Quite predictably following an over-hyped victory over football minnows Moldova last week, England’s 3rd ranked senior side struggled to salvage a 1-1 draw against a stubborn Ukraine side at Wembley stadium last night. A late Frank Lampard penalty salvaged a lame point for a team that labored to contain the East Europeans who were content to allow England to have the ball for long periods, content that their opponents could not capitalize. A point is better than no points but the bigger questions lie below the surface at the start of a new World Cup qualifying campaign.
Following last week’s Moldova game, press and fans alike couldn’t fall over themselves fast enough to shower England with praise following a solid 5-0 win over a team ranked at 141st in the world. England swept aside no more than a “pub” team to take three points and with Ukraine up next, the whole country fully expected another three points despite the obvious improved quality of the opposition. At the end of an endless summer of success for British sports fans, it was no more than should be expected as surely our senior players should make relatively easy work of a team that could be described as no more than “troublesome”. The problem with that theory lies in several key areas which football people in England refuse to recognize. They are issues that have been left festering since the dark days of 2010 when England’s World Cup effort came to a shattering end at the hands of a rampant Germany team.
It was clear that after the Germany game two years ago, England were in serious decline as a world football power. They continued to rely on many veteran regulars who were thought to be up there in quality but in fact, on examination, proved to be nothing of the sort. Manager Fabio Capello claimed to be in full control of events and that we had done well as a country but it was obvious to any educated observer, things were badly out of sync. I had said at that time that we should now clean house and change up the system. Older players, who it seemed had lost interest, needed to be replaced, and younger players brought through to begin the long rebuilding process. I had even advocated that we should have declared that our target was the World Cup in 2014 and that Euro 2012 would be a development stage for the “new” look team. However, as is the case in English football these days, nothing goes according to any common sense plan. Even when Capello finally handed in his keys and Roy Hodgson took over the reins, it was pretty much the same look, although to Hodgson’s credit, he did try introducing some younger talent into the equation. A limp end to Euro2012 left a sour taste in the mouth as our style of play became worrying. Focus on defense with little attacking adventure did not bode well for the future and fringe players continued to sit on the bench in favor of the Milners, Lampards, and Terrys of the world.
What to me became even more maddening recently was the general attitude of football people towards the tremendous summer of sports success that British athletes enjoyed this year. Success after success in golf, tennis, and particularly London2012 showed that British talent could be competitive with the world’s best given the correct environment. However, the much vaunted TeamGB football teams were easily eliminated from Olympic competition and the writing was somewhat on the wall for how fans would begin to react once the new football season began. Surely enough, football people started to resent the comparisons between our players and athletes from other sports. Claims that somehow football was different, and more “tribal”, looked foolish when compared against questions about why the sport couldn’t just strive for excellence in the same manner that was so obvious in many other sports. Conflicting comments from key individuals associated with England illustrated the total confusion that seems to surround the set-up. The general feeling of apathy was borne out as England walked out onto a Wembley field with empty seats all around the iconic stadium. Clearly the approach of sports fans towards football players who represent their country is a world away from the affection with which the likes of Rory McIlroy, Brad Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Andy Murray, and Jessica Ennis are hailed.
People may ask what can be done at this point to transform the game of football. The answer is at this point, nothing. The dye has been set already by the reluctance of influential football people at the national level to make any sweeping changes to the way the sport is run. We have a talented group of young players but our senior players are gripped by a fear of failure that we, as fans, can almost taste. The selection process is so archaic that we sit our best players on the bench and trot out older veterans who have proven records of inconsistency. Other British athletes have had their miserable times as both Andy Murray and Rory McIlroy have stumbled at crucial moments. Failure has been part of their history, but here’s the difference. They consistently challenge themselves and they continue to strive forward for excellence. Football in England, and Britain for that matter, does none of that. We are content to spew forth praise when undeserved, and also spit fire and criticism when undeserved too, but nothing ever changes. The ship continues to sail along, leaning to one side, buffeted by a wind of change that threatens to sink the ship completely, but carrying on regardless. I seem to remember a movie of that name back in the ’60′s. Appropriate to say the least.
You’ll notice I’ve neglected to really break down tonight’s game tactically. My feeling is that it really doesn’t matter what the nature of the performance is if the structure of what is on show is so fundamentally wrong. There’s a reason why fans stay away from England games now and it has nothing to do with the economy. It’s called apathy and the FA has created a monster all on it’s own that now, it can;t get rid of.
Tonight was just another stumble along the rocky path that is England football. A point gained or two points lost. It really doesn’t matter. We still make the same mistakes, regurgitate the same old excuses and slowly, the youth of football in the UK slowly dribbles away. While euphoria grips the nation in other ways, the national sport drains the starch from fans who are becoming increasingly frustrated with administrators, coaches and players. Fans of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fared no better tonight as all British teams floundered.
Bring on San Marino. I just can’t wait.