Spineless. Pampered. Weak. Cowardly. Underachieving.
In the wake of England’s terrible defeat to Iceland, these sorts of words have become the linguistic norm when evaluating Hodgson’s side. With the manager gone and having fallen in the last 16 to a side featuring barely any significant names, the media and professional observers are tearing into the team for what is seen as the worst failure of an England side since the defeat to a semi-pro USA in 1950. It is a guttural cry against a talented team full of Premier League stars under performing on the big stage and shaming their fans and nation. Safe to say, it is a cry we have heard before.
One does not have to reach back the 1950s to find evidence of a similar England failure being torn apart as a doomsday event. Think back to 2007, when McClaren’s side melted away in the rain of Wembley as defeat to Croatia meant no place at EURO 2008 and the death knell of much of the ‘golden generation’. Or in the last 16 of World Cup 2010, when a Lampard ‘goal’ masked a game where a tactically Neanderthal England were schooled by a modern, fluid German side. Each time, the criticisms were similar: cowardly, lazy, not enough effort, these players are good enough etc.
Yet here we are again: new team, new manager, different situation, same complaints. The fallout has begun and will continue to be splashed across tabloid and website alike. We will call for change and demand a new approach. A new coach will come in, tweak personnel and tactics. No doubt we will qualify well, using momentum from a domestic season to rekindle hope. Then, when the pressure comes, no doubt we will again fail. Simple passes would be misplaced; crosses would hit the first man; a centre-forward would take every single set piece. We would, again, ‘underachieve’.
It is that mentality, carried across generations of English football, that explains so much of this, and past failures. It also explains the readiness to compare this to the USA defeat, and makes the comparison all the more apt. That defeat – a moment as fundamental to the history of English football as ’66, the 6-3 against Hungary or the innovations of the Herbert Chapman – was when England’s ego was meant to have shattered. England, the nation who had spread modern football the world, had lost to a nation to whom soccer was a fifth rate past time. It was the moment when the world, and England, discovered the emperor had no clothes. The wizard was less than he seemed, hiding behind a mirage of tricks and bluster that hid his true, underwhelming modesty.
To see this Iceland defeat as akin to that historic humbling speaks of the secret we know to be true but refuse to admit: we are still as arrogant as when we claimed to have invented football. Iceland beat Holland 3-0 en route to a comfortable EUROS qualification, having just missed out on the 2014 World Cup in the playoffs. To the English however, they were amateurs. I mean, where are their big names? England delegates celebrating the realisation they had Iceland after the group was that same smugness: we’ve got a bye into the quarters here, lads! Almost 70 years have passed and so many lessons available to learn, but time and again it is that same swagger: we are England, we should win.
Think back again to those Croatia and Germany defeats. Before the loss at Wembley, everyone was prepared for victory. Croatia – World Cup semi-finalists of ’98 with a squad of Modric, Olic et al – were just a team in the way: no big names, no history, no problem. We played like it didn’t matter what they did, because our classic blend of English quality will win out. Then in South Africa, we lost really because Lamps didn’t get this goal. Passed off the park? Humbled by an innovative side? Nope, just didn’t try hard enough. We can win, but only if the players can bothered. Or if those refs do their jobs properly.
To continue to see ourselves as special – as somehow still remotely akin to our past of global domination and Hurst hat tricks – plays such a big part in why we English continue to make the same mistakes. We continue to see unfamiliar teams as easy games as they lack our pedigree and sense of self. When we fail, it’s because we did not try enough, or because of an individual easy to blame: a manager, an official, a particularly pampered member of the England team. To take lessons from those who humiliate us is to admit that our failings are anything other than isolated aberrations at odds with the normal standard of our glorious football tradition.
The truth of the matter? England were awful against Iceland. They showed us, as we have been shown so often before, that collective organisation and intelligence beats out individual stars. They showed us, once again, that a team earns its success from thought-out, effective game plans that expose opposition weaknesses and makes the most of its own talents and resources.
It is a lesson that English football has had endlessly for generations. Once again however, our legacy blinds us to realistic assessment. This is another disaster not because of systematic failures, but because of failures to meet historic highs utterly detached from the realities of modern English football. As youngsters are given pitifully small access to quality coaching, we see only overpaid failures not trying like the legends of old.
Sterling is Matthews, but his era of football has died. Its mentality, of an England blind to its own complicated shortcomings and fixated on effort and deserved glory, sadly has not. We need to think anew. Otherwise, we will continue to be the feeble old wizard, bluffing away until, once again, a right-minded adversary pulls back the curtain.