They say a week is a long time in politics...it can be even longer in football, so looking almost a year ahead is particularly tricky, especially where the England team is concerned.
So what do we know for certain? By this time next year UEFA Euro 2012 will have been and gone and Fabio Capello will have left his post as England manager. Beyond that it is hard to confidently predict anything - but I'd argue this is an absolutely crucial twelve months for the national side - and not necessarily because there is a major tournament within that time.
Of course, there are no guarantees England will compete in Ukraine and Poland, but they are currently top of Group G, level on points with Montenegro and six points ahead of 3rd placed Switzerland. Fabio Capello's managed to go unbeaten in qualification so far - with 3 wins and 2 draws - but many of the concerns raised after last June's World Cup elimination still remain as evident as ever. This is an England side undergoing its biggest transition in a decade - but being led by a man who's - rightly or wrongly - widely regarded as part of the problem rather than the solution.
A fresh start after the World Cup debacle would perhaps have been preferable to everyone - but with such a vast amount of compensation money due to Capello in those circumstances - the decision to stick with him was financially understandable. That said, it means we now have an England team effectively in limbo, that can't fully move forward and is crying out for the momentum and belief that fresh leadership would bring.
Fabio Capello is a coach of outstanding pedigree having won the Champions League, Serie A with two different clubs, and La Liga twice with Real Madrid. But despite all his achievements and talent - Capello has been unable to fully address the thing that inhibits England more than anything else in my view. I'm talking about the fear-factor that he mentioned himself when taking the job - created by the huge weight of expectation that presses on the shoulders of almost all who pull on an England shirt these days, totally stifling talent. Players scared to make a mistake, players who excel at club level playing within themselves at international level, the 'high tempo' English game slowed right down to a pace unnatural to Premier League players. Surely this must be - in part - down to unrealistic expectations?
A lame excuse for under-performing players you say? Sir Alex Ferguson is one of many who'd probably disagree. Here is what the Manchester United manager had to say during last summer's World Cup."The whole country was adamant they (England) were going to win the Cup and that's a terrible pressure to take on for players, none of whom have really got to a latter stage of a World Cup," he said."You have to go back to 1990 for the last time they were in a semi-final. They were unlucky to lose on penalty kicks to Germany. None of them have that experience of doing very well at a World Cup finals. There are big, big expectations for these players and that's difficult to carry," he added. Even after the tournament Sir Alex again referred to 'weight of expectation' in explaining Wayne Rooney's displays at the tournament.
It is utter lunacy that some people still expect England to be in with a real chance of winning every tournament they enter.
When you consider the lack of experience referred to by Sir Alex Ferguson - it is utter lunacy that some people still expect England to be in with a real chance of winning every tournament they enter. An example of the lack of realism that I'm talking about was the reaction to the England U21s early exit from this summer's European Championship. I read articles and listened to phone-ins in which contributors castigated English football and pointed to a very bleak future for the national side. I agree that the manner of their exit, conceding two late goals, should spark debate about the seeming mental fragility of English players at major tournaments, but let's get some perspective. England were one of only three nations competing in Denmark this summer who also competed in Sweden in 2009, the other two nations were Belarus (semi-finalists '11) and Spain (winners '11). Italy, France, Germany, Russia and Portugal were among the major nations who didn't qualify for the Finals in Denmark this summer.
It must also be remembered that England reached the Final in 2009, eventually losing to a German side that included the likes of Ozil, Khedira and Neur.
What's needed in the next 12 months is for the FA to search for a successor to Capello with a strong enough character to challenge unrealistic expectation and remove the burden of it from England's players. Someone who won't start their first press conference by saying they're going to win the World Cup and with broad enough shoulders to tell the press and public that it is going to take time. Someone with excellent man-management skills, who knows what makes top English players tick and how to get the best out of them. Combine these qualities with changes at grass-roots level - such as a ban on children under-13 using full-size pitches - and there could be a platform for steady growth.
I think there is further cause for optimism when you look at some of the names who could make a real impression with England at the 2014 World Cup. Off the top of my head...Joe Hart, Kyle Walker, Kieran Gibbs, Martin Kelly, John Flanagan, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Jack Rodwell, Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere, Josh McEachran, Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson, Jordan Henderson, Wayne Rooney, Connor Wickham and Andy Carroll. That's not to mention the likes of Ravel Morrison (Man Utd), Raheem Sterling (Liverpool) and Jose Baxter (Everton) - who're less well-known at the moment. If these names are to follow a more productive path than England's - so-called - 'Golden Generation' - it is vital that the FA hierarchy makes the most of the months ahead to get the right successor to Fabio Capello.
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