Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: The England team, once the envy of the world, is now in ruins

Where do we start – again – on the latest breakdown in England's ability to compete seriously against grown-up football nations?

As always there is a dismaying range of options, including on this occasion the fiasco of Wayne Rooney, who was welcomed here as a saviour when it was soon clear he was really a half-fit parody of a world-class performer who had quite brainlessly damaged both his own and his team's chances of making a significant impact on this European Championship by getting himself banned from the first two games.

We could dwell for a moment on the ludicrous delay of the Football Association in appointing Fabio Capello's successor, Roy Hodgson – who, it must be said, has handled himself and his thinly stretched squad creditably here these last few weeks – and giving him such scant time to prepare for international football's second-most important tournament.

The coach with the second-least time to shape his team was Ukraine's Oleg Blokhin, who had more than a year to remind his players that no one could challenge his authority.

But then, we have to face it, these are just details in a wide and chronic malaise.

We can rage again about the grotesque imbalance between the money-dripping Premier League's boasting that it is the best in the world while supplying to the national team a pitifully slim stock of adequate players.

We can groan and shake our heads over the portentous announcement by the FA that Under-10 leagues and man-sized pitches will be scrapped, a full 50 years after such a decision by the Feyenoord academy in Rotterdam.

Yet wherever we go we come back to the same starting point. We just cannot cut it at the highest level. We cannot make great footballers and when they happen, in the fashion of Paul Gascoigne or Rooney, we are clueless about the right kind of competitive discipline to impose.

This maybe brings us to still another withering statement about England's long decline from the front rank of football nations. It is to a question posed by an elderly Italian on a tram carrying him away from the Olympic Stadium – not the one here in Kiev but back home in Rome.

It was 35 years ago and the day another England team had been pushed a little further off the road to the World Cup in Argentina in 1978 by an Italian team that had looked – as the latest one did here in Sunday night's quarter-final – embarrassingly superior.

"What," asked the old Italian, "has happened to the English football player? I have always thought of him as a god since as a young man I saw England beat my country 4-0 in Turin in 1948. Italy had a great tradition – already two World Cups – but we could not live with England on that day. They were on another level. Where have such players gone?"

The question had a fresh poignancy on Sunday night when Andrea Pirlo operated in another dimension to those of his England counterparts, Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker.

Gerrard has had a good tournament by his own uneven standards, led with some passion, but here Pirlo was a master and Gerrard might have been just another guileless pupil.

Each of the four semi-finalists will this week parade players plainly on top of their careers and their talent. We will see the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta, Mesut Ozil and Pirlo – and what would England have had to offer in the unlikely event of their surviving Sunday's shoot-out? It would have been a malfunctioning Rooney.

The old Italian touched a sore that shows no sign of healing when he invoked the names of those England players who were so unplayable all those years ago in Turin, destroying an Italian team which contained seven members of a great Torino side.

To remind ourselves that, whatever problems England have today, they are hardly genetic we need only recall some of the names: Frank Swift, Neil Franklin, Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Stan Mortensen and Tom Finney. They also beat Portugal 10-0, away.

So if it isn't the genes, what is it, this collapse of a culture which was once the envy of the world as it clamoured for coaching help from the home of the game?

Partly it is to do with the lost years that came with the FA coaching dictatorship of Charles Hughes, an ex-schoolteacher who patronised the professionals and offered, as his pièce de résistance, the theory of POMO – position of maximum opportunity.

This was based on his theory that the Brazilians had gone wrong. They were not sufficiently direct. A requirement of POMO was the long ball – midfielders wore yellow bibs and one instruction was to hit the frontmen and "miss the Canaries".

On Sunday night, of course, a canary called Andrea Pirlo sang a sweet and haunting song that mocked so much of the recent history of English football.

Hodgson has been criticised for his limited ambition tactically, yet what was he supposed to do with the resources at his disposal?

Should he have gone out and mixed it with a young Ukraine and a much more gifted France? Would he have won the group, however fortuitously, or have been still counting his wounds when another team went in against Italy on Sunday?

There was certainly a price to pay for suggesting that England moved past Ukraine and their brilliant young prospects Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andrei Yarmolenko with a measure of luck that went beyond the failure to grant Ukraine their "goal". It was according, to a worrying depth of opinion, something close to treachery, along with the argument that in all three of their group games England at one stage or another had been quite seriously outplayed.

Hodgson's heaviest critics say that he displayed insufficient adventure. The other view, the one you have to believe comes from the vantage point of reality, is that he made the best of what he had. When Pirlo's Italians took ownership of the ball this seemed, heaven knows, slight enough.

Perhaps he might have invested a little more in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, one young Englishman plainly equipped with the right level of drive and swagger, and shown a little more patience with Danny Welbeck, another who might just have the required quality, but overall his campaign was marked by a willingness to treat every situation on its own merits.

It was an act of desperation throwing in Andy Carroll against Italy but the big man had been an effective rough-house specialist against a fragile Swedish central defence.

When Hodgson's appointment was announced by the FA chairman, David Bernstein, you would not have grasped that the national team had been pitched into another crisis.

The FA had got the only man it had wanted and systems were in place that would guarantee the future strength of the team.

That conviction was presumably still firmly in place when Bernstein sat down next to the Uefa president, Michel Platini, in order to welcome the brave new world of England.

It was one that may just have survived the first wave of Italian passing. Yes, of course, it could have been worse. A less resilient England might have been disposed of long before the treacheries – and sheer failure of nerve – of another penalty shoot-out.

So maybe we should give thanks for a more serious disaster avoided – even as we weep again for all the old ground that still seems so irretrievably lost.

Belfast Telegraph


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