When England line up to face Norway in this evening’s international friendly at Wembley, they are expected to do so in front of a record-low attendance.
As of Monday, 30,000 tickets had been sold, and despite last-minute ticket sales, as well as some of the 17,000 Club Wembley members actually bothering to turn up to watch the game from the comfort of their premium seats, the size of the crowd is not expected to surpass the 49,000 who saw England beat Sweden in October 2011.
This particularly extreme case of apathy, it has been argued, stems from the frustration of England fans at repeated failures in international tournaments, the most recent disappointment being the Three Lions’ tame group stage exit at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. This indifferent attitude looks set to persist into England’s European Championship qualifying campaign. An undemanding group containing Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino will hardly generate much excitement for the next 18 months. The expansion of Euro 2016 to 24 teams means that England will almost certainly qualify, and so it is generally believed amongst England fans that the next two years up to and including the tournament in France will pan out in a depressingly familiar manner – routine qualification from a tediously uncompetitive group, followed by early elimination from the tournament proper when the team comes up against half-decent sides.
England coach Roy Hodgson has attempted to shake things up following his side’s meek, winless surrender in Brazil. Prompted by the retirement of former captain Steven Gerrard – who, along with the similarly recently retired Frank Lampard represented the last of England’s so-called ‘golden generation’ – he has turned to Wayne Rooney as his next skipper to lead the Three Lions into a new era. Even that decision, however, has been met with a collective grim acceptance that the Manchester United striker received the honour almost by default, with no other senior player – bar Joe Hart of Manchester City perhaps – resembling anything like a leader of the national team. It is yet another piece of conclusive evidence, they say, that England is in crisis, and has been for a long time.
Understandable though these concerns may be, the cries of a crisis are hugely exaggerated when we consider the potential lurking among the younger players of the England set-up. In Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and James Ward-Prowse (all of whom received their footballing education at Southampton’s academy), not to mention Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson of Liverpool, England clearly has a pool of talent that has the potential to rival any other in Europe.
Potential, of course, is the crucial word in this argument. If it is not harnessed effectively then the talent is ultimately laid to waste. This was certainly the case with England’s ‘golden generation’, and many fear a repeat with the current crop. For many, the reasons for this wasted potential are threefold: a negligent attitude towards developing technically gifted youngsters, a harmful lack of patience and steadiness with regard to international football at youth level, and club football in England coming above all else. Though the Football Association have attempted to tackle at least some of these issues through the opening of St George’s Park National Football Centre, there is a worry that the multi-million pound complex is not being used properly, and that with its location in Staffordshire, is something of an expensive nuisance.
In reality, the issue with the England set-up is not as deep-rooted, multifarious nor complex as it is being made out to be. To tackle each point in the preceding paragraph, in the money-saturated world of modern football, clubs will always take precedence over national sides; that is fact. As for developing technically gifted young players, these clubs are far more responsible than the national set-up. It is on the training grounds of their employers that youngsters hone their skills for the majority of the time; development at a National Football Centre is minimal by comparison. As has been previously noted, Southampton have made a remarkable job of developing young, skilled players without outside interference. The second point is the only one which holds water; judging by the successes of the Spanish under-21 side, the English FA should pay more attention to its equivalent and resist from fast-tracking inexperienced players into its senior side.
The real problem with England lies with its coaches, not with its players. Football has evolved, with the Spanish – and latterly German – model being the vanguard for this change. By ensuring that the way in which football is coached in this country is progressive and adaptable, rather than stagnant and unchangeable, English football will be able to properly compete with its European rivals. The likes of Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and Garry Monk at Swansea prove that young, talented British managers do exist; by educating coaches in ways suited to the modern game and incorporating them into the national set-up, there is no reason why England cannot taste success in the long term.
In the bleak sea of pessimism and apathy surrounding England, there is still cause for cautious optimism. It is up to the FA to act on it.