Wayne Rooney aside – The curious case of England’s lost generation

Wayne-Rooney-Manchester-UnitedAs we stumble drunkenly and half cocked into a shiny new decade it’s only natural to let our minds wander over the one just passed. The great and the good, the ups and the downs and the fluffy little bits in the middle which are so numerous that I generally find it much better to take a single example to focus on rather than sprawl my gaze over all and sundry. And what better example, as we wake up grumpy and dishevelled in that most glorious and fleeting of decade occurrences, a World Cup year, than the England Team?

The ups and the downs are there, with the ups usually coming from the restoration of expectations so freely destroyed by the often multiple downs, rather than the realizing of the expectations themselves – which never happens with England anyway. The fluffy little bits in the middle are still there, being fluffy all over the shop. And the great and the good..erm, well. Hmmm. Now this is where I get stuck. In fact the more I think about it, the more I decide that the last decade for the English National Team has been almost entirely comprised of the fluffy little bits in the middle. Shall I tell you why?

In the’ 90s, The England Team became a very different beast from its ’80s incarnation. A new generation emerged. Shearer took over from Lineker, Sheringham from Beardsley, Seaman from Shilton and Gazza attempted to live up to his role as the great white hope. Even within the decade itself, an even newer generation emerged on the coat tails of the last. ‘Fergies Fledgelings’ stormed British football, backed up, in as much style, if not as much substance, by Liverpool’s ‘Spice Boys’ and the latest offerings from the perennial International conveyor belt that is West Ham United. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard. David James and even little Joe Cole, all made their first impressions on football in this decade. Some more notably than others, but all, bar Gerrard and Cole, had already gained their first England caps by the turn of the century (with Gerrard making his bow in 2000 and Cole 2001) From the beginning to the end of the ’90s the team had changed completely with only Gazza still considered a real contender from the ’80s crop. And even he was banished by the Hand of Hod in 1998, destined to wander the complex landscape of his own head forever more.

Using this template, one would assume that the same progress and transition would have been made as we fumble and burp our way into a new decade 10 years on. Erm, well no. In fact as we gear up for another crushing disappointment at an International tournament with nothing but our own ludicrous expectations to blame, very little has changed at all. Paul Scholes has retired, but all the rest are still very much in contention, with Forgetful Ferdinand, Fat Frank, Steve Starfish and even Lord David of Beckenham, considered certainties for the trip to the land of the horrendously sounding plastic horns. Were it not for the troubled injury records of messes Owen, Neville and Cole, they would almost certainly be certainties too. So what is wrong with this picture? Do not adjust your sets.

No doubt there will be some who’ll instantly lay the blame at the door of those dastardly foreign hoards who’ve invaded our beautiful English grass with their greasy gringo ways and ‘took our jobs’ so to speak. I’m not one of these people, for I see the globalization of our game as doing nothing but good for the standards of our homegrown players. The fault, unfortunately for Daily Mail readers, lies at our own doorsteps. The generation that should have taken over from the media-christened ‘Golden Generation’ just weren’t good enough. They were there, and still are, but they’ve been lost. Take the right wing for example, a position where we’ll no doubt be more covered for than any other. David ‘Baby’ Bentley, Aaron ‘I can run really really fast but I’m not quite sure what to do with this ball thingy when I get there’ Lennon and Mini Wrighty-Phillipsy will all be clamouring for a chance to displace the mighty Lord  David of the holy pants salesmen come the summer, but the likelihood is that we’ll still be relying on the expert passing ability of Golden Balls for sustenance in South Africa. At the very least from the bench. So why? – I hear you scream in frustration.

Well, I can only speculate, but as good a reason as any is the culture in which this generation have grown up. Beckham et al grew up in a footballing world of humility. A world where they still had to clean the boots of the senior players before making the step up. A world before mega hype. A world where you had to work for your Ferrari, not pick it up nonchalantly with your first paycheck. Brazil still produces extraordinary talent yearly, and most Brazilians see football as a way out of poverty. Many, if not most of them, have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at some stage of their life. Most peak too early, and seem to lose interest in the game with nothing left to prove or earn by their late twenties. Little (but now Large) Ronaldo (better known as Ronaldinho) and even larger real Ronaldo are both busy proving this as we speak. You can’t blame this lax attitude solely on money of course. Each individual is different. The one shining exception of the ‘Lost’ generation is Wayne Rooney, a player subjected to nothing but hype, fame and riches as soon as he stepped on a professional football field. Yet he has managed to avoid the pitfalls of nonchalance and complacency. But then again he is a once in a generation player. The Gazza of the Noughties, without the madness. One thing that both David Beckham and his replacement in the Manchester United No.7 shirt, Cristiano Ronaldo, share is a fearsome work ethic. Ronaldo is 10 times the natural talent that Beckham was, but both rose to global prominence due to a personal desire to be the best they could be.

So maybe this is what was missing from the ‘lost’ generation – an actual desire to be the best? Can attaining all the material wealth you desire at an early age really explain the loss of this desire? Neither Beckham nor Ronaldo would have faked the death of their Grandmother to go on the lash during the season. But Gazza might have, and George Best would’ve been killing of Grandmothers on a weekly basis. But they were exceptional. They were Ronaldos not Beckhams. Can this trend be bucked by good man management? The kind that Ferguson and Wenger seem so adept at? Could Bentley, Pennant et al have been reprieved with a better mentor? We can only hope, because this generation, bar Rooney, seems irreversibly lost. With Jack Wilshere making strides at Arsenal and Ravel Morrison breezing his way through the United academy system to significant hype, we must hope that the future is bright for England. Because we don’t want to be wheeling Sir David out of his lucrative retirement advertising hair replacement technology on Dave to take last minute free kicks in 2020. Do we?

Written By Oscar Pye-Jeary