The truth about ‘club before country’

It’s one of the great mysteries of our time: why players shine for their clubs but play like part-timers for England.

Duleep Allirajah

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Jimmy Bullard described his England call-up as ‘a bit surreal’. This, in my opinion, does a disservice to Surrealism. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that it was Marcel Duchamp who’d picked the squad. Who would he have selected? A nude woman perhaps? A large stuffed porcupine? Maybe a toilet bowl?

Jimmy Bullard might not be everyone’s idea of an England international but he is at least a Premiership footballer. It would have been much more surreal if Fabio Capello had gambled on a strike force comprising a giant circus freak, two cripples and a child. But Sven Goran Eriksson had already patented that madcap idea. Bullard’s selection and Michael Owen’s omission were the two big surprises when Capello announced his squad on Sunday. The pundits were immediately on his back. ‘Capello, in my opinion, has committed a needless error in not even giving himself the safety net of having Owen in his squad’, said chief BBC sports writer Phil McNulty.

So, will the selection of Bullard prove to be Capello’s ‘Walcott’ moment? We will see. Even if he fielded a stuffed porcupine in the starting 11 you’d expect England to beat Andorra on Saturday. Croatia, however, will be a different proposition altogether: Capello’s first real test as England manager.

The mood of pessimism, which has hung over English football since Steve McClaren’s hapless tenure, has not been alleviated by England’s unconvincing performance in the five friendlies under Capello’s charge. If England slip up, not only will Capello come under fire but we can expect another outbreak of the interminable ‘Why Are England Crap?’ debate. It’s one of the great mysteries of our day. How is it that England players shine for their clubs but perform like pub footballers when they put on the England jersey? There are several theories put forward to explain this Jekyll and Hyde disparity:

1) Foreigners

Too many of them, to be precise. They’re overskilled, over-acting and over here. The argument goes that the influx of foreign players to the Premiership has arrested the development of homegrown talent. There are two problems with this theory.

Firstly, the cream of English talent is certainly good enough. Most international managers would love to have players like Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard, Ferdinand or a fully fit Michael Owen at their disposal. There’s enough quality in the squad; it’s just that those players don’t gel as a team.

Secondly, a cursory glance at recent history shows no causal link between the foreign influx and English underachievement. England were crap long before the influx of foreign players.

2) Money

Too much of it, to be precise. Players are overpaid, overrated and underperforming. They’re more interested in fast cars and expensive clothes than playing for their country.

This is more of a lazy prejudice than an argument yet you’ll find it routinely trotted out on phone-in programmes and internet message boards. But it doesn’t make sense to me. The England players are already minted, so how much of an incentive can money be? I simply don’t believe that footballers would rather rake in a few more shillings than have a shot at international glory. Given the choice of playing in the World Cup or filming a soap powder commercial, which would you choose?

3) Club before country

Jamie Carragher has admitted in his new autobiography that losing with England ‘never hurt me as much as losing with my club’. It’s undeniable that England’s players perform better for their clubs than for their country. But does this mean they don’t care enough about playing for England? I don’t think so.

Carragher said an England defeat didn’t hurt ‘as much’ not that it didn’t hurt at all. English players do care about playing for their national team; the top players would be devastated if they never had the chance to play at international level. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they suffer international stage fright. As Capello said: ‘How can players with the quality of David Beckham and Michael Owen perform so differently when playing for their country?’ It is clear the shirt weighs heavy even for these winners.

And therein lies the answer to the riddle. Capello’s diagnosis, and I think he’s right, is that the England players are suffering from a ‘mental block’. Simple as that. They play well for their clubs because, well, their clubs play well. Being part of a winning team breeds self-confidence. Conversely, when they’re playing for England, a team which has lost the winning habit, the self-belief evaporates. They’re no longer part of a well-oiled machine. They don’t have as much confidence in their team-mates. They start to doubt themselves. They become prone to errors. It’s all in the mind; psychology is a huge factor in sport.

The role as coach in these situations, as Capello sees it, is ‘more psychologist than tactician or technician’. The opposite syndrome exists in Germany where players like Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger can’t replicate their international form for their clubs. ‘Germany are very strong mentally,’ Capello said on the eve of Euro 2008. ‘They play better for their country than their clubs most times.’

Capello wants the England players to ‘have belief in themselves and not be afraid of big games’. To do that England must learn how to win again. A couple of goals here, a few good results there can transform the collective psyche of the team. Easier said than done, of course, but let’s not turn this mini-crisis into a parable about the moral corrosion of English football. There’s nothing so badly broken about England that a couple of decent results can’t mend.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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