There is no topic as widely discussed within England’s football community as the national team. It is nothing short of an obsession. Interest in the side is practically forced upon youngsters as soon as they are capable of following football. Following the 2010 World Cup, it is a widely-held opinion that thorough changes have to be made in order for England to compete in the coming years – the way that football is reported being among them. Indeed, the media’s collective overexcitement has become as familiar and unsavoury as England’s knockout-stage exits. Although the righteous indignation that follows such events is the most memorable aspect of the coverage, more important is the baseless culture of constant hype that has come to characterise reporting on English players.
Part Three: Improving the National Team: a Cultural Revolution in the Offing?
Above all other issues, the fact that the coaching of English youngsters is stuck in the 1980s is the most concerning. Whilst the Premier League has benefited from the presence of foreign players and continues to do so, one can watch any match from the Championship and below and see a culturally, technically and tactically inflexible brand of football which has no place in the twenty-first century. It is this that truly demonstrates how football is played in England. Pundits and writers alike will argue that the national team has world-class footballers but it is simply not true: they have players with natural talent, but with an innate understanding of football in a form that no longer exists at the highest level.
Whereas the modern game is based on measured tactical movement, passing triangles and the exploitation of small spaces, English football remains obsessed with power, strength and tempo; with physically imposing players, relentless forward movement and heroic sliding tackles. It does not work anymore. It is no coincidence that Frank Lampard played his best football with Claude Makélélé behind him and Didier Drogba in front. Nor is it a fluke that Steven Gerrard was at his most effective with a perfectly configured pairing of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso covering and supplying respectively. Therefore, the fact that Lampard and Gerrard consistently fail when taken away from their drip-fed club lives and made to play with each other is also completely logical. Despite this, they remain national icons, held up as role models for future generations of footballers. In terms of popularising mediocrity, England is miles ahead of the competition.
The belief that English player development is lagging behind has gained significant momentum in recent years. Sir Trevor Brooking has done an admirable job of publicising the issue, and while the Red Tops and reactionaries were busy blaming Johnny Foreigner for the national side’s showing this summer, more rational thinkers opined that England’s Stone Age performances were the direct result of the way young talent in this country is coached – or, to put it more accurately, not coached. According to the Guardian, ‘England has 2,679 coaches holding UEFA's A, B and Pro licences: Spain has 23,995, Italy 29,420 and Germany 34,970.’ With fewer coaches spending less time developing young talent than their supposed rivals, it is no wonder that England’s title challenges exist primarily in the output of a vacuous and jingoistic media.
Some will say that the media is an easy target to apportion blame to. Although it is not the broadcasters and journalists who actually train players, the Sky Sports and Match of the Day teams probably have as much contact time with youngsters as their coaches. With the situation as it is, objective reporting would benefit English football. It does no-one any good when pundits with no real knowledge stir their audience into heightened and unrealistic expectation. To take a memorable example, the BBC’s pre-match coverage of England’s 2006 World Cup quarter-final saw Ian Wright – a paragon of pompous ignorance if ever there was one – state that he could not see how England could possibly lose to Portugal.
It is not as if the potential for more enlightened commentary does not exist: Gary Lineker and Andy Gray, for instance, have shown that they are capable of perceptive analysis and yet both let emotion get the better of them when covering England. Both suggested that Fabio Capello’s nationality was a deciding factor following England’s defeat to Germany in this year’s World Cup. Gray commented that an English manager would have achieved more than Capello and went on to suggest that Alan Shearer or David Beckham succeed the Italian. His justification? “I don’t know what Joachim Löw’s playing career was like,” he said, “but I know it wasn’t very good.” With this verdict, Gray inadvertently imparted to his audience an important lesson: How Not To Think About Football. This is a recurring theme during broadcast football coverage.
The media are responsible for problems greater than blatantly subjective analysis. The recent elevation in status of Andy Carroll, Jack Wilshere and, above all, Joe Hart, is symptomatic of what Jonathan Wilson recently defined as England’s Messiah Complex. Regardless of whether the above are the real deal or not, the Messiah Complex is a media-driven phenomenon which instead of giving players protection and confidence exposes and destroys them. The routine is close to inevitable: established England international drops clanger – is pilloried; youngster emerges with relevant skill-set to problem position; makes impressive progress with club team; plays mistake-free match for national side – becomes Fleet Street darling; eventually drops clanger – is pilloried.
Whilst the cycle is similar to a regular club career, the intensity rises exponentially when applied to the national team and this is another huge problem. The fear of a ferocious and likely unscrupulous backlash can only serve to hamper performance on the biggest stage. As much as every England player remembers the image of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy, current generations have grown up with the tradition of biennial witch-hunts. Although Ashley Cole may not be the go-to guy for a quote that accurately reflects ninety-nine situations out of one-hundred, he illustrated the Messiah Complex’s effect on today’s internationals when he was driven to say: “I hate England and the f**king people”. Simply put: the media overstep their mark, influencing England matches when they should simply report on them.
This plethora of problems must be addressed by serious reform of football’s current infrastructure. First and foremost, there should be a qualified coach in every school in the United Kingdom, working with youngsters at as early an age as possible. They should accept that football is dynamic and must teach the latest ideas in football theory, thereby breeding well-rounded players who better understand the sport’s mechanics. The proposed National Football Centre at Burton is a must-have: it would facilitate the proliferation of coaches and give the most talented teenagers a platform to step up their learning.
Additionally, the next generation of youngsters needs a more patient, scientific culture to grow up in. If better analysis were available to them they could identify appropriate role models and refine their natural talent. Those who grow up copying the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are doomed to inherit their failings. Lastly, this process should be allowed to run its course without its products being subjected to the debilitating pressure that currently stalks the national team. The media being an entity realistically detached from the football world, this may be the hardest change to implement. However, to create the atmosphere in which to modernise coaching and give England a chance of joining the world’s footballing elite, it has to happen.