Where did all the love go?
Friday, 13th September 2013 at 10:36am
After the latest round of international fixtures England sit top of their World Cup qualifying group; their Brazil destiny still very much in their own hands.
Sounds decent enough, right?
In terms of the position the Three Lions are in, very much so, but the manner in which this has been achieved has the majority of England fans despairing and being turned off watching supposedly the pride of the nation. It wasn't always this way; so where did all the love go?
I can remember a time when England games, even friendlies, were something people looked forward to and the prospect of tournament football was something to be savoured.
Even acknowledging the fact that England haven't won anything since 1966, there was always hope and optimism, even if it was misplaced.
Now there's none of that. No one expects England to do anything at a tournament except produce dull, uninspiring football and, if we're lucky, fall at the quarter-finals - usually on penalties.
A dampening of England's collective optimism might have been a good thing in the past, so often did we kid ourselves that we would win the Euros or the World Cup.
Oh how we'd love to return to those heady days right now where we believed, with a bit of luck on our side, we could go all the way.
Italia '90, Euro '96, France '98, Japan & South Korea 2002, and Portugal 2004; they were summers filled with moments of utter joy and anguish, and, while the results may have gone against us in the end, there was excitement, pure unadulterated excitement.
That excitement has all but gone. At international level English football is in a dark place and it is hard to see it emerging into bright sunshine any time soon.
Where should the blame lie? The players? The manager? The Football Association? Probably a mixture of all three but the turning away of England fans can be nailed firmly to the door of the manager.
So how should the FA improve things and bring back some of the joy that watching England once brought? Well, let's start at the very top and the bottom.
For too long has English football neglected what is happening at grassroots level and now, internationally, we are suffering.
The upper echelon of the English game is awash with money and, until now, too little of it has washed down to age group football.
In years gone by too much of the game at junior level was result-focused with little or no emphasis being placed on technique and improving the skill set.
This is further compounded by the relatively small number of quality coaches within England especially when compared to other countries on the continent.
After a humbling Euro 2000, German football took a long, hard look at itself, underwent radical changes and now the benefits are there for all to see: a strong Bundesliga brimming with home grown talent and a powerful national side.
Fortunately things in England are changing. The introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan should, over time, help England produce footballers with more technical ability given that among its aims are the improvement of coaching provision, the creation of more time for players to be coached, and the implementation of a system of effective measurement and quality assurance.
Such an overhaul is what is required in England and it would seem that, at long last, steps are being taken in the right direction; this, however, is a long-term project and definitely not a quick fix solution.
For all his misplaced and misguided bluster about England winning the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Greg Dyke raised some important points in his first speech as FA Chairman; now English football must work together to ensure this takes place.
The FA could do a lot worse than to start by canvassing the opinions of those who have played the game at the highest level and take on board what they have to offer.
As far as the playing staff is concerned, if everyone was fully fit England still wouldn't produce a squad that would strike fear into the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Holland or Italy.
Yes, there are undoubtedly good players - Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, Glenn Johnson, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Theo Walcott all perform at a high level for their clubs week in, week out - the Three Lions just seem short of world beaters both now and on the horizon.
The squad that travelled to Italy in 1990 had class running all the way through it, as did Terry Venables' 1996 squad and Glenn Hoddle's class of '98.
The fact that strikers the calibre of Robbie Fowler and Ian Wright won so few caps for their country showed the strength in depth at the time that is so lacking today.
Whoever manages England at this present time isn't going to enjoy the same talent pool that was available to his predecessors and could bemoan his luck at taking over a squad that has once top class players on the decline, talented, yet inexperienced youngsters and nothing in between.
So where are all England's good players?
The Times' excellent writer Rory Smith produced a fantastic piece regarding the nature and nurture of 'golden generations' and how their existence is due to timing rather than coaching.
It's hard not to disagree with everything he says. Every now and then a country will produce a crop of truly excellent footballers: Portugal did with Luis Figo et al, England had it with the class of Gerrard, Terry, Rio Ferdinand etc and now Belgium seemed to have unearthed a generation of gems.
Coaching, of course, plays a large part in their development but coaching alone isn't capable of producing players with that bit of stardust.
Smith references Barcelona's famed La Masia and Ajax's Academy as perfect examples. Both continue to produce excellent players but not of the quality of Iniesta and Xavi, or Ajax's triumphant Champions League winning side of 1995. In essence, great players are born and made better by coaching rather than coached to greatness.
Right now, English football is lacking enough players of sufficient talent to inspire the team on to greater things.
That, however, is not an excuse for the dross that has been served up in recent months and the blame for that can be largely laid at the feet of Roy Hodgson. England should be capable of playing better.
In this qualifying campaign England have only beaten San Marino and Moldova, and have drawn with Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine twice.
The latter are all decent sides and no one is expecting England to go out and tear them apart but is it too much to ask for an England team with some invention and creativity, and one that can pass a ball to each other?
The Moldova game, despite the score line, was uninspiring and the dour 0-0 draw in Ukraine is right up there with the most insipid England performances witnessed in a long time.
The most worrying aspect of it was Hodgson's pleasure at England's performance. Yes, England were solid throughout and the result creditable, but they were poor in attack and could barely string a pass together. In fact, England's pass completion in the attacking third of the pitch was barely over 60%; simply not good enough.
Any team made up of players from the Premier League should be able to pass the ball to each other and, while technique is hardly the fault of the manager, forcing the players to play without freedom of expression and allowing zero fluidity is; it stifles and adds additional stress.
Having witnessed Hodgson manage Liverpool it was clear then that his tactics are from a bygone era and he is naturally cautious to the extreme. Football has evolved and so do the very best managers.
Caution is fine when managing a club like West Brom or Fulham but when you're supposed to be a big side, at national or international level, it isn't enough.
A manager of a big team has to have the same swagger and confidence as his players in a way that Sir Alex Ferguson had at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho has everywhere and Pep Guardiola has, albeit in a more understated way.
Once appointed Hodgson as England manager there was always the feeling that he wouldn't be able to make the step up to international level and it is looking that way.
Should Hodgson lead England to Brazil he will regard it as mission accomplished and his methods vindicated but England are by no means assured of qualifying for the finals. Should we fail and fail playing the football we have been doing it is time for a change.
Personally I can't speak for everyone but I can't bear to watch another dull England game and, like before Euro 2008, almost hope we don't qualify to spare us the embarrassment and prompt a change in manager.
Call me unpatriotic but it's not true. I love watching English sports teams and have followed them all over the world at great personal expense. I simply want to be able to enjoy supporting the side and that's just not possible. The current malaise has me longing for Kevin Keegan's suicidal football; yes it failed but at times what a ride it was.
Who should replace Hodgson? That is a tough question without a readily available answer given the dearth of managerial talent around at present.
As a Liverpool fan I never believed I'd find myself extolling the virtues of Gary Neville but perhaps he'd be worth a punt. He has no managerial experience but has a strong idea of how the game should be played and also played under Sir Alex for all those years.
He also commands the respect of the players, many of whom he shared a pitch with and he is a born winner.
At the very least you suspect he'd allow England to play without the tactical straightjacket that's currently being employed and might bring back some of the joy that has gone out of following the Three Lions.
Where England go from here it's hard to say but one thing's for sure; it'd be nice to have the love back.