June 20, 2010


The Decline And Fall Of The English National Football Team

by Gavin Newsham
246 pages, Atlantic Books

They think it’s all clover by Pat Black

It’s a sticky July evening in 1990. Like many other families across the globe, Clan Black is watching the Italia ‘90 World Cup semi-final live on television. It’s a terrific tie between two old footballing enemies, West Germany and England, at the Stadio delli Alpi in Turin.

Some iconic footballing moments occur; the Germans’ horrible opening goal, a deflection from a free kick; Gary Lineker’s snapshot equaliser; Paul Gascoigne’s tears of despair upon realising that he will be suspended should England reach the final.

It finishes 1-1 after extra time. Now, it’s left to the drama and cruelty of a penalty shoot-out to decide the winners. England have already missed one by the time Chris Waddle lines up to take their fifth. If the swashbuckling Marseille player cannot score, the English are out.

He takes a good long run-up; he’s going to smack the ball with that phenomenal left foot of his. Everyone holds their breath.

And up, up, up it goes, over the bar, over the crowd... perhaps even higher still, clearing the roof, past the floodlights, into the northern Italian night skies, even as Waddle and the rest of his team-mates collapse to the turf in despair.

Thousands of miles away, the Blacks erupt in the most unseemly display of schadenfreude you’re ever likely to see. Howls from hell, almost as if we’d won the tie ourselves. Almost as if our own country had gotten as far as the semi-finals, instead of being knocked out in typically tragi-comic fashion in the group phase weeks beforehand. We are Scots, you see.

This sourness comes as a bit of a shock to many English people. I’m constantly told that whenever England aren’t playing, they tend to cheer on the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish teams, perhaps seeing them as plucky younger cousins. The attitudes towards the English on the part of the other home nations and Ireland, of course, is somewhat different.

I’m ashamed of our reaction towards England’s unfortunate exit on that night. Nowadays, at worst, I would perhaps laugh up my sleeve at their footballing misfortune – as I did when poor Rob Green let that one slither through his grasp against the United States the other night – but there’s no way I’d get the boot into England. Well, not seriously.English girlfriend, English family, English friends, English work colleagues – beyond very simple matey banter, I do not hate people blindly. You grow up, you go places, you live and learn. To declare “I hate England, I hate the English” is racist.

Back on that night in 1990, there were some mitigating circumstances. We were all together in the days after a keynote funeral in the Black family annals, so there was a bit of catharsis in our relief, our glee, at England getting put out. But don’t get me wrong: the main reason for these wild celebrations was that during that 120 minutes-plus of football, we wanted England to lose. The idea of them being in the final of the World Cup made us feel ill.

I won’t answer for other nationalities (and I’ll put the tricky issue of politics to the side for this review), but many otherwise reasonable Scots would tell you that they dislike England not because of the players or the fans (hooligans aside), but because of the media. When we watch matches featuring English commentators – even if it’s a European match like the Champions League final, which this year didn’t include any English teams – we are constantly reminded of the English game. There is a hysteria and hype in the newspapers and websites, and even to a certain extent on the good old BBC, whipping the people of England up into a frenzy. References to 1966, when England won the World Cup on home soil, don’t take long to materialise. It irks some Scots (not me; as I always say to these people, “Do you think we’d shut up about it if we’d won the World Cup?”). But it’s interesting to note that this irks some English fans too.

Gavin Newsham’s excellent book covers England’s managerial merry-go-round since World Cup winning coach Sir Alf Ramsey left the job, focusing on this bizarre and counter-productive feeding frenzy. Ten men have put on the FA blazer since then, and all of them have failed to guide England to a major championship – some more spectacularly than others.

Newsham’s background in the front-lines of the media during many of these years guarantees some meticulous research. But the great strength of Hype and Glory is in its sense of humour, and the way in which he’s captured the characters in English football so well.

The late Sir Bobby Robson – the man who took England to the brink of the final in 1990 - is seen as a kindly if somewhat doddery old uncle who finally got it right at the right time. It was nice to see Sir Bobby’s achievements in the game being rightly recognised before his death last year, but I always used to sneer at the revisionism you saw in the English press. I can well remember the way he was treated in the 1980s when things weren’t going so well with England. I can remember one TV advert for a tabloid newspaper in which an image of the manager’s face is whacked with a rolled-up copy of the rag.

Kevin Keegan is portrayed as the highly-strung, over-enthusiastic character, and the worst of the bunch. The author rightly mocks the man’s outrageous perm, and his dabblings in the pop charts. Who could forget the Mighty Mouse’s outrageous trousers in that clip with Little and Large from the early ‘80s? But Newsham rather gallantly mitigates some of Keegan’s more bizarre decisions and performances as a manager, especially near the end of his tenure when he had to cope with the sudden death of his mother.

Sven-Goran Eriksson’s chapter yields some big laughs, with the man’s rather baffling lady-killing activities so lip-smackingly well rendered that the chapter should be accompanied with a sleazy saxophone score. Almost incidental to Sven’s lack of trouser control is the fact that his “golden generation” of players, Beckham et al, was desperately unlucky on penalty kicks again when they might easily have gone on to win tournaments. Newsham is keen to mention this, but opts to let the facts speak for themselves when detailing the tabloid sting that eventually led to the Swede getting his jotters.

In Graham Taylor’s wonderful years of farce, Newsham is in overdrive; the headline defeats, the refereeing rip-off in Amsterdam when they were unfairly knocked out of the World Cup at the qualification stage, and Taylor’s four-letter littered glory – all captured by a camera crew he allowed to document the whole tragedy. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, never skimping on the enormous laughs to be had at poor Taylor’s expense while also focusing on how bad the man’s luck was, as well as how mentally tough he must have been to take the brickbats constantly hurled at him by a rabid press. Did he not like that?

Glenn Hoddle comes across as a fatally deluded man, relying on hocus pocus faith healers rather than the science of the game – his methods of the latter, ironically, being rather beautifully practised in his playing days. And Terry Venables, who you suspect Newsham has a great deal of respect for (he certainly has a lot of direct and indirect quotes, which suggests he had plenty of access to the man in the writing of the book), is shown as having been brought down by some Gordian legal issues that plagued his time in charge at Euro ’96. This tournament held in England was when football came home, only for the Germans to beat them in the semi-finals again. On penalties.


One character casts a bigger shadow across the book than any of the managers, though – Paul Gascoigne. Stories of his madcap antics, whether it’s having a ketchup fight with Robbie Fowler, running naked through the gardens of a hotel, his foul-mouthed dealings with the foreign press, presiding over the infamous “dentist’s chair” antics ahead of Euro ’96 or just generally being, as Sir Bobby Robson said, “daft as a brush”, really brighten up these pages and provide some belly laughs. Gascoigne, who is still in hospital after a car crash as I write, seems to have been on a very dark path for a few years now, but there’s no doubting the ebullience and joy he brought to the English game, whatever his flaws. This book pays a fine tribute to him.

What’s also well-rendered is the by-no-means-exclusively English problem of football hooliganism. Newsham rightly points to the Heysel tragedy and English club sides’ resultant long-term ban from European football as having caused a lot of problems in the national game, but he doesn’t shy away from the sometimes appalling, sometimes murderous problems English football hooligans have wrought upon other countries as well as their own over the years. The tale of a Russian man stabbed to death because he “sounded German” in the wake of England’s defeat in the Euro ’96 semi-finals is, quite simply, hellish. When the side failed to qualify for the World Cup in the USA in 1994, one official’s summary says it all: “We’re relieved. There are three teams we didn’t want to see here – Iran, Iraq and England.”

The chapter detailing Steve McClaren’s ill-starred tenure as manager does not spare the lash. The man known as the “Wally with a Brolly” after he paraded up and down the touchline at a sodden Wembley in England’s disastrous final qualifying match against Croatia is lambasted as only having won the league cup with Middlesbrough, and for taking on a job that was plainly too big for him. The author is unstinting in his criticism. And yet, in the framing of this chapter there is an apparent irony that would not have occurred to Newsham in the writing of the book.

Steve McClaren had actually guided Middlesbrough FC to a European final, which is no small achievement, on top of the league cup win (itself, no small achievement in these days of a Big Four monopoly on the major English trophies). He went on to manage the Dutch side FC Twente in the wake of the Euro ’08 qualifying debacle. He took this unfashionable side to their highest league position in decades in his first year. And by the end of his second term – well after Newsham’s book was sent to the printers – he wrote himself into Dutch footballing folklore by winning Twente the championship. All of a sudden, the so-called Wally was one of Europe’s most sought-after coaches.

This man was traduced in his own country, and his redemption has been pleasing to see. In fact, taking into account the fact that he also assisted Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United during their late-1990s glory years, I would argue that rather than being shown up as a failure or out of his depth, the England job has been the only blip in Steve McClaren’s otherwise accomplished career. The same could also be said for poor old Graham “can we not knock it?” Taylor. His syntax I can’t condone, but his record in football away from the Three Lions is hard to argue with.

And so, too, with Sven. Notwithstanding his impressive scoring record with the ladies, he underachieved with England in a career which has otherwise been deluged with trophies in the club game, all the way from Sweden to Portugal to Rome.

Why is that? What is the black hole that sucks in success at Wembley Stadium? Is these managers’ relative failure with England symptomatic of the men themselves, or the job and the surrounding culture? Perhaps this is a question that the media should be examining, as well as their own relationship to the national team and the men brave or foolish enough to take on this role.

Newsham grapples with the reasons why England failed, and why the nation continues to have such unrealistic expectations of its international footballers. He comes to a harsh conclusion: that from 1970 to the present day, England simply weren’t good enough. Most controversially, he argues that England’s finest hour in 1966 has fatally flawed every other campaign since; that the achievement of the ultimate honour has created a rod for every successive team’s back. Each side in the intervening years has had to endure a non-stop comparison with Charlton, Moore, Hurst, Banks, Peters et al - which is both unfair and burdensome.

Will England under Fabio Capello continue to be saddled with this baggage in this summer’s ongoing World Cup tournament? We don’t have long to find out – in my case, typing this on Friday June 18th, ahead of England’s make-or-break tie with Algeria, merely hours.

Right, that’s the end of the review. I’m now going to put forward some of my own ideas and theories on what went wrong with England. If you don’t want to know the score - as I see it - look away now.

I think Newsham’s “1966 was a bad thing” argument pulls England’s achievements and justifiable pride in a great side into an ontological white rabbit hole. Why be negative about taking the title of World Champions? It’s there to be celebrated. What’s wrong with having idols for people to look up to, to emulate? Try being Scottish for two minutes, fellas!

I think there’s perhaps something in the psyche of the English national game which points to the reasons they come up short when they could well have gone on to match their predecessors. Why is it that the other night, I watched England – coached by Capello, one of the most respected coaches and foremost tactical thinkers in football - resort to launching high balls at Emile Heskey in their opening game? Franz Beckenbauer was right – they should be better than that. Is there something wrong with the coaching infrastructure? Do old habits die hard? I suspect there is still a culture where grit and muscle is valued over guile and technique. England built a team around Bryan Robson in the 1980s – a great player and a fine competitor. But in any other team in Europe, they would have built it around Glenn Hoddle or Chris Waddle – artists, not workmen.

Is the Premier League – source of so much arrogance and misplaced pride – part of the problem, with its reliance on over-paid players, many of them from overseas, rather than home-grown talent? Is the money culture a factor, too? I would have looked up to plenty of English players in the 1966 team; I wouldn’t look up to any of these guys in the 2010 model.

Maybe there’s a cultural problem, too. If you’re ever fortunate enough to be in the mixed zone with the press after a big European match, you can expect to speak to footballers from Europe and elsewhere who are fluent in English, and might go on to take questions in two or three other languages from reporters. I would be surprised if you got the same from any one of the England players. David Beckham played in Spain for years and yet he could barely squeeze out a sentence in Spanish in press conferences in all that time.

So maybe this is an educational issue rather than a sporting one. Perhaps we (I mean the UK) need to build a more continental outlook in our education system – to be less insular, to embrace other languages and other cultures. It may not seem to have much to do with football, but perhaps this application of different methods of playing the game, taking into account nutrition, fitness, facilities and youth coaching (we are getting there... but slowly) might eventually bring results. Modern coaching at school level in Europe seems to be brimming with ideas... non-competitive play up till the age of 14, in order to hone players’ basic skills rather than teaching them to win at all costs; practising penalties at the end of every match in Holland in order to inure the next generation of players with a level of comfort in taking penalties after matches. All progressive ideas; is there an equivalent to this type of lateral thinking in the game across Britain?

Restructuring league systems and diverting the flow of supporters’ and sponsors’ cash out of fatcats’ pockets wouldn’t go amiss either. There’s a revolution ongoing in the German Bundesliga, where ticket prices and players’ wages were slashed and capped in recent years as a way of halting the financial folly of the modern game, and to stop clubs going to the wall as economic conditions worsened. This experiment has had the benefits of a more competitive league played in front of full houses, no matter where these teams place in the table. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Man United and Liverpool fans, do I have your attention?

One final point to make, about the team itself. Just as the England team carries the hopes of an over-expectant nation, it could be that what you see on the pitch actually does, horror of horrors, reflect on the nation itself. You should hope not. The star player, a snarling, petulant pit-bull regardless of his undeniable gifts; the captain, who gets away with punching people in nightclubs despite being caught doing so on camera; the former captain and the left back, both adulterers – the latter of whom, let’s not forget, famously stating that he felt being paid a paltry £50,000 a week to play a game was unacceptable.

England did not start the World Cup well, but there are many previous winners and finalists who have fared worse in their opening ties. The footballing gods are fickle. When Italy won the last World Cup, their national game was mired in corruption, their top teams punished and demoted by the moral cognoscenti in Fifa. Who knows, perhaps with a fair wind and outrageous fortune, the expectant hordes draped in St George’s blood red cross might yet see another gold star above the Three Lions after this summer, for all their strife.

I’m not putting any money on it, though.

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