The Perrenial Underachievers
by Simon Garfield
Sunday November 26, 2006
Oh how long ago it seems. That gleaming trophy, those flags on every car, that young boy who had never played a professional game, that very tall boy who did a barmy dance, those wives and girlfriends with their extending hair, that red card for the greatest player, those three missed penalties, one by one by one, that shiny-headed man who hadn't the foggiest.
And now, six months later, how cold it is in our thin England shirts as we struggle against the Macedonians, and how far away is South Africa in 2010, and how clueless seems the new manager. But it never ends, this unaccountable optimism, for what is this warming up along the touchline? It is our faith in divine intervention. For how young still is our greatest player, and how fast and dazzling is he, and how relentless our ambition and blind our vision, and how our supermarkets are once more full of merch. How sure we are that next time we will be the envy of all nations again and lift something golden on a beautiful day in early July, as we jam up Piccadilly Circus with car horns and the kissing of strangers.
What a terrible, unrealistic cycle. Why do we put ourselves through it?
If you're not a little Englander, this was a good World Cup, almost a great one. The stadiums were finished, most fans behaved, the hosts were hospitable and the football was exciting from the 4-2 feast of the first match to the Zidane lunacy in the last. We had magnificent goals from Maxi Rodriguez, Philipp Lahm, Deco, Joe Cole and the 24-touch Argentinians. We applauded the early crappiness of the French and the superb madness of Graham Poll. And the English: we were not 'going home by the weekend' as Germans sang outside our hotels, but stuttered through, default after default, into the knockout stages where the decent teams lay in wait with their lethal abilities to expose the holes and hilarity in our 'formations'. So of course it wasn't long before John Terry was crying on the pitch while the Portuguese leapt around him, and we went out into the streets after the game and a real depression descended on a hoarse country. It was a clear night and warm, and that clammy feeling we had that we were not good enough to sustain an assault from 12 yards, let alone endure a competition that lasted a month? Well, that was the truth.
When did the rot set in? The Rooney injury? The Lampard-Gerrard conundrum? The Sven-Goran Eriksson appointment? The departure of Sir Alf Ramsey? Winston Churchill and the spirit of the Blitz? Perhaps we should begin in early May 2006, with Eriksson on a high Dave Allen stool announcing the squad. Theo Walcott must have been thrilled when you told him, one reporter ventured in an admiring tone (many of the tones were admiring back then and some were fawning: following an interview between Eriksson and Garth Crooks, Eamon Dunphy said that it was the first time he had seen two men having sex on the BBC). Sven explained that he had not yet spoken to Walcott, so he would learn of his inclusion ahead of Darren Bent, Andy Johnson and Jermain Defoe from the media. New management technique.
Otherwise, it was all nervous smiles: 'I think we have one of the best teams in the world, absolutely,' Eriksson said. 'The squad is very, very strong.' And how strong, say, against Brazil? 'Well I hope we can meet them in the semi-final and beat them. But first of all we have to start practising ...'
Unusual, junior playground verb. Does Mourinho take his team practising? Or Arsene or Sir Alex? But for once Eriksson may have had one over on us: England's final warm-up match ended with a 6-0 thrashing of Jamaica, something akin to practising against a wall. Peter Crouch scored three and when he danced you had to shield your eyes from the horror of it. It was the last performance under Sven that was in any way convincing and was just the thing to create a false sense of conviction that we had a shot at progressing to at least the semi-finals. But how much did the players believe it? A few weeks before flying to Germany, John Terry told readers of this magazine to take it easy. 'I do think it's hyped up a bit. I think if you left it alone and you let the whole nation build up to it together as we slowly go on through the tournament ... Mr Eriksson done great for us and it's time he was moving on. As a country we have got a good chance, but let's not hype it up and say we've got a very good chance. We need that little bit of luck.'
The luck came early - a favourable group draw. And it ran out four minutes after we took to the pitch in the first game against Paraguay, following that early own goal that gave England a 1-0 victory in the gruelling heat that appeared to take the team quite by surprise. We didn't seem to be fit enough for the conditions, not least Michael Owen, retired after 10 minutes of the second half. Striking substitute not used: Theo Walcott. Confusing substitute used to botch up system and bamboozle team-mates: Stewart Downing.
Against Trinidad & Tobago - Rooney's return, Crouch and Gerrard's very late winners, and 80 minutes of head-scratching - England again showed the world how best to play below one's abilities. A little later, on our way home, Lampard and others spoke of how we didn't deserve to lose, deserved indeed to go all the way. Why was this precisely? It was because we still heard Kenneth Wolstenholme and David Coleman more clearly than we heard Alan Green and Alan Hansen. Or as Coleman almost said: we couldn't believe what was not happening to us.
As it was, England did proceed, from the 2-2 draw against Sweden (such a good start, such a daring goal from Joe Cole, such a shambolic end) to the dispiriting 1-0 victory against Ecuador. And the quarter-final against Portugal? Too burnt in the brain to bear recall, although one feature bears repeating. As penalties neared, the players had only to think of a training session earlier in the week. The team spot-kicked against David James and Paul Robinson. No pressure, only a practice. Frank Lampard scored three out of three, but no one else did. Gerrard, Carragher, the Coles, Hargreaves, Lennon and young Theo - high, wide, saved, fluffed.
What can we take from this World Cup beyond disillusion? Astonishingly, Eriksson still takes a salary (the FA will continue to reward his performance until next summer, or when he gets another job). Surprisingly, Owen Hargreaves emerged with plaudits, only to go back to Bayern and break his leg. Other players still suffer each week with a hangover: Cristiano Ronaldo soaking up the boos for his winning penalty and chilling wink to the Portugal bench ('done and done!') as Rooney saw red; Lampard facing a new chant on his travels: 'You let your country down.' And then we have the autobiographies - advances agreed in anticipation, manuscript delivered in desperation, some of the sales figures counted on fingers - with Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and Ferdinand on the reasons for the gloom: we let ourselves down; we were unlucky with injuries and cards; good experience for next time! You could search for a month before finding any genuine sadness at Eriksson's departure, or much enthusiasm for the business-as-usual accession of Steve McClaren. Occasionally, an honest insight: 'Personally,' Rio Ferdinand explained, 'I feel that if you haven't played well you need to be told to buck your ideas up ... Under Sven that wasn't the case. I never heard anybody get a bollocking during his time as manager or get so much as a "listen, you're not doing this right".' From Steven Gerrard on the final game: 'Almost immediately we had a reality check. Portugal surprised me by how well they kept the ball ...' And Gerrard again on the flight home: 'We were the Golden Generation ... We were just not as good as we think we are.'
And so it is that the England flags still flutter in the general direction of Switzerland and Austria for Euro 2008 and South Africa for the next World Cup. For that, ultimately, is our triumph: we are a nation of good branding. How else to explain Umbro's claim that the England shirt is the biggest seller in the world? Why else to cart home the charmless spilth created by the 45 companies licensed by the FA to bear the England lions? A while ago it used to be the football that provided the best memories, but now we have the crested facecloths and souvenir deodorants.
And yet we continue to follow the team when there are better things to do. 'It's unique,' Eriksson observed not long before his departure. 'The people who are there an hour before the kick-off, standing in the rain, the wind and the cold, drinking a beer outside the pub, talking football, singing, in shirtsleeves even when it's freezing. It's unbelievable. It's England.' Rather too true, alas.
Simon Garfield's latest book is Private Battles: Our Intimate Diaries - How the War Almost Defeated Us (Ebury)