Saturday, June 21, 2014

You WERE supposed to blow the bloody doors off

Even by our usual standards of gloom, to be mourning the inevitable after just 180 minutes of major international tournament football feels like a new low for England fans.

At least in 2010 we'd had a full run of abject performances, followed by the usual death-by-a-thousand-German-cuts, before bags were being packed for the dejected journey home.

Going into last night's encounter between Italy and Costa Rica, there was still the mathematical chance of England getting through to the knockout stages (much as there remains a mathematical chance of becoming betrothed to Cameron Diaz). In the end the Italians just weren't up to the job.

Not that England really were to begin with. Even with one more game to play on Tuesday - their own encounter with Costa Rica - it feels like England have made barely a cameo at World Cup 2014.

We know it's easy to be wise after the fact: when Greg Dyke was photographed, displaying arch gallows humour at the World Cup draw, making a cut-throat gesture when England were put in Group D, commentators were undecided as to whether the English FA chairman was being typically self-depreciating or demoralising of the team's chances. But we expected something out of this tournament. After all, the English national team is comprised of players from one of the toughest football leagues in the world.

There are many ways to look at England's brief but dismal run in this year's World Cup. We can look proudly on that game in steaming Manaus which, while ending in a 2-1 defeat to a stylish Italy, gave faith in Roy Hodgson's focus on blooding in youth, especially the breakout performance by Raheem Sterling. And we can look disappointingly at the defeat to Uruguay, in which the defence were overwhelmed, the midfield had more holes than Swiss cheese, and the forwards had clearly left their shooting boots in the Amazonian rainforest.

Because if we examine England's two games so far - both losses to the same 2-1 margin - you couldn't devise a greater comparison if you tried. Against Italy, England were masterful, resourceful and determined, with teenager Raheem Sterling quite rightly being named Man of the Match for his lionhearted performance. Against Uruguay England were pitiful, lethargic, lacking creativity, flimsy on the flanks, and gaping wide open in midfield all the way through to Joe Hart's front door.

So where does that leave us for a verdict? Expectations weren't particularly high, even if failure feels just as raw as before. For a start, no one was building up the latest Golden Generation™ to succeed. So pillorying them now doesn't seem to make sense. And, ultimately, it's a tournament - some win, some go home early. Like the previous world champions, Spain.

Spain's exit, however, provides no crumb of comfort. England's own exit, this time, feels more caustic. In the past we've sort of accepted, with characteristic good humour, the quarter- and semi-final defeats to Germany on penalties. We've made light of these failings by having our unfortunate stars make pizza commercials. Yes, England really are, to quote José Mourinho, specialists in failure. Why else would the England team be accompanied to every major match by a brass band hammering out the theme from The Great Escape, regarded as a national cinematic treasure, despite it being ultimately about a catastrophic failure?

Post-tournament fault finding has become as much a national pastime around England as football itself. England haven't even left Brazil and already the car is up on a hoist with mechanics pulling it apart.

After one game we were all taking defeat on the chin while praising the performance. After Uruguay, we were dismantling the England set-up nut by nut. Yes, Steven Gerrard had a shocker and could be blamed in part for both goals; Gary Cahill, in particular, looked lost without John Terry at his side; Glen Johnson has never been a high quality right-back (one of the reasons I wasn't sad to see him leave Chelsea); and Jagielka and Baines don't seem to cut it at this level.

And, then, Roy Hodgson. I like Roy. Most people do. But opinion is clearly divided: advocates say that he was just the sort of character England needed in charge, after the expensive experiments with international glamour. Ironic, then, that England should be sponsored by Vauxhall, because that is exactly the brand you'd associate with Hodgson - a dependable but not notably exciting car (as opposed to Eriksson's Volvo and Capello's Italian luxury marque).

He is The Quiet Man of football, the urbane, Croydon-born nomad who has managed to high success in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy (Inter, no less), Denmark, Norway, Finland, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as at Liverpool, Blackburn and West Brom. Actually, an impressive CV covering almost 40 years in club management.

For 2014, Hodgson's genuinely progressive youthful squad selection has been welcomed by many. Others, though, saw a lack of experience as an issue (love him or loathe him, England sorely missed Ashley Cole on Thursday night). But for me, one of the biggest failings was the fact that the England that emerged from half-time in São Paulo didn't look any more motivated than when they'd gone down the tunnel 15 minutes earlier. And responsibility for that ultimately has to fall to the head coach.

Hodgson shouldn't, however, resign or be sacked. Yes, it's a pisser that England have come up short so soon, but what this team needs isn't another manager that's going to fail too, but a new national football culture, prepared to develop the new talent, not just paper over the old.

On paper, you'd select - more or less - the same squad as Hodgson has done. Because on paper those are the best 23 players England can muster. But put them up against international competition, and the gulf in quality becomes embarrassingly real.

We have allowed the Premier League to make millionaires out of mediocrity, while undermining the national game by minimising opportunities for home-grown players. Of course you'd select Wayne Rooney every time - and should Gerrard stand down he would be my choice of captain, based purely (and surprisingly) on seniority. But the fact that he is deemed to be at the top of the elite demonstrates the paucity of talent at England's disposal.

It's always easiest to blame someone else, but if we were to be really honest, England's early, painful and downright embarrassing exit from this World Cup really is not going to be about the manager's failings or those of the players individually: it's that England just aren't good enough in general. And that is probably the hardest and most jagged thing to swallow of all.

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