A lesson from England?

Two years ago, after their exit from the World Cup, I wrote a post about how England’s litany of failure drew me closer to Oxford. The club were on the up; promoted at Wembley a month before, while the inflated arrogance of the England team had been finally exposed. Then, I believed that England could learn from the journey that the club had been on; now, the situation has reversed.

I don’t think I was alone in failing to get excited about the quarter-final against Italy. My Facebook timeline suggested that the masochistic excitement that comes with epic and heroic failure is now reserved only for those who otherwise don’t care about football. It will probably be another couple of tournaments before those people realise that, actually these defeats are due to inability, not bad luck. Those who follow the game knew that England’s demise was inevitable and that it was not a question of if, but when, they would be put to the sword.

It wasn’t Roy Hodgson’s fault; the European Championships is the best international tournament in the world; it’s compact and high quality, there is no time for innovation and experimentation. You arrive and have to perform. At 64, Hodgon’s management career is unlikely to stretch beyond the next World Cup, he knows he won’t be around when a crock of technically gifted, tactically aware, creative English players arrive to rival the game’s elite.

Hodgson played England to their strengths – agricultural, lion hearted, purple faced, bulging veined football. In that sense, the campaign was a success because, finally, England have a manager who understand what he’s dealing with. He also knows that England’s problem run deeper than he can influence.

Just how deep? Just before extra-time, Gary Linekar asked his panel of experts what England needed to do now, the response was ‘dig in’, ‘believe’ and ‘stick at it’. During the commentary Mark Lawrenson said that Andrea Pirlo was ‘playing in his slippers’ and that his chipped penalty ‘took bottle’. Pirlo was playing out of his skin; the product of intensive coaching and a regimented fitness regime, his penalty was a product of highly developed technique. Until we stop talking about football like it’s an act of sorcery, there is no hope.

Failure is engrained deep in the psychological muscle memory of English football. We focus on ‘dreaded penalties’ with extra-time just an incidental preamble. We ignore that we haven’t beaten one of the elite nations (Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Spain or France) in a tournament for 30 years, or that we’ve scored just once in extra-time in 23. What is needed is a structured analysis of the whole match process; not just what it feels like to walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot. If penalties are such a psychological block, then why not look at what can be achieved in extra time? What if we threw a bit of pace at the issue and went for glory? England’s failure was not to experiment while they could.

To see how far you can fall, you only have to look north to the disintegration of the Scottish game. That story is only partly about tax evasion. Scotland is the unlikely genesis of the modern game. If you read Inverting the Pyramid – A History of Football Tactics (not a title that impresses girls); it was the Scottish that invented passing (the English believed it effete). The lineage passes through Jock Stein and the Lisbon Lions, through Bill Shankly, Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson. Innumerable unknown Scots took their game all over the world.

Celtic and Rangers became monsters sitting on a brittle infrastructure; weakened by a lack of investment and anti-competitive tactics. First to go was the national team – England beware – then the corruption of competition through TV rights – England beware – then, when that wasn’t enough, debt accumulation and finally tax evasion. It has taken the whole Scottish game back to the dark ages. The likely rejection of Rangers’ ‘newco’ into the SPL is not what Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s chairman poetically refers to as ‘maintaining sporting integrity’, it allows Scotland, to use footballing parlance, to rebuild from the back.

When the Premier League billionaires get move on or subvert the game towards the illegal or cripplingly boring; the English game could easily drop to a level that would make a Euro quarter-final seem like putting a man on the moon.

But what does this teach Oxford? Well, our Conference days might remind us that there is no bottom to which we could fall. But England’s plight and the casual language we use shows that complacency is often deeper than we think.

Towards the end of last season, we reverted to back to our bad old ways – our entitlement to success, the oversimplification of the solution into spending money, the assessment that anything that wasn’t good was crap. Over the last three years we have built ourselves some solid foundations – from a midfield marshalled by Phil Trainer to one marshalled by Peter Leven – from Gary Twigg to James Constable. This close season has been quiet, because those foundations remain sound and possibly because of the £300k charge from Firoka which took us into the red last year. That charge may knock back the development plan a little; we need to manage it, not ignore it. 

Those who believe that future success is inevitable would do well to look towards the Scottish game and its collapse in chasing something unattainable, those who believe that the solution is easy, might look at the state of the English national team and how in two years nothing has changed, those who think it’s someone else’s fault, would do well to look at themselves.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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