Supporting England is like watching an artist tortured by his own self-entitled obsession with perfection.
He puts together an exciting pallet, delicately applies to canvas, paints one stroke slightly out of place and instead of thinking ‘hmm, not my best but could probably sell for 50 quid down at Greenwich Market’, screams ‘NO, JE DETESTE’ before throwing ten hours of work in the bin and subsequently setting it on fire.
Admittedly, in the context of the last few decades, there have been far more turds than Turner Prize winners. But it’s the self-deprecating analysis, the complete condemnation of a generation and the calls for sweeping reform after every exit from a major tournament that is truly beginning to wear thin.
Since England’s shock 2-1 defeat to Iceland on Monday night, eliminating us from Euro 2016, everybody has been searching for answers. Some schools of thought have gained more traction than others, such as Jamie Carragher’s critique of the ‘Academy Generation’.
Who am I to argue with a pundit who represented England for over eleven years as a player and will be remembered as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever servants, you might rightly ask.
No doubt, his arguments carry weight and there is no question that footballers are now further removed from society than ever before. Much like our politicians, who for the last 15 years have all seemingly fallen off a conveyor belt of Tony Blair clones, footballers are now moulded into the complete professional from an incredibly early age.
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They’re protected more than ever before, paid more than ever before, media trained whilst still playing youth football and only accustomed to the greatest training facilities. It’s almost as if they’re absorbed into that mythical Soviet athletic programme which produced Ivan Drago in Rocky 4. He fell short during his ultimate challenge too.
Yet, phrases like ‘too soft’ and ‘moddycoddled’ just don’t sit well with me
. Since the dawn of man, the older generation have professed their youngsters ‘have it too easy’ and ‘don’t know they’re born’, before insisting ‘back in my day, we got a lump of coal for Christmas’.
But the irony here is that Carragher belonged to a generation that didn’t have it as easy as this one, that produced its players by unearthing football-mad gems from working class estates, and the England squads he took part in still fell to pieces at international tournaments.
Likewise, how is it possible that such moddycoddling only affects English players, when the rest of the home nations have performed far beyond their means at Euro 2016?
Take a look at the Wales squad that have reached the semi-finals; Sam Vokes, Hal-Robson Kanu, Simon Church, George Williams, Jonny Williams, David Edwards, Andy King, Ashley Williams and James Chester were all born in England and rose through the academy ranks at English clubs. The same can be said for talismanic attacker Gareth Bale, who joined Southampton’s youth set-up at the age of nine, whilst even Welsh-born midfield trio Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Joe Allen were developed by clubs who are part of the English pyramid in Swansea and Cardiff City.
It’s a similar case for Ireland and Northern Ireland, who may not have exactly uprooted trees at the Euros but still exceeded expectations for countries of such modest populations. Most of their players went through English academy systems. In fact, seven took their footballing education at Manchester United – England’s unrivalled academy in terms of glamour, investment and resources until a few years ago.
So once again, how can only English players be serially pampered into humiliation by teams like Iceland at major tournaments? Is there a part of the Celtic DNA which protects the Welsh and Irish from developing over-inflated egos? Likewise, Jamie Vardy famously forwent the academy system, rising through non-league football instead, and it’s not as if the England side that lost on Monday night consisted of ten players crying ‘mummy’ and one Jamie Vardy taring his way around Iceland’s defence single-handed.
An incredibly young team almost entirely picked on popularity failing to deliver against Iceland doesn’t necessarily mean English football and British society had created a generation of perennial bottlers. It does mean, however, that Roy Hodgson selected a squad with just three players on 50 caps or more and just seven aged 27 or over.
Inexperience inevitably told after England found themselves 2-1 down, as players began to fear the headlines, but that’s not uncommon. How many times have you seen a young Liverpool or Manchester United line-up be held to a replay or defeated in the FA Cup? Usually, we’re all for the underdog upsetting the odds.
Clearly, the pool of talent available to Hodgson wasn’t large enough, especially in terms of experienced players, and that’s something the FA must change. But to condemn an entire squad containing players who’ve been plying their trade at Premier League level for just two seasons is typically English in its short-sighted self-destructiveness.
And what would Carragher and co. prefer? Going back to the days where teams consisted of alcoholics and gambling addicts, who spent their days off at international tournaments tying each other to dentist chairs?
Maybe they were ‘real men’ compared to the ‘boys’ who represented England at Euro 2016, but the ‘Academy Generation’ is the way it is because of mavericks like Paul Gascoigne, because the Premier League is so relentlessly intense and because media scrutiny is more vicious than ever before. Listening to former internationals moan is like watching Frankenstein yell at Frankenstein’s monster for being made of rotting body parts.
Of course, the phrase identity has become the go-to weapon of the ney-sayers. But Roy Hodgson bowed to the wishes of the fans by playing attacking football at the World Cup and Euro 2016 and it emphatically back-fired. Likewise, if you ask what English football’s identity actually is, everybody will give a slightly different answer. Identity is a matter of opinion, so the idea the FA can create one by committee is a fallacy – especially considering whoever they appoint next might have a completely different interpretation.
They say love will find you the moment you stop looking and I feel a similar way about philosophy. If we stop trying to force the issue of style of play, if we stop thinking England have a divine right to contribute something to the beauty of the beautiful game and if we stop approaching tournaments with the mind-set that we’re a sleeping giant about to awaken, maybe, eventually, the national team will discover an identity organically – the way identities should be discovered.
And thus, we come to the true cause of England’s perpetual failure over the last half century – England itself. We expect too much and are left so heart-broken when the team doesn’t meet those standards that we instantly begin cannibalising, ripping out any soul they had and insisting on going back to the drawing board.
Yes, such a strategy worked for Germany, but their heartbreak was losing in a World Cup final. England, on the other hand, have only ever partook in one before – 1966. We’re in a completely different context, so the case study just doesn’t apply.
Those players failed against Iceland because the thought of backlash preyed on their minds. A key aspect of that is their age, but another is the pressure of being an England international that has accumulated over a half-century of hurt, the weight of an underwhelming history at intentional tournaments.
The sad truth is that everything the players feared is already coming to fruition; a trail by media, calls for reform, criticism of how much they’re paid and their lifestyles, a complete dissection of English football with them as the scapegoats.
This team was always designed with the World Cup in mind. So before we condemn a squad with an average age of just 25 years, lets actually give them a chance to rise from their own self-created adversity. Losing to a team like Iceland doesn’t determine one’s character, talent or ability to lead – how you respond from such a humiliation does.
Stop going back to the drawing board and give the generation that were exposed a tournament too soon a second chance.