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The English disease: a loss of perspective

England’s wins against Israel and Russia show that we’re not as bad or as good as we think. We’re life’s perennial quarter-finalists.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Strange things happen when I’m on holiday.

In September 2001, while I was sunning myself in Italy, Germany somehow contrived to lose 5-1 at home to England. This summer something similarly odd happened. When I jetted off to the south of France a couple of weeks ago, the nation was engulfed in wrist-slashing pessimism ahead of the Euro 2008 qualifying games against Israel and Russia. Our best players were all crocked; the boo-boys were in full voice after recent clueless performances; our first-choice goalkeeper had become a nervous, butter-fingered blunderer; the strikers couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo; and the under-fire manager, Steve McClaren, was reportedly on the brink of the sack.

I returned this week to find that all the truths which I had previously held to be self-evident had been consigned, along with flat earth theory and racial craniology, to the wheelie bin of history. The England team was not the disjointed rabble we had come to expect but a well-balanced unit that was scoring goals for fun. Emile Heskey, hitherto a clumsy, goal-shy donkey, was now a national hero. A juvenile barely out of short trousers called Micah Richards was marauding down the right wing alongside ickle Shaun Wright Phillips. The Chelsea winger, who’d resembled a pub footballer against Spain in February, was now back to his defence-tormenting best.

Gareth Barry, supposedly a defender, was strolling around imperiously in central midfield delivering defence-splitting passes. Even metatarsal injuries ain’t what they used to be – it transpires that both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have both been playing with broken toes. And, as for the much-maligned Steve McClaren, no longer wearing that trademark look of beetroot-faced bewilderment, he was grinning broadly as cynical sports hacks applauded him for his tactical audacity.

What’s going on? Has the world gone totally bonkers? Well, not quite. It is often said that hooliganism is the ‘English disease’. Well that may have been true in the past. These days, however, the phrase ‘English disease’ would be better used to describe our chronic propensity for losing all sense of proportion over football. If England win a game or two, the St George flags are unfurled, phrases like ‘golden generation’ start being bandied about, OBEs get dished out, and bookies report a surge of punters backing England to win a major tournament.

If we lose a game the players are branded as overpaid underachievers, the coach is mercilessly pilloried as an incompetent root-vegetable, and there’s a handwringing media inquest into the parlous state of the national game. This week’s wins against Israel and Russia have, predictably, sparked another bout of ridiculous hyperbole. In truth, we are neither as good nor as bad as we imagine ourselves to be: we’re just half-decent; life’s perennial quarter-finalists.

Invariably, the reaction to this week’s much-needed victories over Israel and Russia contained a large and very British dollop of overreaction. Having stumbled upon a balanced formation, largely because his options were so limited, McClaren is now being urged not to change a winning formula. Nobody of firm mind was clamouring for Emile Heskey’s recall a few weeks ago, but suddenly he’s now regarded as indispensable. Many even argue that Heskey should keep his place at the expense of Wayne Rooney. Meanwhile David Beckham, the recycled Messiah, and is former United team mate Gary Neville, are being written off after the sparkling performances of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Micah Richards. Steven Gerrard has even said that the current England squad is the best he’s played in. ‘If this team clicks, the quality in this squad is probably better than the squads with which I’ve gone into big tournaments in the past’, he said. ‘There is more quality.’

Now, let’s just get a few things straight. England gave Israel a good shoeing, but then the visitors were so abject it’s difficult to assess how good the performance actually was. Beating Israel should be greeted with restrained congratulatory job-done handshakes, not wild celebrations or flag-waving euphoria. And as for singing the backs-to-the wall used-to-be-amusing-but-is-now-just-tiresome plucky underdog anthem The Great Escape when playing a team ranked thirty-third in the world, well that’s just sad. The victory against Russia – or the ‘Soviets’ as Motty referred to them during the game – was more impressive and worthy of a few hearty cheers. But let’s not forget that England ought to be beating teams of Russia’s calibre, that is, one place below Scotland in the Fifa rankings. It’s what we used to do routinely in qualifying rounds, and with far less backslapping, during Sven’s tenure.

And just because England’s players performed more cohesively this week, it doesn’t mean that our recurring problems – lack of creativity, inability to keep the ball – have been fixed for good. Both Israel and Russia defended poorly. Against less generous defences, England’s lack of invention from open play will undoubtedly be exposed again. And this means that the Wright-Phillips versus Beckham debate is far from settled. Becks might not have the pace or trickery of Wright-Phillips, but his threat from set-pieces has been England’s get-out-of-jail card time and again against well-marshalled defences. The same goes for the right-back spot. Micah Richards looks like the real deal, but he’s still raw and inexperienced – so it would be stupidity incarnate to consider dumping Gary Neville.

When the injured players are fit again, McClaren will have some tough decisions to make about who plays on the right and in the centre. But at least these are good dilemmas to have. The Crouch versus Heskey debate, which has also been raging all week, is of a different order altogether. To recap, both players have their uses. Crouch can link play, his freakish height makes him a handful for defenders, he’s got a decent goals-to-game ratio and, of course, he’s got GFBM (Great Feet for a Big Man). Heskey, too, can link play, his physical strength can unsettle defenders, he’s better in the air than Crouch but doesn’t score many goals, and, while undoubtedly big, he isn’t blessed with the GFBM gene. So, who is it to be: Crouch or Heskey? Or, as some are now asking: Heskey or Rooney? Personally, I think that these questions are red herrings. What we should be asking ourselves is this: Do we stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning any major trophy with Crouch or Heskey as first-choice strikers? The answer, obviously, is no.

I’m not trying to piss on Steve McClaren’s parade, just attempting to keep a sense of proportion. This week’s games have shown that, when England string a few passes together and Michael Owen is firing on all cylinders, we aren’t as rubbish as the performances in Tel Aviv and Andorra suggested. We’re not exactly world champions-in-waiting, either. But, for now, we are at least a team once more. And our qualifying campaign is on track again. In other words, we’re back to where we were under Sven. We can now look forward to McClaren’s men realising their full potential – that is, qualifying for Euro 2008, getting through the group stage, going out on penalties to the first half-decent team they encounter, and weeping shamelessly in public. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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