World Cup

England no longer expects

Only the most deranged optimists believe England have much chance of coming home with the World Cup.

There are no St George flags draped from windows or fluttering from cars in my street. A sign of creeping gentrification, perhaps. But there are six white transit vans parked down the road and not one is flying the England flag. The 2014 World Cup is upon us, but you wouldn’t know it. There’s no World Cup fever. Not even a slightly raised temperature. All those dashed dreams and missed penalties have taken their toll. England no longer expects.

At every major international football tournament there is an anguished debate in this country about whether England’s footballers can expunge all those years of hurt – 48 years and counting – or whether they’ll wilt under the weight of national expectations. We fret over their mental fragility. We pray for their metatarsals. We fear that they will probably succumb, as they usually do, to the inevitable heartache of the penalty shoot-out.

I’ve never been convinced that the players buckle under the ‘weight of expectation’. What expectation? When did the nation ever expect anything other than a plucky quarter-final defeat? Sure, there are always some poor deluded souls whose pro-Ingerland optimism borders on psychosis. And it’s true that expectation levels were raised throughout the Sven era from 2001 to 2006 when a crop of half-decent players was rashly heralded as the ‘Golden Generation’. But most football fans are world-weary realists. We’ll wave the flags and roar our support for the Three Lions. But it’s more in hope than expectation.

England’s performances at major tournaments have been steadily getting worse since Euro 2004. Sven’s gamble in taking two half-fit strikers – Rooney and Owen – to Germany in 2006 backfired badly. Failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was followed by a wretched series of performances in South Africa. It was blessed relief when Germany finally put Capello’s disjointed team out of its misery at Bloemfontein. England’s Euro 2012 campaign hardly set the pulses racing, either. Although we went out the traditional English way – death by penalties – there was nothing heroic about the defeat to Italy. No Dunkirk spirit. No Terry-Butcher-with-bandaged-head rearguard action. It was a just a dull, dispiriting Euroshambles. In the era of tiki-taka, false nines and inside-out wingers, English football was looking anachronistic. It is football from the ‘dark ages’, as Gary Lineker described it. Ball retention was wretched, the tactics were one-dimensional and there was a dearth of creativity.

Unsurprisingly, England travelled to Brazil with almost zero levels of expectation back home. The Golden Generation has gone, mostly put out to pasture. This is an inexperienced squad that is notably short of world-class players. In fact, for the first time in many years, there is no prospective Messiah. Steven Gerrard’s joints are creaking and Ross Barkley is probably still too green. Wayne Rooney, for so long the tabula rasa on to which English dreams were projected, is now widely regarded as a spent force. The injuries to Theo Walcott, Andros Townsend and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have not provoked the same outpourings of national anguish that we saw over Beckham and Rooney’s broken toes.

Some argue that England might perform without inhibitions now they are unburdened by expectation. They might go under the radar, just like the 1990 squad, who went to Italy with little fanfare but came agonisingly close to glory. That argument, however, is based on the false assumption that it was the weight of inflated expectations that affected the players’ performances. I don’t think it is expectations, which, as I’ve said, have been steadily diminishing in recent years, but the cumulative impact of failure which has shaped the collective psyche of the players. Defeat after defeat in penalty shoot-outs has fostered a fatalistic mindset. The players are haunted by the ghosts of all those spot-kick disasters. They’ve seen the pizza commercials. They believe that an Englishman is always destined to choke. The inevitability of failure might be a myth, but it’s a myth that gives English footballers nightmares.

‘We played not with confidence but with fear’, admitted Fabio Capello after the 2010 tournament. ‘I don’t know what we have to do to improve the mind of the players.’ So how does any coach succeed, where Capello failed, in dispelling the fear factor that has been England’s undoing time and again?

In 1998, Glenn Hoddle took faith healer Eileen Drewery to France. He may as well have taken bottles of snake-oil for all the good she did. This year, Roy Hodgson has opted for a somewhat less quackish option. He’s hired sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox and the man credited with inculcating a winning mentality in Britain’s cycling team. The self-styled ‘mind mechanic’ believes that, by equipping elite sports stars with the tools to manage their ‘inner chimp’ – the impulsive, emotional part of their brain – he can help them perform more effectively in high-pressure situations. Peters has worked with the Liverpool squad this season and Steven Gerrard is a convert to his methods. ‘I didn’t know what was going on in my head until I saw him’, said the Liverpool captain.

Will the mind mechanic help the England players to manage tournament nerves better? Will he enable them to banish their self-doubt? To pass the ball better under pressure? Above all, will the chimp-tamer finally get that penalty monkey off their backs? We hope so. We desperately hope so. But we don’t expect.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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