
These are great players and we see it every week. Only they can decide to defy the dictates of a group agreement, which has been the cause of under-achievement for forty years.
By Steve Wade