Hopes are raised before every major tournament and yet, in the rubble of yet another disastrous summer campaign for England, the tragic deficiencies of the manager Roy Hodgson and his players were there for all to see long before the team kicked a ball in Marseilles.
One now wonders how we managed to persuade ourselves that this time would be different. The answer, I suspect, is that whilst we retained hope on the surface, deep in the recesses of our minds an expectation of failure has long since set up camp and made itself comfortable. England’s worst defeat since 1950 and second consecutive abject international tournament prompted much anger but little surprise. The truth is that we have become hardened to ineptitude and increasingly disinterested in our national team. Twenty years ago major tournaments would prompt a plethora of England fags flying from houses or cars, but these days they are few and far between. The nation no longer expects, even if it dares to dream a little.
The causes of that loss of faith go right to the very top. The FA, stuck in its ways but awash with cash, appear unable to break from a cycle of ‘safeness’, terrified to take a risk and make an exciting appointment. It is jaw-dropping but so utterly predictable that the steady Gareth Southgate appears to be the favourite for the job, a man so nondescript and devoid of anything out of the ordinary that his failure is assured even before he has got the job. Coaches who take the Under-21 job do so because no decent club will have anything to do with them and Southgate had few suitors after a deeply average spell in charge of Middlesborough.
For once it would be refreshing if the FA tried to think outside the box. There is a desperate lack of high-quality English managers. When your options are Southgate, Eddie Howe, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce you know there is something fundamentally wrong. Jim White of Sky Sports last night suggested that Harry Redknapp fancied forming a ‘dream team’ with Glen Hoddle. This truly is the end of days. In truth there are no worthwhile domestic options and few worldwide. Most of the planet’s finest coaching brains are now committed to clubs and despite the money on offer the England job must be viewed as toxic. No manager since Bobby Robson, 26 years ago, has ever worked at a big, competitive club ever again. Freer thinkers have suggested the likes of Slaven Bilic, but it seems inconceivable that he would walk away from West Ham so soon after his arrival, just as they make into a new stadium and appear to be on the verge of something big. Why would any promising young manager touch the job?
Roy Hodgson never had the talent, drive and tactical and motivational skills to be successful in the position, despite his own claims in the past that he is on a par with Sir Alex Ferguson. Hodgson’s resume is awash with examples of making average teams slightly less average, even at Inter, and the one job where he could have achieved more, at Liverpool, was a truly disastrous failure. Nondescript teams created by an affable but nondescript man. But let’s not pretend that the talent pool from which he has been able to select is deep or high-quality. At Italia 90 England progressed to the semi-finals with a squad full of high class technical footballers like Lineker, Gascoigne, Waddle, Beardsley, Barnes and Platt. Twelve years later in Japan and Korea Sven Goran Eriksson could pick world class players, from David Seaman in goal, through Cole, Ferdinand, Terry and Neville at the back, Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes and Hargreaves in midfield and Michael Owen up front.
The current England squad does not contain a single player in that class. Not even close. Joe Hart remains a talented but flawed goalkeeper, a man who seems to believe his own hype and thinks that shouting is the most important contribution he can make. The back four is the epitome of average, two decent club footballers in Kyle Walker and Danny Rose flanking Gary Cahill, coming off the back of a truly wretched season, and Chris Smalling, limited by his own concentration levels and a pathological fear of a football at his feet. In midfield the promising but raw talents of Deli Alli and Eric Dier started alongside Wayne Rooney, he who must not be left out despite no longer being good enough to start as a forward. A high class midfielder would put him to shame but, alas, neither England nor Manchester United have one, so the hopeful experiment that he may suddenly morph into Paul Scholes because he plays lots of diagonal passes persists.
In wide areas there is only one genuine winger who rises above the mundane in Raheem Sterling, and yet he appears to have alarmingly lost his way since moving to Manchester City. In the absence of other options Hodgson was left with the epitome of nothingness Adam Lallana, a player without pace, who doesn’t score and can’t beat a man, and the option of playing forwards out of position. Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy may be able to run very fast, but both are finishers, expert at counter-attacking and finding space in the box. Against Iceland their deficiencies were exposed in the five minutes that Marcus Rashford was on the pitch on the left wing. In one run he beat more defenders with the ball at his feet than Vardy and Sturridge had done all match.
Up front there was Harry Kane, a fine footballer but nothing without service. It was staggering that such was the lack of technical quality within the squad that it was Kane tasked with taking corners and free kicks. Thus England’s most potent penalty box presence was removed from the picture at set-pieces.
The ineptitude and lack of quality was breathtaking, even if the fragile mentalities were not. In four games against an abject Russia, Wales, Slovakia and Iceland England led for a total of 20 minutes and managed four goals and one win, a desperate last-gasp victory against Wales. Hodgson made a terrible hash of things, moulding a side which had no character or coherent strategy other than to keep the ball and hope that something might happen. Without penetration and creativity chances were few and far between. Against Slovakia and again after Iceland had taken the lead it appeared that England could play until Christmas and never score. There was little quality and no belief. England are stuck in a rut or failure breeding failure, of weak minds and inadequate bodies.
Why on Earth does English football go from here? The past suggests that the FA will once again play it safe and that there will be a refusal to accept that the current academy system and the Premier League are not producing high-class players in the quantities that a country with 65,000,000 people in it should. Coaching courses will remain prohibitively expensive and thus numbers of qualified coaches will trail pathetically behind other developed European nations. English football will continue to be about shouting loudly and having ‘heart’ and the press will overhype modest players before savaging them when they fail to deliver. And with every international tournament we will hope a little less and our engagement with the national team will continue to decline. Our faith in them is gone and unless the FA show a willingness to think outside of the box when choosing a new national team coach and instigate serious reforms at coaching, academy and grassroots levels nothing will ever change. Sadly, my money would be on a continuation of the status quo.