Despite all the early optimism about youthful promise, England have crashed and burned in Brazil. Neil Humphreys thinks short-termism in the English Premier League is very much to blame.
In many, awful ways, Harry Redknapp should be England manager. His latest jingoistic nonsense about the average Johnny Foreigners having the audacity to defeat those magnificent millionaires in their Premier League machines pretty much sums up the Three Lions farce.
Redknapp was indignant, irate, incandescent, as he often is when a footballer’s allegiance to the St George’s Flag is in doubt, or someone asks to see his tax records, or one of his players smacks a stray ball against the back of his head in training. To underscore his frothing, foaming disgust, he revealed that a few Tottenham players had begged him to come up with an excuse to miss an England game in the past. He decides now is the time to make such a revelation, when the England camp is in disarray and Roy Hodgson’s future remains uncertain. He’s all class is our Harry.
But his vein-bulging jingoism makes him the best and worst man for the job. His laughably insular analysis of England’s World Cup opponents in Group D neatly summarizes the parochialism that still clings to the country like a leech to the St George’s Flag. Italy and Uruguay could be reasonably accused of a couple of obvious shortcomings – the South Americans’ depleted defence and the Italians’ dependence on a 35-year-old bearded genius for starters – but they were not average.
Redknapp’s fixation with Johnny Foreigners’ allegedly inferior personnel and the English Premier League’s inherent supremacy misses the wood for the trees. England’s line-up and tactical intent were decent enough, but the execution was dreadful. As Hodgson appeared to slip into a coma in the dugout when the games got away from him, it was hard not to picture a science teacher over-pitching his lesson plan to thick kids in a rough school. He’s trying to split the atom at the front of the class, but his distracted students just want to set fire to their exercise books with their Bunsen burners.
Comedian Billy Connolly used to do this brilliantly perceptive routine about wheezing Scottish footballers taking on the South Americans at major tournaments. The Scots run around like lunatics, screaming: “Willy, Willy, Willy, give us the f****** ball, Willy! …Willy, Willy, Willy … Ah, for ***** sake. They’ve scored again, Willy!” Meanwhile, the South American superstar is strolling around the penalty box, smoking a French cigarette and reading poetry, until he meanders towards the ball, does something disarmingly breathtaking, wins the game and then goes back to smoking his French cigarette.
That was a comedy routine from 20 years ago. That was England against Italy, even more so against Uruguay. The way English followers and commentators threatened to soil their underwear at the scintillating prospect of Three Lions leaving the public transport in the bus depot and going with a vaguely positive style that has been commonplace on the continent for almost a decade has been a source of amusement among international football writers here in Brazil.
It’s been a bit like watching a slow eight-year-old kid getting generous applause from his myopic parents for learning to pen his name in joined-up writing for the first time.
Watching Nicolas Lodeiro, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez float between the lines so effortlessly in their Group D game was a genuine pleasure. They tugged away at Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard on one side and Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka on the other like they were manipulating fluttering kites in the breeze.
Andrea Pirlo and and Marco Verratti exploited similarly static lines and indecisive markers in the opener. Antonio Candreva floated in a finessed way that is simply beyond the grasp of the English psyche. Raheem Sterling is championed for his ability to put his head down and charge, another British bull in a china shop. He raises pulses. He excites. When he drops his head, the Three Lions cheer. Pirlo and Verratti and Lodeiro and Cavani preferred to play with their head up. They leave all that ceaseless, and sometime senseless, running to others.
Wayne Rooney did lots and lots and lots of running according to Hodgson. He ran around. And then he ran around some more. He might as well have been shouting: “Willy! Willy! Willy!” Hodgson was quick to emphasize the bright, widespread colours on Rooney’s heat map. The man would run through a brick wall for his country, which one imagines might be a rather tiring and counter-productive exercise. Verratti and Lodeiro were more interested in their internal maps, rather than heat maps. Their ingenuity ran the game.
Speaking to many England fans in Brazil, there is considerable sympathy for Rooney’s plight. 'He’s passionate about his country' is the common refrain. He’s desperate to win. He’s got the heart on the sleeve, always willing to shed blood for the cause. He does all that running. Don’t forget the running. After a while it becomes hard to distinguish the integral qualities of an England player from a character in Chariots of Fire. The Three Lions shouldn’t sing God Save the Queen. They should hum the Vangelis theme.
In truth, Redknapp’s patriotic rambling and the infuriating suggestion that England were, yet again, gallant, plucky losers who were caught on the counter-attack – twice – in their laudable commitment to playing attractive football betrays an entrenched arrogance. The QPR manager’s claim that the quality of the EPL and regular Champions League commitments underpinned the Three Lions’ World Cup credentials do not make him a lone voice in the wilderness, but perhaps representative of a wider audience. He was the people’s choice for the England job after all.
But his blinkered championing of the Premier League product underlined the domestic game’s superiority. Unlike Germany, France, Spain and certainly Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, the English game is essentially a Premier League competition with a national team attached; a secondary concern, an annual afterthought that only briefly occupies centre stage during World Cups and European Championships.
Slow progress is being made in an attempt to emulate the root and branch reform that overhauled the German football academies after their Euro 2000 debacle. England’s £340million Elite Player Performance Plan and the opening of St George’s Park as an elite coaching centre tasked with producing both players and better youth coaches are all steps in the right direction.
But the short-termism of mostly foreign owners, managers and players in the Premier League remains. Here in Brazil, Phil Scolari, Oscar Tabarez and Lionel Messi have all touched on the pivotal importance of their international sides to their respective countries. National success is paramount. Domestic leagues do not come close.
England are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They boast a national league product that is the envy of the world. But their national side is a punch line. Meanwhile, those “average” Johnny Foreigners move on to the knockout stages.
Still, there’s always the Premier League to look forward to. That’s what the English game is really all about. We’ve just got to get this World Cup sideshow out of the way first.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.