And so another round of International matches are over and the poor players can now go and join their supermodel wives on sandy beaches in exotic destinations. It’s a hard life sometimes.
Fair enough, though. The games were at simply awful times. England vs the Republic of Ireland in Dublin was played just hours after the Champions League final at sunday brunch-time. Most of the England fans were just walking out of the watering holes in the Temple Bar just six hours before the match. 43,000 people inside the stadium were only a bad scrambled egg away from a full-blown hangover.
That game was as dull as successive Mahler symphonies, but the bright point for England was Jack Wilshere who was the one player trying to make things happen.
Raheem Sterling was booed each time he touched the ball and he didn’t seem to do much with it when he got it. But he was much more of a threat against Slovenia. It was Jack Wilshere, however, who stole the show.
Wilshere, who has had his problems this season both with injury and with off-the-pitch trivia, will end the season with a sweet aftertaste in his mouth. Two wonderful goals and too great performances from the Arsenal man can perhaps give him the motivation for a great pre-season and the momentum to show some similar performances at the start of next season.
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But this is the whole problem.
We’ll criticise Phil Jones for his performances over the last two games, and the defence as a whole for some shocking displays against Slovenia in particular. But the mitigating factor is surely the time of the season. With literally nothing to play for, what makes us think they’re going to put in stunning performances like Wilshere? And even when they do, what makes us think it was against an opposition who were up for the game?
I’m not slating the players for a lack of motivation, or the manager for not being able to motivate them. It’s just a fact that players won’t be motivated for games like this, so we can’t learn very much from these fixtures. A friendly post-season isn’t usually going to get the juices flowing, but even the competitive game, the qualifier, lacked bite. And why not, three teams go through and England are already almost virtually qualified automatically, and it would take a lot even to knock England off top spot.
In that sense though, surely England have done well. The team has been set up in such a way that England have played six won six in their group, winning every competitive game since the World Cup. Why are fans questioning England then?
The answer is that we don’t actually know a lot about this England team. England haven’t lost a qualifying game since 2009 when they were beaten by Ukraine in a dead rubber in 2010 World Cup qualifying. They’ve gone through the last two campaigns unbeaten and have a 100% record in this one.
And that’s why we know nothing about how England are progressing. To not lose one competitive game for two years and then get knocked out in the group stage of a World Cup is the definition of flattering to deceive.
Every two years the English media gets down about the national team because of poor World Cup or European Championship performances, and it makes us feel like England are progressing when they pick up maximum points from the qualifying games. But clearly they aren’t if the furthest they can go is still the quarter finals.
And that’s the problem. We will know nothing about England’s progress until they play tournament football, because that’s the only time it counts. It doesn’t matter if England play Brazil or Spain or Germany in a friendly game, even if the performances are good, it’s still just a friendly. You win nothing by beating a rival in a friendly.
It’s almost as if England’s progression should be based on keeping 23 young men entertained during a three week period spent in a hotel room rather than progression on the pitch. But until the Euros – for which England will qualify with unnerving ease – we will be none the wiser about England’s progress. We can hope that the form shown by Wilshere and the fact that Rooney is nearer and nearer to the all-time goalscoring record shows that England are going places, but another early exit from a (potentially winnable) competition will be no progress at all.
Unfortunately it’s going to be another year of progressively more meaningless qualifiers and prestige but ultimately unfulfilling friendlies before we find out.