England. Football. Life. The Future.

Friday 2nd July (Andy’s blog)

Now the dust has settled on the rout of England in Bloemfontein, physically if not emotionally, and we have had time to breathe, count to ten, add one for pot and make things neat, where do we go from here?

The same place we always go. Nowhere. Or more specifically not as far as most England fans and media would like to think. Not unless there is some bold, radical and visionary leadership. For that to happen, we need a complete clear out at all levels. The old club tie brigade at the FA, the shoe ins in the team, the profitmeisters at the Premier League, the press hacks for red tops and otherwise all need to be rebooted, or just booted. In short, evolution has left not just English, but British football behind, we either have a revolution – Year Zero – or we continue on the road to nowhere, allowing the free market to capitalise on football or soccer as an ‘entertainment product’. We can mask the cracks, conceptualise and build brands (Club England anyone?), hire all sorts of MBA qualified marketing types and try and buy our way out of trouble or we can look at other nations and learn. Whilst we may think fhat we invented the modern game, and by all accounts The Victorians did, we have been well and truly left in the wake of at least ten other nations. Above all we should invest in youth, and ensure that it is nurtured and allowed the freedom to grow, but whether the youth will behave responsibly and buck the trends of a tearaway nation is anyone’s guess, I wouldn’t back them too heavily.

On the subject of youth, and the reason why I love the World Cup goes way back, forty years. My first memory of watching a World Cup was in 1970. My dad bought a brand new colour TV, we were the first people to get one in the street, complete with a remote control (ok it had a channel and volume button only and was attached to the set by wire, but it was the best gadget ever) just in time for the football. England were reigning world champions and I had collected my stickers, which in those days were printed both sides (player information on the reverse) with a small strip of adhesive across the top. You licked this and carefully applied the player picture in the right position within the book. I proudly collected the whole set in advance of kick off, and my dad also collected the Esso coin collection for me, which featured all 30 of the original squad including fringe players. Names such as Alan Oakes, Keith Newton and his brother Henry, Colin Bell, Peter Bonetti, Peter Storey, Jeff Astle, Ian Storey Moore, Brian Labone and of course Geoff, Martin and the two Bobbys stuck with me. I was glued to every game and remember reading about the effects of altitude in my Shoot magazine, something that had helped Bob Beamon smash the long jump World Record in Mexico City two years earlier, another memory burned into my infant brain. But despite being reigning World Champions, I watched every game we played with my little heart in my mouth. It was my Grandad, West Ham through and through and a football, racing and boxing enthusiast come expert who told me, ‘we’re not that good, always trying to pass the ball into the back of the net instead of cracking one. England are just like West Ham really.’ In the first game against Romania we won 1-0 with Super Geoff (my all time hero) getting the goal, I think. The second game was against the masters, Brazil, the greatest football team I have ever seen. We lost narrowly 1-0 and Jeff Astle missed a sitter. Gordon Banks made the greatest save of all time and Jarzhino netted to win the game. Our last group game was against Czechoslovakia, who we again beat 1-0. And then we went to the quarter finals to face Germany. Don’t forget that there were only 16 teams in those days. 2-0 up and cruising, we lost 3-2, Gerd Muller passed into English paraochial slang for ever more and this little seven year old went to be crying. Everyone ranted on about how England should have played Brazil in the final, but for the Germans ( and of course the Italians who knocked them out in the semis), but that all felt terribly contrived and optimistic, to me even at the time and I was only seven.

Then we really did hit the fallow times two World Cups with no England in it, as an 11 and then as a 15 year old, left to watch Scotland and my second team Italy. I even fell out of love with Brazil on account of them changing from ‘the’ team of pace and skill to a bunch of cloggers in 74, and replaced my warm feelings for them with admiration for the Dutch.

During this time where there were no World Cups as far as England were concerned, English teams won the European Cup, a proper unseeded cup which only allowed the champions of each UEFA member league to enter, a staggering seven times in eight years 1977/78 Liverpool, 79/80 Nottingham Forest, 81 Liverpool, 82 Aston Villa and 84 Liverpool. The English First Division dominated the European Cup. Indeed there were similarities to English Premier League teams dominance of the Champions’ League today even though the competition is a complete misnomer. Yet England was not at the 74 & 78 World Cup and not at the 84 European Championships. Why? When we had the best teams in Europe, could we not actually get our national team near the big prizes? Some would say just like today?

It really is simple. Each of those successful club teams was a mix of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh players, the teams were not English at all just as they are not ‘English’ today.

Our best performance at a World Cup since 1966 in my view was in Spain 82. Most people will quote 1970 or more likely 1990, as it is fresher in the memory and everyone remembers a tearful Gazza and Pavarotti. In 1982, we went with zero expectation. Zero. It was the first World Cup I could attend, and I went hell for leather to get there. England had a good manager, Ron Greenwood, and a brilliant skipper, Bryann Robson. We/he scored the fastest ever goal in World Cup football (37 seconds) against a team we fully expected to beat us, France. We won 3-1 and then went on to beat Czechoslovakia 2-0 and Kuwait 1-0, I remember the Kuwait management taking their team off in protest when ‘er scored. We played all of our games in Bilbao, and if there were more than 2000 England fans in Spain, I would be surprised. We had a ball, but were treated like scum by the police and locals, lived in fear of our lives but the trip and the camraderie was unbelievable. The next round was a weird round ronin of three games. We drew Spain and Germany, drew 0-0 with both and went out on goal difference. France went on to the semi finals to lose an epic to Germany, indeed Battison lost his teeth in an epic fashion to Harald Schumacher and Italy won the cup again after 44 years or so. Indeed a superb French side came to their peak 2 years later and lifted the Euorpean Championships in 84 when we failed to qualify, and 3rd place in 86.

We actually went to Mexico with more hope only to have an absolute nightmare. Again as was the custom in those days we played all our games as seeds in one city, Monterrey and lost our opener 1-0 to Portugal. Facing Morocco in the second round, we did an Algeria and drew 0-0. Ray Wilkins got sent off in one of the games and was replaced thereafter ny Peter Reid and Bryann Robson’s shoulder also went. Faced with a win or bust game to get out of the group, we beat Poland 3-0 at half time. Second round meant moving to Mexico City and our opponents were little known Paraguay again beaten 3-0 and we then stayed in Mexico City for the quarter finals against Argentina. You all know what happened next!

Euorpean Championships in 88 were another mess, which goes to prove that we can’t beat the elite. Losing 1-0 to Republic of Ireland, 3-1 to Holland and 3-0 to Russia confirmed how poor we had become.

The modern legend of Italia 90 saw us based in Caligari the capital of Sardinia. It started with a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland, during which there was an electric storm, after which the English press demanded that we were brought home, such was the team’s performance deemed ‘disgraceful’. We outplayed the European Champions Holland, who we had lost 3-1 to in that tournament, but could only draw 0-0, I remember Pearce scored a goal at the end which was disallowed as the ball went in direct from an indirect free kick and Gazza did a Cruyff down the left to everyone’s wonderment. The final game saw a change of tactics brought about by the players, whereby Mark Wright joined the back four to create a back five, swept everything up in front of him and scored the vital goal to beat Egypt 1-0 and sneak through. Second round saw us in Bologna to play a tidy Belgian side. That was an epic, us winning 1-0 with a goal in the 120th and last minute of the game. We were lucky that night given that Belgium’s Jan Cuelemanns had a good goal ruled offside. Onwards to Naples to play everyone’s faces that year, Cameroon. Two penalties led the way for a narrow 3-2 and the semi inTurin. Again everyone knows the story that night. One abiding memory for me was watching the West German subs warm up before the game and thinking to myself ‘they are all bigger, stronger, fitter than is and all of them can trap a ball easily and move it. Oh dear, oh dear!

The euphoria of Italia 90 was driven by the same press who wanted the team home after the opener. Bobby Robson, who I had seen personally hounded by the hacks whilst we were staying in the same hotel as him and coach Don Howe, was elevated to mythical status and legends were born. The fact was we had not beaten a front line top 8 team, just like in 86.

The completely briliant FA decided to appoint Graham ‘do I not like that’ Taylor as we coincidentally entered another barren spell – an appalling Euro 92 campaign in Sweden followed by non qualification for USA 94.

Those idiots woke up in time for Euro 96 which needed no qualification in any case as we were at home, and Terry Venables took a decent England team to another semi final and another defeat by Germany. We just don’t seem to beat anyone of any substance when we have to, ie once we get into the knock out stages. Ok, a brilliant perfomance against a strong Holland team did stand out, but ultimately we do not win against the big teams. France 98, another manager (Hoddle) more press revelations (faith healing) and another early exit to a big team, our friends Argentina again. The story just goes on and on. Holland & Belgium in 2000 saw us take a wholly undeserved 2-0 lead in Eindhoven against a superb Portugal who went on to beat us 3-2, giving us a proper footballing lesson just like the Germans did in Bloemfontein last Sunday. A 1-0 win agaisnt a terrible German side was the only bright spot as we lost to Romania (again) and went home before progressing.

Japan in 2002 saw a far better approach under Eriksson. A draw with Sweden and Nigeria (both of who were decent teams) left us needing a result against Argentina and we got it courtesy of Beckham’s penalty. The siege on our goal in the second half could not reverse the half time lead and we progressed into the second round, dismissing a handy Denmark 3-0 (again like Poland 16 years before, all over at half time). Then back to type losing a quarter final against Brazil, who we never beat when it matters. The press slated Sven for not attacking Brazil when they went down to 10 men, something I felt was harsh at the time and harsh today. Brazil went on to win it. Just like Argentina did in 86 and Germany in 90.

Portugal hosted an expectant England in 2004 for the European championships and again we fell at the quarter finals, to the hosts.

Germany in 2006 was about as good, football wise as this World Cup. Beating Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago and a draw with Sweden, allowed us to sneak past Ecquador. Then we faced Portugal again and lost on penalties, again.

Enter the FA who decided Sven was going to be replaced by Graham Taylor II, Steve McLaren and we predictably failed to qualify again for the European Championships in Switzerland and Austria. That was no big deal as we never do anything at European Championships, there are no easy teams from Oceania, Asia or Africa to beat or draw, instead they are all savvy European teams who work out how we play and how not to lose against us.

So you see our expectations are unrealistic. We have not beaten any team of real significance in a knock out game since 1966. Instead we have been beaten by Germany 5 times, Argentina twice, Brazil once and Portugal twice. Given Portugal are not one of the top teams down the years, it goes to show that if we draw Brazil, Argentina or Germany in a knock out match we lose. Who have we really beaten in World Cups or European Championships when it matters? Spain is the only top nation and that was on penalties.

So what can England do to change this? Indeed can they change? Maybe ditching the arrogance and accepting we are not world beaters is a start. Rebuild from the top down and bottom up. If England are not careful they will get dealt the same fate as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland whereby those nations have slipped down the FIFA and UEFA rankings so far that qualification for major tournaments becomes harder and harder and ultimately highly unlikely.

Indeed is it time to bury the hatchet, take inspiration from the seventies and build a Great Britain team after all we have done rather well at the Olympics recently by ‘backing winning sports’ with resource and claiming gold in cycling, rowing and sailing. One GB team would be stronger as the sum
rather than the parts. National investment would be needed, but borrowing the key lessons, processes and approaches of the gold standard Olympic teams would be radical. It would mean we could also enter an Olympic team and use that as a springboard for youth, alongside the UEFA and FIFA youth tournaments. Obviously this would not happen, given that all of the home nations have self interest geared normally around money and jobs for the boys, but surely it would improve the collective standing of British teams?

The FA could even be nationalised and receive lottery funding to produce results by investing in infrastructure independently of the mercenaries and bottom line focused Premier League. It seems that the Premier League’s relationship with the FA nowadays is somewhat tenuous so why don’t the FA look to break away completely and choose non Premier League players for England, given that they may be hungrier for the shirt and the prestige. Who knows, in time, a Premier League with the same 20 teams season in and season out would be even more impotent. The FA could merge with the Football League or at least co-operate and work for the benefit of the NATIONAL game rather than the club game. This would build bridges with legions of increasingly older and disenfranchised fans, vital if the game is going to have a life outside of Sky. Before we all howl about the Premier League being the best in the world think about it. Only 4 teams have won it and one of those was Blackburn. The only team who look like they may break into the current monopoly is cash rich Man City, hoping ape former also rans Chelsea, who used to be much like Citeh. Fans are tired of the boredom, tired of the same teams, tired of the expense, tired at the stark commercialism and exploitation. Just look at the mess the ‘owners’ of Manchester United and Liverpool have created with their models based on ‘leveraged debt’ and ‘brand building’.

And finally, the press/media simply have too much power and influence. Despite few of the lead journalists ever having kicked a ball in their life, many relish the role of kingmakers. In this World Cup, Henry Winter and the rest of the press corps always wanted a 4-5-1 system and many punters, players and pundits agreed after the Algeria game that a change to this system felt right. Capello was too stubborn to change. But Winter, Paul Hayward and Oliver Holt are also big friends with ‘Ashley’, ‘Lamps’ and ‘JT’ as they are referred to by those three and the rest of the hacks who write for the daily newspapers and report for Sky. Indeed they all have contracts to appear on Sky every Sunday morning to dissect and give us their ‘inside track’ on the Premier League and football in general. Sky are the main revenue source for the Premier League and international football gets in the way of the ever so precious Premier League. Indeed Sky is not a World Cup broadcaster and probably hates not to be officially involved. Hardly surprising that the Premier League decide to issue their fixtures for next season shortly after the World Cup started. It is almost as if the Premier League acts like a spoilt brat any time football is mentioned and the Premier League misses out. Between the broadcasters, the critics and the producers of the entertainment there is a cosy little relationship one that maybe should not be trusted by the ordinary club and/or country fan. After all, it rarely seems critical does it?

To close off I will leave you with this thought. In my day job I get involved with politicans and members of Her Majesty’s. Government and was speaking to one prominent MP a while ago about targetted tax breaks for video games production in the UK. I suggested that we invest in the way that other winning nations have done, such as Canada, France and Australia. I also suggested that we need to join up the education system with industry. We the games industry need more maths and science students and the country needs more achievement in those basic subjects. If it were football maths and science would be tackling and passing.

The MP said to me that ‘picking winners’ within industry was not fair and not sustainable. Instead we should look to ‘winning’ examples of the free market such as the Premier League and Manchester United. I said that was all very well, but a completely free market such as the Premier League, you can end up with disenfranchised customers (fans) and a very weak national side, unless grass roots investment was attended to alongside targetted help to build a national team. Also just look at the mess at Manchester United, now free marketeers and business has taken over. Much like the Premier League, the video games industry is in good shape. Dig deeper however and you find a tale of lost and wasted talent,British talent, cut adrift and sometimes not even spotted, by market forces. Where we once led the way, we are lucky to follow and pick scraps from the floor, because we don’t learn and we don’t do what other nations do.

Cast your eye over to the Bundesliga or the Spanish league and you will see targetted efforts by national associations to build a winning and sustainable national team. None of the current German squad play outside of the German league. 20 out of 23 players in the Spanish squad play at home.

Back in 1998 Germany lost their World Cup second round to Croatia. It was a shock. Two years later Germany were beaten 1-0 by England and did not progress from the group stage of Euro 2000, a year later England beat them 5-1 in Munich in the World Cup 02 qualifier. Germany set about a root and branch review, they invested in youth and coaching. People like Franz Beckenbauer run the game and provide the vision and the voice, not some businessman with a suit as seems to be the case in our leagues and set up. The results of this are starting to be seen and we certainly had a lesson thrown at us last week in Bloemfontein. Not many stars, let alone superstars, but plenty of strength, skill, pace and committment. And youth. I doubt their players are discussing their cribs, Baby Bentleys and Wags.

Proper investment and leadership could result in an English or even radically a British football team doing well in ten years time. The only things that stand between that are money, the Premier League, the media and of course time. The kids are out there, can someone with a football heritage start taking them and us fans seriously, please?

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