Three reasons why the English lose
By Rob Casey
Wednesday 13 Jul 2011 15:13:00
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The England football team: excellent club players who at their best display the bulldog spirit but ultimately go out on penalties, and at their worst snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And not a bulldog’s jaws, mind you, but a chihuahua’s, or often something German and purposefully bred, like a dachshund perhaps.

So given that our players, man to man, (and more recently woman to woman) are of a standard that looks good on paper, why do we consistently underperform on grass (as well as other surfaces, such as those damned artificial pitches)? Essentially, what is it in the English footballing psyche that makes us lose all the time?

 

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These questions are as old as time, or more specifically the time when an Englishman picked up a football and asked a foreigner for a game.

The answers are multi-various and range from systemic problems at the root of the sport, including youth development, which has led to a lack of technical skill and focus, to a more modern problem relating to the business of football, which pressurises clubs, their managers and ultimately therefore the players into producing short-term results, potentially at the cost of long-term achievement.

The media are, somewhat ironically, getting a bad press at the moment, but in relation to this latter point, the manipulation of fans’ expectations is also part of the problem, tied in with the business of football, and it is this area that is under closer scrutiny at this point in time.

Sir Trevor Brooking, as Football Association Director of Development, has rightly been tasked with improving England’s future at youth level, but needs to be given far more scope for radical change and (now I’m being idealistic) the investment to do it properly.

However, the three reasons currently being cited for why the English lose have emerged over the last week from three experienced heads on the international scene. And they come down to the following:

Selfishness, raised expectations and fear of failure.

Former England international Paul Scholes, who retired from international football in 2004, but continued playing at club level until this year, 2011, has only just spoken out over the real reasons for what many considered a desertion of the national side.

“I got fed up. When you are going to a team, and you want to be part of a team and playing well, and there are individuals who are after personal glory.

“I always felt when I first started going away with England, players…try to use England as a way to get to a top club.

“I think they are all there to get their bit of glory, their headlines, to think, ‘Oh, I will get a move from this’. That is the biggest problem with English players: that most of them are just too selfish.”

Identified by Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola as “the best midfielder of his generation” and by fellow player Xavi as “the best central midfield I have seen”, Scholes does not believe that a lack of ability is the problem for England’s players, many of whom are world class when playing in high profile matches at club level.

“No, it is probably more attitude. If you look through our teams, there are loads of technically brilliant players but for some reason when we go onto the international scene, we don’t look like that. Why? I just don’t know. We, England, go to these tournaments with the greatest of hopes when really the reality of winning something is not really there because there are so many good teams.

“It is just the way we are. I think it is quite laughable, don’t you? It is just the mentality of English people. We think we are going to win everything.”

It is this last point that is potentially confusing, suggestive that England players lack belief, whereas Scholes seems to actually claim that expectations are blown out of proportion, which in turn can hamper the freedom of the players.

This is a view supported by former Manchester United and England team-mate, Gary Neville, who has also recently claimed that such expectations lead to concerns by the players, who are then forced to put their careers first.

“There are a mixture of people, to be honest with you, who are that nervous and have the fear about them when they go and play for England that they can't perform. I know that there are personal agendas in there - players who are protecting their own status because they are worried about what the media might say about them.

“The media with England is a circus, it is an absolute frenzy; it's unbelievable, it's like nothing else. Only the Prime Minister probably comes under the same level of scrutiny as the England manager.”

For Scholes and Neville, it’s this level of pressure that can lead a player to underperform by avoiding risks. But even at a less high profile level, for example in the women’s game, the increased scrutiny of the media can have the same effect.

When the England Women’s team made the quarter-finals of the World Cup at the weekend, the BBC decided to screen the game live, due to public demand. The nation’s eyes were on the girls to go out and do what the boys could not. And in turn, they did the very same. And on penalties too.

The women’s head coach, Hope Powell commented angrily after the game that the shyness of players in stepping up to take spot kicks let her down:

“Three times I had to ask before anyone stepped forward. ‘Where are you?’ I was thinking, and then a young kid (Rafferty) is the first to put her hand up.

“And Kelly Smith was dying on her feet but she stepped up and took one. You’ve got to want to take a penalty, but other players should have come forward and they didn’t. That’s weak, it’s cowardice.”

So why the cowardice? Have the women learned from the men that as expectations rise so does the fear of failure and the need to protect themselves from the public backlash? If so, this is a desperate mess.

Though it might be good news to think that the argument is dying down about the lack of infrastructure and technical skill being nurtured from youth level, if the problem is a mental one and not just in a few heads but in the whole of society, from the fans through the media to the players and the very business of football, is this any easier to overcome?

Englishness is synonymous with the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, a tendency to pull together and overcome adversity as one. So when did this die out? Or if its embers are still in the fire of our national psyche, can it be reignited?

Though perhaps we still have our Dunkirk Spirit, which aptly only shows itself when our backs are against the wall. Do we need to learn how to push on when we are ahead, instead?

But is this necessarily an exclusively English problem? There are countless other nations who collapse under the weight of public pressure, and plenty others that don’t.

And as they say, that’s football. I just wish we were a bit better at it. 

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