I have to admit that watching England make easy work of the Moldovan national team on Friday in their opening World Cup Qualifier for Brazil 2014 was a pleasant experience in direct contrast to their previous competitive match in the Euro2012 Quarter Final loss against Italy in the early summer. Gone were the stifling defensive tactics and the lack of ambition to score. We were even treated to long spells of English possession even though the playing surface was less than ideal and a five goal victory was certainly something to be happy about, but, and yes, you knew there was a but, this was Moldova.
When the draw for the UEFA Qualification for Brazil 2014 was made, I had already penciled in 12 guaranteed points for England with a total of four games against San Marino and Moldova. Both of these teams are ranked at or below the 140th level in world football and are considered to be in the bottom 3 or 4 teams in Europe, so it isn’t that difficult to expect a clean sweep at home and away against both these teams. Now I know as well as the next man that you can only beat what is in front of you and there is no doubt that Roy Hodgson’s side turned in an efficient performance on Friday to kick start their path to Brazil. They were clinical and effective with several key players missing and so for that reason, I applaud the performance. What bothers me is that given the level of the opposition, the proverbial back slapping from media and pundits is quite disheartening and completely misplaced. The continued glorification of aging stars in matches like this is incredible to watch. If this was an FA Cup match at club level, and Man City hammered Fleetwood Town 5-0, it would not even be a blip on the radar of any educated football fans, but because this is England, we all rush to dribble and drool over ourselves prematurely thinking that we have become a so much better team, only to be faced with the exact opposite reaction, once we stumble predictably against the better teams in subsequent matches. It reminds me very much of the sport at youth level. What kind of logic suggests that suddenly players like Frank Lampard become more valuable after a game like this when it’s clear his future in an England shirt should be over. There comes a point in every player’s career where it’s time to move on. Apparently, that is simply not the case for some England players.
One thing I learnt from watching England in South Africa in 2010 and also this summer in Poland and Ukraine, was that we are seriously challenged to maintain competition with the better teams in world football. Forget the miserable fact that FIFA ranks England as the “third best team in the world”, a statistic that ridicules the ranking system more than it indicates quality. Probably at no time in the last 30-40 years has English football faced the challenges that stand in front of them now. English players are struggling to make their starting line-ups in the Barclay’s Premier League and criticisms of our youth development programs has rained down for years now, not least from myself, but the overriding issue as I see it is no different than it was under previous manager Fabio Capello. The root cause is the system.
I do not necessarily subscribe to the fact that English players are of seriously inferior quality than their equivalents elsewhere in world football. They are different in style for sure but still have their value and for that reason, I look elsewhere for the problems, and I have to say that I continue to come down hard on the way England managers pick their teams. Roy Hodgson came into this job on the back of a shambolic process by the FA which left him no time to prepare his best squad for the Euro2012 tournament, so he was left with trying to make the best of a bad job. He introduced some younger players into the mix and left in veterans to try to put in a solid performance that wouldn’t embarrass anyone and I think for the most part he achieved that. Fast forward to the current situation and we have a different set of circumstances. A new season with a new set of goals. I would have thought that now would be a golden opportunity to sweep clean with a new broom and move out those players that in two years probably won’t feature in Brazil. Unfortunately, it seems that he has neglected to move forward and the further he goes in this qualifying process, the harder it will get to wield the sword.
To my horror, in the starting line-up for Friday, we saw Milner, Lampard and Terry all out there again, trotting around, piling up the caps with younger players gazing across from the bench. Gary Cahill, Danny Welbeck, and others all sat while these proven carthorses went through their paces. Of course, Frank Lampard chimes in with a couple of goals which now probably “cement” his place in the line-up through the qualifiers and when you cast your mind back even as far as the reign of Sven Goran Eriksson, complaints about whether Gerrard and Lampard can play together at all were loud at that time. Surprisingly enough, Gerrard was substituted at half time. Some things never change.
It seems to me that the England manager’s job is similar to being Prime Minister. You want the job so bad you’ll do anything to get it, but when you do land the position, you become consumed with the fear of not doing anything radical in fear of getting kicked out, but in the end, that’s what happens anyway. Hodgson may have some surprises ahead for us and he will have some tough decisions to make when Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Jack Wilshere return to fitness, but the fervor that seems to have gripped the media over the past few days will predictably turn to crap if England fail to impress against much tougher opposition in Ukraine at Wembley on Tuesday. At that point, the same old criticisms will surface and Hodgson’s seat will be the hottest ticket in town, again.
Life as an England fan is like being imprisoned in a torture chamber with no hope of release. The worst part is it’s all self-inflicted.