Saturday, 24 November 2007

England's Qualifying Failure Down To One Man

Football report for Blogcritics

There’s been much gnashing of teeth and clutching at straws since England’s spectacular failure to qualify for the Euro 2008 championships in Austria/Switzerland. “There’s too many foreigners!” some exalted, as if the strength of the English Premiership impacted badly on domestic players. “We need to train the kids better” others said, as if this campaign has been a result of long-term negligence. “There’s too many egos in the squad!” claimed others, including Sunderland boss Roy Keane. None of that is true; the truth is the problem was plain incompetence by manager Steve McClaren; and the decision to sack McClaren means England have already taken a massive step towards recovery.

England were drawn in a group that they should have found fairly straightforward. Russia and Croatia are both good sides, but neither have much history of achievement in International competition, and neither is currently enjoying a ‘golden generation’ as the English are often said to be. Israel are a third-tier side with only 1 or 2 players who would get near the English squad. Macedonia and the others should have been easy meat for a team like England. Yet a home draw against Macedonia, an away defeat to Croatia, an away draw to Israel, an away defeat to Russia and a crushing final day home defeat to Croatia meant far too many points dropped for England. The Croatia game on Wednesday was particularly galling: needing only a draw to progress, England pulled themselves back from 2-0 down to level it at 2-2. But incredibly they were unable to hold on for the point, in front of 80,000 home supporters, against a team that had nothing to play for. Croatia scored again, England were deflated, Russia went through at their expense. England finished in third, level on points with Israel. McClaren was sacked on Thursday morning.

Typically, there were some Englishmen who were only too willing to pin the blame on foreigners. They claimed that top Premiership clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea flooded their teams with players from Europe, Africa and South America, restricting opportunities for local players. The argument fails for the same reason that the indignant “they take our jobs!” attitude to immigrants fails: because the best man gets the job whatever his nationality, as proven by the key English players who simply cannot be replaced by foreign imports. The cream always rises to the top. If they are good enough, they will break through – and in fact, young players can only benefit from training alongside the likes of Tevez (Argentina), Makelele (France) and Gilberto (Brazil). Besides, England didn’t always have it their way before the Sky TV revolution changed the national make-up of the league: they failed to qualify for six of the 14 tournaments between World Cup success in 1966 and hosting the European Championships 30 years later.

It’s not a so-called ‘grass-roots’ problem either. For that to be true would suggest a long-term malaise. In fact, this current generation of players is dubbed England’s ‘golden generation’ because so many of them are considered world class. Liverpool could not have won the Champions League without the inspirational Stevie Gerrard. Wayne Rooney was a revelation at Euro 2004 and remains one of the best young attackers in the world. Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich can’t find a foreign player remotely suitable to displace John Terry or Frank Lampard from the team, despite his cavernous wealth and fancy for using it. These players are all among the top handful in their position in the world, and with youngsters like Micah Richards and Theo Walcott coming through, the conveyor belt of talent isn’t showing too many signs of slowing.

It’s tempting to agree with Keane that the problem is with the players’ egos. It’s tempting because fans have grown to resent top footballers in many ways: they’re paid vast amounts of money and sometimes look incapable of basic skills, and they lack the sense of devout loyalty to their club that the fans feel. Ashley Cole is a prime example of a footballer the fans love to hate, after he described a wage offer from Arsenal of £35,000 a week as a “piss-take”, and promptly left the club that raised him to join London rivals Chelsea. Players like Cole, Beckham, Lampard, and Owen have such a media presence outwith football that it’s tempting to imagine they practice pouting more than penalty kicks. But to give in to such assumptions is to forget that other countries do well enough with perceived egotists too. Footballers have been top celebrities in Europe for many years now – and it didn’t stop England getting to the World Cup Quarter-Finals just last year.

Has everybody suddenly forgotten that achievement? England played poorly but still got to the last eight, before losing to Portugal in a penalty shoot-out and sacking Sven-Goran Eriksson because that wasn’t good enough! The squad then and the squad now is virtually the same, but in 17 months England have managed to drop from a place among the best eight in the world to a position where they failed to prove themselves to be among the 16 best in Europe. This is no pirates/global warming correlation – this is cause and effect in action - this is exactly what happens when you replace a competent manager with an incompetent manager, and there are dozens of examples to show this throughout football.

Two clear recent examples can illustrate this from two of England’s British counterparts. Under Bertie Vogts, the Scottish media wrote that he suffered from having to work with the worst ever generation of Scots’ players as the team slipped to 88th in the world. Yet just two years after that lowpoint, the same group of players under different management have dragged Scotland up to 14th in the FIFA Rankings and been rechristened as “potential legends”. Similarly, Northern Ireland went 10 games without even scoring a goal under Sammy McIlroy. Lawrie Sanchez took over and led the same players to wins over England, Spain and Sweden. Their leap up the FIFA Rankings was even more impressive than Scotland's: 124th to 33rd under Sanchez. There are countless examples like this that prove that football is as much played on the training field and the tactics board as it is on the pitch on matchday. It’s not always easy for the press or fans to pinpoint exactly where the problems lie, meaning Eriksson was probably criticised for his tactics just as much as McClaren. It’s what we don’t see – the training methods, the team-talks, the dressing-room relationships – that determines whether players perform above and beyond their usual form (as with the Scottish and Northern Irish players), or are pale shadows at International level of their true capabilities, as with the current English squad.

English fans are not being delusional in believing players like Gerrard and Terry are world-class: they consistently prove at club level under top managers that they are. England don’t need knee-jerk reactions; they don’t need to close the borders to foreign imports or make sweeping changes at youth level. They just need to hire a manager who can foster a positive and determined atmosphere within his squad, and communicate his tactical instructions clearly to his array of top players. If he can do that in the dressing-room, we’ll all see the evidence on the pitch.

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