Friday, 3 June 2011

Watching the England Football Team is Mind-numbing and Torturous...

Being English and a football supporter, one would suppose that I have no choice but to watch the Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland on Saturday evening. A bit of background to the game for anyone who hasn't already clicked somewhere else. England currently top group Group G with ten points from four matches. Winning tomorrow's game would effectively take the Swiss out of the equation and leave a shoot-out with Montenegro to qualify automatically for the finals in Poland and the Ukraine. That Europe's newest football nation scored a surprise 0-0 draw at Wembley last October means that the return match in Podgorica one year on from the shoot-out may be one from which England will still require some kind of result. In reality, we should secure a safe passage through the group, but then most of us said that with two rounds of the Euro 2008 qualifiers remaining. This is England we're talking about after all.

The trouble is I've not been able to get genuinely excited an England match for several years now, even those in the final stages of major tournaments. Ahead of the encounter with Germany in the second round of last year's World Cup, a pal of mine came round and I clearly noticed that he, despite being Irish, was more interested in the outcome of the game than myself. It should be accepted that at least some of that came from both expecting and wanting England to lose, and I swear that from the vantage point of my couch he predicted a 4-1 win for the Germans. That he was perceptive enough to call the scoreline with balls-on accuracy surprised me slightly, although most us who had watched England in South Africa took the view that some sort of catastrophe was imminent.

Thus, I too was highly pessimistic about how the 90 minutes might unfold and I suspect that this forms a central part of my lack of enthusiasm for all things Three Lions. Many of us who actually know something about football have come to realise in recent years that England are, to put it simply, just not very good at it. Our best players still fall stratospheres short of continental Europe and South America in terms of technical ability, and the England team invariably gets caught in a sort of strategic no man's land. Lacking the personnel to play a slow-quick passing style, we are also blighted by the notion that it is somehow wrong to impose the best traits of English football on opponents with whom they will not be familiar.

Competing for every ball, boxing the opposition into their penalty area, making maximum use of set plays and getting in their faces at the first opportunity are all equally valid parts of the game which English players have performed as well as anyone throughout history. The Republic of Ireland over-achieved on an epic scale between 1987 and 1994 by playing a brand of football akin to that seen in the English domestic leagues. In his book, 'Back from the Brink', ROI legend Paul McGrath commented that, "people hated playing us and we revelled in every second of that discomfort". The end product was rarely pretty but almost invariably brought results as the Irish qualified for USA94 from a group involving Spain and reigning European champions Denmark. Meanwhile, England's distinctly over-rated players watched that competition on TV after what could only be described as a nightmare of a qualification campaign.

However England, currently unable to play in one fashion and wishing to distance themselves from another, end up with a side that appears to totally lack direction and a gameplan on the field of play. I guarantee you that the general public would get behind a national team that put together a succession of scrappy single-goal victories. More than anything else, supporters want to be associated with a team that wins and will usually tolerate a rather poor brand of 'entertainment' if the ends justify the means.

The 'golden generation' of English football, the wonderkids of the late 1990s, had their last realistic shot at glory in South Africa, and merely showed us that the hyperbole and myths about their brilliance were nothing but a vast quantity of hot air. The jingoistic tabloid headlines declaring before every tournament that "we're gonna win it" play to the misguided view held by a wide gallery of casual fans that England somehow possess an assortment of world-class players, capable of making match-winning contributions at the highest level. We probably have two such performers at most but are as good as anyone at some of the less sexy aspects of the game that I outlined earlier.

I stopped reading anything in a newspaper which built up national hopes many years ago, as the gutter press in particular become parodies of themselves by perpetuating a cycle of misplaced optimism followed by unnecessary despair. I would expect that I'm light years from being alone in this regard. It is merely a personal view, but the English should play to their strengths and stick to what they are good, certainly until a shift of culture in coaching brings through young players with the requisite levels of skill, awareness and ball control to perhaps try something more sophisticated. However, it is not only the sight of a lost and rudderless team that puts me off the prospect of watching England international matches.

The biggest problem in recent times has been the perception that many English players simply do not regard representing their country as the big deal that it once was. When one weighs up the value in career and particularly financial terms of winning the Premier League or a major European competition, there are clear reasons why a highly-paid professional, whose salary is paid by their club, would see international football as something of a low-level priority, perhaps even to some a small inconvenience. Of course, no active England player has actually put this on record to date, as they are in all likelihood immensely fearful of the backlash that may result. However, the growing trend of players retiring from international football in their peak years to focus on winning Domestic and European club honours indicates that this view has at least some basis in fact.

Moreover, I have seen some genuine comparative evidence with my own eyes. Several years ago I gave up watching England completely and took to rotating between the other home nations' matches as and when their games appeared on terrestrial television. Northern Ireland matches hooked me immediately, and I began to have a great deal more affection for them as an international side than I had held for that of the country of my birth in many years. With a team plucked largely from the English lower leagues, they genuinely saw wearing the green shirt as the pinnacle of their playing career.

It was evident that occasions at the ramshackle Windsor Park ground on a Wednesday night meant more to their fairly average set of players than even a World Cup final would to England's more illustrious stars. This was proved when in 2004 England travelled to Belfast, showed all the enthusiasm of coma patients and were humbled 1-0 by a team that was vastly inferior were the game played on paper, but clearly the hungrier and more committed on the night. Over time the Norn Iron experience grew on me as they caused a series of upsets at Fortress Windsor, most notably an astonishing 3-2 victory over Spain, who subsequently went on to become first European and then World Champions in the tournaments that followed.

Sadly, they are not playing on Saturday having just been somewhat mauled with an experimental line-up in the Nations Cup. Even if they were, any televisual clash with the England game would be highly unlikely, leaving any interested viewer with the option of watching both games and perhaps making a decision at the end as to which one most struck a chord with them. In the absence of anything better to watch or listen to, I will probably take in the Swiss match and proceed to be bored by the inane commentators bigging-up slightly above average players and a spectacle that will in all likelihood result in a dreary and tedious England win.

Then we will get to the finals in Poland and Ukraine and proceed to do what we always do - start the tournament in a blaze of hype and casual tabloid racism about our opponents, only to stumble from one sub-standard performance to another, crashing and burning at no later than the quarter final stage. I wish that as a nation we could accept that England are useless at football - then we could save ourselves from the prolonged torment of this sporting ordeal.

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