Echoes from the 1950s as England play the degeneration game

Here’s a kind of quiz. See if you can identify which England games these six observations relate to.

1. “The modern youngster must not only be thoroughly groomed in the skills of the game but have instilled into him the arts of positioning, covering and team-work.”

2. “There is something wrong when a leading football nation struggles to produce players with the technical or tactical sophistication to emulate the skills of their counterparts in France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and beyond”.

3. “Forwards quickly moved onto position. A few passes lured England’s defenders upfield. Once that had been done, a well-placed through-pass [created] a clear path to goal.”

4. “When it comes to football, England players are not very bright.”

5. “I condemn them for spending ridiculous sums on transfers instead of spending it on the talent that exists on their own doorsteps.”

6. “The English players too often made wild passes.”

The first, third, fifth and sixth quotes were all published in Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly after England’s double humiliation by Hungary in 1953 and 1954: the 6-3 defeat at Wembley and the 7-1 walloping in Budapest. The second is Oliver Kay’s depressed, frustrated pondering on France’s routine 2-1 victory over England. And the fourth is Martin Samuel’s frank assessment of the disaster in Bloemfontein – although, in 1954, Buchan makes the same point: “We have not enough brainy players in the game today.”

Watching a rerun of England v France, especially the latter stages where the Three Lions lumped it up to the big man, it was hard not to be reminded, too, of another piece the great, much distrusted maverick genius Len Shackleton wrote in Charlie Buchan’s magazine: “To quote the greatest coach of them all, Jimmy Hogan, our soccer is becoming the wrong type of ‘B’s’. Jimmy says football is, above all, both B’s – Brains and Ball Control, and not Bash and Boot.” On the evidence of the most recent 90 minutes, England’s technical ability is roughly on a par with Wagner’s mastery of the vocal arts on The X Factor.

Apparently Wednesday evening's edition of The Apprentice attracted 6.9 million viewers, 200,000 more than watched the second half of the England game. When two long running reality TV shows go head to head it’s a tough choice. Here are two increasingly predictable melodramas, with gruff authoritarian figures at their centre, surrounded by an increasingly shambolic cast. Presumably more viewers plumped for The Apprentice because Alan Sugar’s English is slightly better than Fabio Capello’s and, more importantly, at least on BBC1 you had the satisfaction of knowing one of the incompetent amateurs on display would get fired.

You can only imagine what Sugar would say to Gareth Barry...

Does anyone actually enjoy watching England play at the moment? About once a month, my wife buys a CD which she describes as “music to read by”. Under Capello, England are increasingly playing football to read by

If France, as Henry Winter suggested, are playing the regeneration game, England seem to be in the degeneration game. Maybe it’s time, as Bruce Forsyth used to say, to play the generation game – forget Euro 20102 and build a team around Wilshere, Rodwell, and McEachran for 2014 and beyond.

The mention of Forsyth makes we wonder if the issues here go far beyond football. There was much consternation in England when the legendary all-round entertainer that is Brucie failed to conquer America in the 1980s. But the great Jackie Mason wasn’t surprised. The Americans had heard, Mason acknowledged, that Bruce could sing, dance and tell jokes – what people had forgotten to mention was that he couldn’t do any of them very well. Maybe that has replaced hooliganism as the English disease…

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