So what if hardly anybody showed up to last Wednesday's friendly? It's happened plenty of times before after big tournaments, says Nick Moore. Now it's about what happens next...
Football fans have always been suckers. It’s hard to imagine a business, or branch of the entertainment industry, which treats its consumers so horrifically, yet sees them flooding back for more punishment time and again.
If a microwave manufacturer turned out a product that blew our home to smithereens, making us extremely angry and our children cry, we’d vigorously sue them.
If the Royal Shakespeare Company pranced around Stratford-Upon-Avon half-heartedly for 90 minutes, refusing to say their lines properly and wearing their slacks backwards, they’d soon find themselves without an audience.
Yet every season we return to our clubs, optimistic in the face of all evidence, paying through the nose for the privilege, and we are hurt, enraged and upset by what we see. Then we buy the t-shirt. International football is no different. But is there a limit to how much we can tolerate?
The 40,181 fans who attended England vs Norway at Wembley last Wednesday night suggests that perhaps there is. This was the lowest crowd for a Three Lions home match since the national stadium was rebuilt seven years ago. The swathes of empty seats looked awful on the TV – if you could even be bothered tuning in for such a meaningless match, that is.
Faith in England’s young side is also in the doldrums. Why did England do so well at Italia '90? “World-class players,” Gary Lineker once told FourFourTwo. “Look around that team: Shilton, Pearce, Walker, Butcher, Waddle, Beardsley, Barnes, Gascoigne. It’s pretty simple – teams with individuals that good in them do well.” Now look around the current England squad. How many can you argue are truly world class, as you could with eight or nine of Lineker’s picks?
“We must win the fans back,” stressed captain Wayne Rooney. “We are going to work hard for the fans who are there – and the ones who aren’t,” added manager Roy Hodgson. Many supporters have had enough, however.
“I grew up in London and used to go to watch England at Wembley all the time, but I can’t really be bothered with it these days,” says fed up fan Roy James, 40. “It’s so expensive now that you really think twice about bothering to lay out so much cash, and the side have been so disappointing for such a long time. It’s hard to see us becoming a force again.”
Yet is it time to read the Three Lions their last rites? Far from it. Yes, we’re a bit grumpy with the state of our rabble. Yes, the Norway crowd was the dampest of squibs. But those predicting that the end is nigh have got short memories. There have always been peaks and troughs in England’s support.
In December 1995, for example, just 28,529 souls watched Terry Venables’ men draw 1-1 with Portugal in a Wembley friendly. Six month later, 76,798 packed in as England thrashed Holland 4-1 at Euro '96.
A decade earlier in 1986, just 35,300 had watched Bobby Robson’s England face Northern Ireland under the Twin Towers. But by 1987, 92,000 packed Wembley for the visit of Brazil. A couple of years on again, just 15,628 bowled up as the Three Lions tackled Chile. These things are fluid.
“It’s the nature of beast,” an FA spokesman told FFT before the Norway match. “The choice of opposition and the perceived state of the English seniors side means we didn’t sell a lot of tickets. We pre-plan these things and commit to host games. Some are more popular than others, and there are lessons to be learned.
“But we expect support to pick up for the Euro qualifiers. The smaller games are an opportunity for everyone to get tickets to see England if they want them. Passion for England doesn’t die, and it doesn’t take much for interest to be triggered again. You just need a fresh wind to blow through English football.”
Compared to other nations, England always attract good crowds, he adds. “Around 40,000 would not be considered poor attendance in most countries. But we accept that you will be measured from your starting point, and there is no escaping the fact that for the Norway match, the crowd voted with their feet. They are disappointing numbers.”
Long live Sven
Some England watchers are more concerned, though. Mark Perryman, founder of the London England Fans group, thinks the poor Norway gate is the sign of something deeper.
“England have always had strong support, and I always quote the fact that our under-21 teams tend to draw more fans than a lot of European nations get for their senior team,” he says. “But the FA didn’t build Wembley to have it a third full. They thought that it would sell out every game, and it’s a real problem for them.
“The nightmare scenario is when the 10-year tickets come up for renewal in a couple of years. A lot of people might not bother. For me, England are seriously lacking in players who can put bums on seats. The last one to do that was David Beckham. It’s nothing to do with the recession. The tickets aren’t bad value.”
“I fear there is a spectre of a long term decline for England,” he continues. “I now look back on the Sven-Goran Eriksson era as a golden one. We did pretty well in those tournaments. Now I see team after team overtake England, and we could end up in a similar spiral of decline to Scotland.”
Perryman even feels football’s status as the national sport is under threat. “Look at the Rugby World Cup coming up. England have a chance of winning that. Look at the millions who turned out to watch the Tour de France in the UK this summer. It ignited the public interest in the way our footballers can’t at the moment.”
And a key problem? Wembley itself. “The decision to build the new stadium was a mistake,” says Perryman. “When England went on the road from 2000 to 2006 was the best period ever as a fan. It was an experiment in devolution that worked, and we became a true national team. Now we’re looking at a half-full stadium. You can be sure the sponsors won’t like that when they next talk to the FA.”
Not that it’ll stop Perryman, or us, from supporting the side. Ultimately, a decent run of results and an exciting new player or two might swing the pendulum back the other way, and be enough to get the grudging thousands believing again and wandering up Wembley Way. Or it might not. Only one thing is for sure: we’re all masochists. That’s why we chose football. Hit us one more time, Roy.