Now the dust has settled on England's Euro 2012 exit, here's a look at the future for the national side and if the Three Lions will ever scale the heights of 1966 again...
What is English football all about? What does English football stand for? These are questions I’ve asked myself a lot since the nation’s exit from UEFA Euro 2012. There seem to be so many contradictions.
They say a picture’s often worth a thousand words, so maybe the truth lies in English football’s iconic images. Terry Butcher’s wide eyes and blood stained shirt after a World Cup qualifier against Sweden in 1989. Stuart Pearce’s face contorted, mouth wide open, fists clenched down by his sides after a penalty against Spain in 1996.
Words pop into my head as I look at both images. Brave, strong, determined, courageous, hard, all summed-up neatly by the term/cliché ‘Bulldog Spirit’. Maybe that’s what English football is, maybe that’s what the English do best.
Finally some sort of clarity…but then I look at surely the most iconic of all photos that depict English football. Bobby Moore perched on the shoulders of Geoff Hurst and Ray Wilson, holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy.
The suave, sophisticated, unflappable Bobby Moore. Admired for his great positioning, perfectly timed tackles and superb ability to read a game – the greatest defender Pele ever played against – universally respected for his leadership and reputation as a true gentleman.
Still to this day you see England supporters with ‘Moore 6′ on the back of their replica shirts. Is that because he embodied what English football is all about or because he embodied what English football has always wanted to be?
Terry Butcher’s wide eyes and blood stained shirt after a World Cup qualifier against Sweden in 1989
At the risk of getting too deep, just think about it for a minute. England is undoubtedly a footballing nation that’s been searching for an identity for a long, long time at international level and the modern waters are muddied further by the Premier League.
An outstanding product, enjoyed around the globe by tens-of-millions of people. Described by many as the ‘best league in the world’, admired for often producing exciting, free-flowing football, played at a frenetic pace. Even when that’s not evident we’re reminded to admire the sheer competitiveness of the whole thing.
The Premier League’s arguably something for England to be very proud of, there’s no doubt it’s a fantastic export – yet since the league’s inception, the English national team has only gone beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament once, on home-soil in 1996, with critics suggesting there is too much foreign influence on England’s top-flight, both on-and-off the pitch.
So is the nation’s greatest strength also its greatest weakness? And what about the style of play? Week-in-week-out the majority of English players are encouraged to throw caution to the wind and play with the break-neck speed, thrill-a-minute style that has won the Premier League so many fans both at home and abroad.
You’d think it logical that this would transfer to the international stage, but it hasn’t or doesn’t. For more than a decade the so-called ‘golden generation’ flattered to deceive – failing to replicate their club form with England, but how often did they play in a truly ‘Premier League’ style?
How many times have you heard people bemoan England matches as ‘boring’? It’s because an English public used to a Premier League diet of thrills and spills sees a different type of football. It’s sometimes more cagey, almost always slower and most importantly it’s all about possession.
As demonstrated by Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012, the very highest level of international football demands that the best players cherish their time with the football
As demonstrated by Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012, the very highest level of international football demands that the best players cherish their time with the football, treat it like their best friend and give it away as little as humanly possible. It’s unnatural to English players and my goodness it shows.
So now something is being done about it – a whole catalogue of long overdue changes are to be brought in at grass-roots level from the start of the 2014/15 season – matches with fewer players, on smaller pitches with more age-appropriate sized goals will become compulsory.
There will be less emphasis on competition with young children and far more focus on development – we’re told about an admirable ‘child-centred’ approach, with the ultimate aim of producing English players who’re comfortable on the ball with great technique.
It sounds fantastic and I really hope this pays dividends ten or twenty years from now, but it’s yet another contradiction and the message clearly didn’t get through to the current senior side at Euro 2012. The most successful club sides adopt a way of playing that is insisted upon from the youngest youth players to the first-team.
England’s ‘style’ at the European Championships certainly wasn’t a possession game, although that’s not a criticism of Roy Hodgson, who I believe is doing a good job with the resources that are available to him.
Surely though, if this new English approach is to be taken seriously, there must come a point when the senior side at least tries to play in the manner being preached at grassroots level. It’s the chicken or egg scenario. What comes first, a style of play or the personnel to fit a style of play?
It’s a key question, which once answered may finally start to give English football the identity, direction and success it’s craved for forty-six years.
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