English football's 50 years of failure
Their Euro 2016 exit is the latest in a line of embarrassing failures by the England team. A timely new book asks where it all went wrong since the high of the 1966 World Cup
Towards the close of Fifty Years of Hurt, Henry Winter's heavy-hearted love letter to English football, he urges that: "A footballing nation as historic, wealthy and obsessed as England must target more than heroic failure in quarter-finals."
That line must have felt pretty damning when he typed it several months ago, as the Euro 2016 tournament beckoned for England's promising crop of bright young things. In the light of the horror show against Iceland, a heroic failure in the quarter-finals would at least have allowed England escape with some shred of dignity.
If the events in France have left Winter disconsolate as a fan, they may have the positive effect of driving readers to his book, which is part chronicle, part charge-sheet and part manifesto. In it, he attempts to analyse just what's gone so badly wrong in the 50 years since England lifted the World Cup and to set out a blueprint for curing the sick man of football.
He begins with England's ascent to the heady summit this month 50 years ago, when Alf Ramsey's wingless wonders saw off the Germans at Wembley. Even armed with the best insights that 1966 hero Jack Charlton can provide, trying to nail down the secrets of that singular success proves a fruitless exercise. All we really learn is that manager Alf Ramsey demanded 110% on the pitch, which earned some proper downtime.
On a trip to Pinewood Studios, for example, the players got to lark about with 007 Sean Connery, Yul Brynner and other stars. As Winter says: "This is the clever Ramsey way, working the players hard, but knowing they need to unwind. He keeps the pressure off them and they respond by beating Mexico 2-0."
There is very little in Winter's survey of the past half-century that anyone could argue with, but as already noted, it doesn't gel into anything approaching a unified theory of footballing success or failure. There are lots of interviews with ex-players the author admires, as he partly pursues The Great Man Theory of footballing history (it's a Victorian term), venerating lion-hearted England heroes like Bobby Moore.
But he gives equal weight to the role of good management, singling out Bobby Robson as perhaps England's finest since Ramsey, while taking time to rehabilitate the tarnished reputations of Glenn Hoddle and Don Revie.
An object of ridicule in the 1970s, Revie's detailed dossiers on the opposition were, Winter argues, decades ahead of their time, making the much-maligned manager "a revolutionary".
Hoddle was forced out in 1999, ostensibly because of his faith in spiritualist Eileen Drury and screwy comments he made about people with disabilities. But, according to Winter, his ousting had as much to do with the fact that the manager demanded more skill and imagination from his players than they were either willing or able to give.
Defending Hoddle, ex-striker Ian Wright tells the author: "The reason why (the players) had issues with him is because he would slaughter them and show them what he wanted them to do. And he could do it. That's what they didn't like. Because he was so good still as a technical player, if we didn't do the training right, keeping the ball up, knocking it back 25 yards, if we let it drop, he was very, very upset. 'You're meant to be the best players in the country and you can't even do this f****** exercise!'".
Winter argues that this skills deficit in the players was, and is, mirrored in a mindset deeply embedded in the English Football Association, as outlined in a chapter entitled Fear of Flair. The author doesn't bother to conceal his disdain for those he calls the Blazers of the FA.
As Winter puts it: "The anti-flair brigade terrorise football for too long, give a licence to kill creativity by parents screaming 'Get stuck in!', supine referees, macho coaches and an FA misguidedly committed to robust, direct football as promoted by its director of coaching, Charles Hughes, dubbed "Doctor Death of the Beautiful Game".
According to Winter, England today is producing some of the finest young talents in the world, only for the FA to stand idly by while the showbiz side of the business distracts, demotivates and ultimately derails them.
Colin Gordon, who has nurtured the young talents of Theo Walcott, Saido Berahino and Jamie Vardy, explains: "The huge contracts destroy them. The first thing you do is get a Louis Vuitton wash-bag (£600), then it's the Range Rover, then the girlfriend, then the watches. The lads are cocooned. They go from training ground to expensive apartment to the VIP areas of nightclubs. They don't mix down the pub like it used to be. They don't know what the average man does for a living. They can't relate at all. They don't develop any social skills whatsoever.
"Technically, we are far, far superior than we've ever been. They can play. Our failing is we're not getting the kids through to the first team, because of the distractions. We're creating the distractions."
Winter's rogues' gallery includes filthy-rich clubs, who'll lure kids as young as 10 or 12 by plying grasping parents with gifts and promises, before signing the most talented in their mid-teens for maybe £2m a year while grubby agents pimp the deals.
If there is a positive - and it would apply across the board and not just to English talent - it is that the broken system can be fixed if the will exists.
Winter's closing chapter, A Blueprint for Change, offers a comprehensive list of suggestions for giving England a sporting chance at the World Cup Finals in Qatar, 2022.
After some 371 pages, you would think that he'd know better than to assume they'll be there.
- Henry Winter's Fifty Years of Hurt: The Story of England Football and Why We Never Stop Believing is published by Bantam Press, priced £20