England: world champions at the blame game
The inquest into the Three Lions' World Cup exit misses an important point: England have never been world beaters on foreign soil.
And so the inquest begins. Or, to be more precise, the inquest resumes. This year, the World Cup inquest was underway long before a ball was kicked in anger. Expectations had hit rock bottom. Greg Dyke’s throat-slitting gesture at the World Cup draw perfectly embodied the national mood of pessimism. We all knew England would flop. In fact, it’s fair to say that England is a country in a perpetual state of inquest into the recurrent woes of its national football team.
The wife heard the word ‘inquest’ on the radio and she assumed that there was an actual inquest headed up by an actual coroner. Given that all kinds of quasi-judicial inquiries have become a feature of British public life, perhaps a formal inquest isn’t a bad idea. Appoint a law lord, summon witnesses and bring the perpetrators to justice.
If we can hunt down and convict geriatric Nazis, why not indict 84-year-old Charles Hughes, the former FA director of coaching? Hughes’ notorious technical manual, which advocated direct, percentage football, is now widely regarded as English football’s Mein Kampf. Wing Commander Charles Reep, the theoretical guru of the long-ball game, is another man who should be in the dock. Reep died in 2002, but why should that mere detail prevent a posthumous trial? And what about all the foot soldiers, the men who were ‘only obeying orders’? They were complicit in the Reepian atrocities.
Maybe the police should conduct an Operation Yewtree-style witch-hunt, rounding up all the ‘usual suspects’ for crimes against football: the headteachers who sold off our school playing-fields, the youth-team coaches who made little kids play hoofball on full-size pitches, and the competitive dads whose touchline hectoring took the joy out of football for our youngsters. They should all be retrospectively prosecuted and banged up just like all those disgraced 1970s TV celebrities.
Joking aside (and yes, I was joking, in case your irony detector was on the blink), we should brace ourselves for another bout of national self-flagellation. We’ll be subjected to those shrill trademark Chris Waddle rants about how the English never learn from our failures. No one will be spared in the orgy of finger-pointing and recrimination. Roy Hodgson, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, the FA, foreign imports, the Premier League, obscene wages, WAGs, unpatriotic players, childhood obesity, Margaret Thatcher… you name it and someone will find a scapegoat to fit their worldview. Harry Redknapp claims that many of his former charges at Spurs didn’t want to play for their country. Ian Wright simply could not comprehend why any Englishman would snub an international call-up. ‘The next young player who says he does not want to play for England should be ordered to ring the parents of a soldier who has died serving his country in Afghanistan and tell them his reasons’, ranted Wrighty in his Sun column.
One of the more bizarre explanations is that England’s backroom staff was too big. ‘They have a 72-strong entourage from the Football Association including a psychiatrist, nutritionists, a turf specialist, a cook and at least one guy whose job seems to be to spray the players with water when they start overheating’, wrote Daniel Taylor in the Guardian. Paulo Wanchope, the former Premiership star who is now Costa Rica’s assistant coach, thinks that were too many cooks in the England camp: ‘It shows that maybe our small team have been able to stick together, rather than have all the entourage and different opinions that can sometimes confuse things.’
While England’s bloated entourage may not have caused the team’s early exit, it is legitimate to question what exactly they brought to the party. What difference, I wonder, did Dr Steve Peters make? The celebrated sports psychologist was credited with instilling a winning mentality in the British cycling team. The mind mechanic’s approach is to equip elite sports stars with the tools to tame their ‘inner chimp’. It sounds all well and good in theory, but I wonder whether, with the benefit of hindsight, trying to control the inner chimp was a mistake. I’d have given the chimp a pair of boots and stuck him in defence. Arguably, the inner chimp would have done a better job of tracking Luis Suárez than our hapless defenders.
But no matter who the scapegoat du jour might be – whether it’s Wayne Rooney, Roy Hodgson or the chimp-tamer – there’s a common misconception that runs through all the vituperative recriminations. It’s that, at some point in history, English football went rotten. We went from champs to chumps. It’s the football equivalent of the Golden Age myth – the fallacy that England once bestrode the international footballing world. And myth is exactly what it is. There was never a Golden Age of English domination.
As the writer Nick Hornby has pointed out, in a rare display of historical perspective, England have never performed well at World Cup finals on foreign soil. We’ve always been consistently average. We were average before the foreign invasion of the Premiership. We were average before the playing fields were hawked off. We were average in the 1950s when small boys, with jumpers for goalposts, played football in the streets. The World Cup win in 1966 wasn’t the pinnacle of a lost Golden Age, it was an aberration, a brief glorious interruption to a track record of consistent failure. ‘Whatever is wrong with English football now has always been wrong, ever since we began playing the game at international level’, concludes Hornby. And it’s hard to disagree.
It’s time we stopped perpetuating the Golden Age myth. There wasn’t a fall from grace, a moment when it all went wrong for English football. We’ve always been mediocre.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.