As Dave Warner satirically put it, “The Croatian victory, which effectively eliminated England from qualifying for the EURO 2008 Championship, sparked widespread celebrations among soccer fans in England, who had feared that Steve McClaren would be the English team’s manager for the remainder of the decade.”
Indeed, as an England fan one almost hoped we would not qualify, as it would lose McClaren a job he should never have had and perhaps force the country to reassess our dismal failure to produce technically strong and flexible players.
But I fear instead, we will continue to pretend nothing fundamental needs to change.
How far have we failed to progress as a footballing culture (for we have not fallen at all; let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve been consistently mediocre at best since the 1970s) that legions of fans can call into the BBC’s 6-0-6 in 2007 and decry our failure to play 4-4-2 last night as the root cause of England’s problems?
Each patiently explained we should have done so not because it was the best formation against the opposition on the day or because it would have best suited the multifarious talents of the “Golden [excuse me while I vomit] Generation”.
No, 4-4-2 because it’s the only way “we” know how to play as a country. There is a very good reason our individual star players can perform at a high level for their clubs, but cannot, when they all get together, do so for England and why we’re so limited in what we can do. Gerrard or even Lampard are not no-talent chumps. They are actually quite good at their clubs, in the roles carefully crafted for them.
But there they get to play with foreigners who have the technical talent and footballing intelligence to adapt to their teammates and the needs of the game. Only Owen Hargreaves, who learned the game abroad, has shown that adaptability and composure on the pitch for England in recent years. This is not a coincidence and it’s not solely down to Steve McClaren.
McClaren, though far from blameless, is just the latest representative of the English footballing establishment to stand there stupefied at one of those moments when even we cannot fail to realise how far behind we are from the progressive forces in football. See 1953, 1973, 1988, 1994, 2000 for previous examples.
McClaren is guilty of just being another gormless, gutless England manager who failed to even try and play a game that might focus on tactical flexibility and technical ballplay. There is a reason the same crutches are reached for again and again by England’s managers, who lack the vision and the talent to try something different. We see it in the continual desperation at the mystifying failure of Lampard and Gerrard to play together in central midfield, with the conclusion reached once more that it would be best to try the same thing again.
And in a few years, we will hit a new nadir once more with another turnip-head or a man with a giant umbrella to stand symbolically for the dismal state of England’s football culture.