At long last, England doesn’t expect

But it wasn’t high expectations that stymied England before. It was a lack of self belief, raw talent and modern tactics.

Duleep Allirajah

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Has anyone seen any St George flags? There’s some left-over Jubilee bunting here and there but none of the cross of St George flags that usually proliferate on the eve on a football tournament. Only the local pubs are flying the flag – a sure sign that England expects, well, not very much of its national team. Is that a good thing? Actually I don’t think it makes one jot of difference. There are many reasons why England have failed to win a major tournament since 1966, but raised expectations aren’t among them.

The Curse of the Broken Metatarsal hasn’t struck this year but, with several key players injured or sulking and Wayne Rooney suspended for two group games, expectation levels are at an all-time low. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’m not sure that the Office for National Statistics measures this sort of thing. England fans hope. They pray. But they certainly don’t expect. They are the living embodiment of Antonio Gramsci’s famous dictum, ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.

A dose of realism is a good thing, you might say. Inflated expectations have, in the past, weighed too heavily on the shoulders of our players. Indeed, some are now suggesting that this may work to England’s advantage, that the players may perform better now that the pressure is off. ‘We were put down as favourites in previous tournaments and maybe, because we haven’t done that, the expectations this time will be less’, said England captain Steven Gerrard, ‘but that could suit us and turn into a positive’. David Beckham echoed these sentiments. ‘We’re going into this competition and expectations have been slightly lowered than compared to the past and I think that’s great for the team.’ Gareth Southgate, the FA’s head of elite performance has said that, since less was expected, ‘hopefully that will allow the players to go and express themselves’.

It’s a superficially seductive notion. Roy Hodgson forges an underdog esprit de corps and progresses ‘beneath the radar’ all the way to Kiev. There’s only one problem with this theory. It’s total and utter bunkum. England are not champions-in-waiting whose performances are inhibited by stage fright. We’re just average. England have failed to get to the final of any major football tournament for 46 years. There are plenty of reasons for this less-than-illustrious track record but it’s an enduring myth that our players wilt under the nation’s expectations. Sure, there’s usually a lot of media-fuelled hype, lots of cheap talk about our so-called ‘golden generation’. But no one else in world football sees us as serious contenders. The last time we went to a tournament among the favourites was the 1970 World Cup. It’s unthinkable now. We don’t scare anyone. We’re not famous anymore. I will gladly eat my underpants if I’m proved wrong but, let’s face it, there isn’t snowball’s chance in hell of England winning Euro 2012.

There are five compelling reasons why I won’t be chewing my undies on 1 July.

  1. Quality deficit. The best teams in the world are capable of keeping possession. English players aren’t. Forget hooliganism, giving the ball away cheaply is the real English disease. Futhermore, championship-winning teams are built around a core of world-class players. The current squad of England players is arguable the weakest we’ve sent to a tournament for years. There’s no strength in depth and, with the exception of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole, you’d struggle to find any genuinely world-class players in the squad.
  2. England are tactically limited. A group of average players who are well-organised, disciplined and hardworking – such as Greece in 2004 – can overcome superior opposition. English players, by contrast, too often play like a group of total strangers. They lose their shape, can’t control games and look clueless when it comes to unlocking a well-marshalled defence. Roy Hodgson’s teams are renowned for being more than the sum of their parts. But the gaffer has only been working with the players for a few weeks. Over time, England may be able to punch above their weight, like the Fulham of world football. But I fear the Euros have come too early for Hodgson’s methods to bear fruit.
  3. Haunted by past failures. Bill Clinton once described football as a ‘head game’. It’s an apt description. At the highest level, the difference between champs and also-rans is mental strength. England’s problem is not so much the failure to cope with sky-high expectations but a chronic lack of self-belief. As Fabio Capello observed when he took charge of the team, English footballers play with fear. Why? Successive failures have shaped their collective psyche. They are haunted by the ghosts of past defeats. They don’t possess the strutting self-confidence of the Germans. It’s as though there’s a little voice in their heads saying ‘You’re shit and we know you are’.
  4. No winning culture. Just as underachievement fosters an inferiority complex, so enduring success creates a winning culture. One reason why Manchester United have dominated English football for two decades is that Sir Alex Ferguson has established just such a culture. It means that there are experienced players and coaches who know what it takes to win trophies and they, in turn, transmit this mentality to the younger players. It isn’t always the best team that wins the big tournaments, but the team with the right blend of ability and tournament craft – the know-how to pace a campaign and deliver in the high-pressure games. Germany, Italy and Brazil all have tournament craft. England doesn’t. Nobody in the coaching set-up has won a major international trophy. There’s no one who can teach the new generation how to win.
  5. The Englishman’s fear of the penalty. If England are to win Euro 2012, the chances are that they’ll have to win at least one penalty shootout along the way. And, as every good pizza-advert director knows, the English always choke in the shootouts. It’s those ghosts again. Italia 90, Euro 96, France 98, Euro 2004 – successive penalty shootout defeats have etched themselves on the national psyche. We’ve bottled it so often that we’ve come to believe that it’s in our DNA. If you think I’m over-egging the argument, answer me this: can you name five members of the England you’d trust to score in a shootout? No, thought not.

We’re doomed, I tell you. Doomed.

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

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