I try to treat media response to England at this World Cup, like I treat Big Brother. I don’t take any notice of it. I don’t listen to half time and post match analysis. I don’t read newspapers. I don’t spend too much time reading comment online. I don’t even listen to the commentary. I can judge a game as well as the next man, I don’t need to see journalists, commentators and former players either state the obvious or talk utter crap. If I want to hear that I can just stand closer to the people in the pub. No I like it in my media vacuum. In the few minutes I have watched pundits chatting after non-English matches I have only heard one thing that I hadn’t thought of before and that was from Danny Baker on Match of the Day, the night before this Algeria match, when he surreally but quite perceptively pointed out that England hadn’t got good enough to go out yet.
Tonight I watched the England match on an enormous screen in a room full of people, many of whom probably don’t go to watch football live very often. I deduced this when the over-whelming cheers went up for Peter Crouch. Were I England manager I’d have personally had a few subs on at half time during this match, Crouch possibly one of them. But what greeted his arrival was on a par with what might have been heard from mourners at Diana’s funeral had she appeared before them and said ‘Clunk Click Every Trip.’ All around me was total and utter uproar. This was not Keegan and Brooking, Gazza, Owen, Rooney coming on to save the day. Nor was it a player of the standard of Messi, Ronaldo or even Ryan Giggs. This was Peter Crouch. The response was so exciting I was really hoping the crowd at the match might be reacting in the same way and that he'd pick up the vibe, score and do a full three minutes of body popping to celebrate.
Sadly not. Whistles, drums and the horn made the venue I was watching it at feel a bit like a gay club around the end of the 80s. They also served to blank out all the tripe people feel the need to utter during these communal gatherings. At one moment the noise abated and I heard a posh chap behind me say “Oh yes Algeria are really nasty at corners.” What? I once saw Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink grab a Birmingham City defender in the nuts at a corner but I’ve never heard anyone describe a team as being nasty at a corner.
But it was a night of firsts wasn’t it. This was the first time I really though that England just aren’t very good. That we’ll struggle to get out of the group and that even if we do we would fail to get past a team who are half decent. I have spent the last hour explaining to my disappointed 9 year old son that we have one game left, if we win it we’re through. And unlike Spain and Germany we haven’t lost yet. But it’s hard to repeat what I said after the USA game that it takes a while for some teams to warm up. And we will get better and have nothing to worry about. Even a 9 year old can see how bad we were.
Prior to tonight I had explained to my girlfriend my theory of our national expectations. Historically we have only reached the semi-finals twice. Therefore even if we have a really good tournament, this only means making the last four and not the final. In reality we finish in the last eight.
As a nation of fans we split between blindly believing we can win it or saying we’re shit from the start. But in reality we are a little like Everton. Everton are currently a good team with few resources. At best Everton might finish 4th in the Premiership. In reality they finish somewhere between 8th and 5th. England fans expecting our team to win the World Cup is like Everton fans starting the season saying “We will definitely win the league title this year.” It just doesn’t sound right does it? But that’s where we are in the World Rankings, we are Everton.
After tonight though I don’t even think we are as good as Tranmere. This was the worst I've seen England play since Graham Taylor OBE was in charge. Which brings me back to my main point. Opinion. I must apologise for pointing out the delights of not listening to pundits and then chucking my ten pence worth in myself but this is as I saw it. To me our performance had little to do with anything but the following:
England didn’t win tonight because for most of the game we passed the ball backwards. The players were reluctant to show for the ball. When we did get it into the Algerian goal area or immediately in front of it the players were scared to shoot. When they were too far away to shoot accurately they chose to do so. We didn’t use the full backs when they were free on the wings often enough. And in Lennon we seemed to have picked a bloke who’d only read the first five words of his job description: “Get it, start to run….” And then he must have seen what the other players were doing and assumed he had to stop and pass backwards.
Steven Gerrard seemed flustered and way off his game. Rooney’s touch was diabolical and at that showing he wouldn’t have even made it onto his own Street Skills football programme. Barry failed to free up Lampard and Gerrard to push forward as he did when he broke into this team. Heskey battled and bottled as usual. His inability to shoot when he had a clear sight of goal characterised his contribution. Johnson was careless. Terry sloppy. Cole added little. It comes to something, doesn’t it, when Jamie Carragher, who only joined the squad a few weeks ago, is the only player to put in an ok performance. And he will miss the next match for a booking he collected when his striker spun him.
I didn’t have much hope for Wright Phillips when he came on, Crouch needs good service to have impact and Defoe needs more minutes than he has fingers to get going but these three seemed hungrier than the guys who started the last two matches. In just a few minutes I was reminded how potent Defoe has been over the last few years when given the chance. This game was screaming for Joe Cole. A player who would receive the ball and instead of just playing it backwards, would turn on it and run towards the opposition goal – as the Algerians did throughout. I think Capello is objective enough to change the team for the next match. The big call is 'How many players who started tonight won’t start the next match?' Will it be one or two or will he attempt to crack the stiffness we showed by wiping out half of the old guard?
There’s a place in the next round to play for next Wednesday but every one of those players who started tonight should be wondering whether they’re going to be bombed out like Walcott was. In the back of my mind as I write this I can hear a voice saying ‘where’s the hope you had last week, the belief that we would improve?’ Maybe we’ll come good and this is the shock to the system that will see a new England XI start and drive us forward. If not I guess I can always watch Big Brother, something I haven’t done since last century. And Jesus that’s a depressing thought and not something I’d imagined I’d be suggesting a week ago.
Cheer yourself up with Jimmy