The concept of unity and spirit within a football team, are very much like the optional extras you get when purchasing a new car. Like the coffee-cup holders; they’re handy, they make life easier and they go a fair way to preventing complete chaos when it all spills over. However, they’re not life or death. You don’t need the coffee-cup holders to drive to the shops and you don’t need all 23 players in an England squad to be best mates either.
As Roy Keane wrote off England’s Euro 2012 chances yesterday, it was interesting to hear his reasoning behind it. As opposed to pointing out the blindingly obvious fact that our players simply aren’t actually that good, he decided to venture on a tirade about ‘team spirit’ and a ‘lack of unity’.
“I think England, like a lot of countries, not just in soccer, find it hard to get that unity and spirit,” Keane said.
“Michael Carrick didn’t make himself available, Paul Scholes retired a few years ago. Ben Foster has not made himself available. Sometimes they just don’t like what they see when they get together. They don’t want to be part of it.”
Unsurprisingly, the Irishman doesn’t think much of our Euro 2012 chances. But let’s first try to take him at face value. Ignoring the fact he uses the word ‘soccer’, history tells us that this is a man who would seemingly have absolute contempt for squad unity at a major tournament. Indeed, Roy’s unique way of invigorating the Irish national team’s team spirit in preparation for the 2002 World Cup, was to publically undermine his manager, Mick McCarthy, in the media, before lambasting him in a team-meeting, resulting in expulsion from the team.
Yet whilst Keane spent the summer at home walking the dogs, Ireland actually managed a relatively successful tournament- they got out of a group including Germany and a decent Cameroon side and went agonizingly close to the quarter-finals, loosing to Spain on penalties. Not bad for a team that was split down the middle between the allegiances towards either Keane or McCarthy.
Even if we put aside Keane’s hypocrisy, his own examples he uses in the very same interview, contradict his point. As he mentions, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham never got on. In fact, Andy Cole has publically stated he would rather “sit down and have a cuppa with Neil Ruddock, (who broke his leg in two places in 1996) than with Teddy Sheringham, who I’ve pretty much detested for the past 15 years.” Those two may never have played Top Trumps together on the coach, but I’m pretty sure they won the treble with United. But of course that doesn’t count does it, as it’s not an international set-up.
If anything, at club-level you are spending as much time on coaches and in hotels as in a tournament. Players see each other every day in training, for an entire season. The difference is with Cole and Sheringham, is that they were fantastic footballers. For example, If Gareth Barry and Glen Johnson have a huge, falling-out, people will point to that as England’s failure. Not the fact that neither of them are international class players.
Lothar Matthäus and Stefan Effenberg managed to play pretty successfully for Germany and Bayern Munich, despite a bubbling undercurrent of hate between them. The latter even dedicated an entire chapter in his autobiography to slating Matthäus. You can hardly say those two were unified.
Again, the Dutch aren’t just masters of total football, they are the perennial masters of systematic arguing and petty feuds. But Euro 96 aside, they’ve always tended to outperform England at major tournaments. Not because they all liked each other, but because they’re superior footballers. As recent as the 2010 World Cup, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder were involved in a very public feud. They finished runners-up.
And this is the point that Keane is missing. Unity and team spirit are important traits in any football team, but they don’t define a winning team. The bread and butter is who’s playing and how they’re playing and history shows us that even if great players don’t like each other, they’re still capable of winning football matches.
Keane may be Irish, but his opinions are forged in England. His final quote hits the nail on the head.
“They (the England team at the 2010 World Cup) were holed up somewhere for two or three weeks before and the players were p***** off with that. I think the mentality doesn’t suit England, being stuck in hotels,”
The fact that we concern ourselves more with whether 23 men can keep themselves occupied in a hotel for a fortnight than the fact those 23 men aren’t as good as the other teams competing is problematic. Our failure is continuously pinned on a sideshow, be it WAGS, be it training bases and in this case, the ‘unity of the squad’. Focus on the way the players are playing Roy, not how they’re getting on. As ultimately, that is and always will be, the most important thing.
Think I’m wrong? Will warring and in-fighting ruin our European Championship hopes? Let me know on Twitter, follow @samuel_antrobus