English football’s biennial existential crisis appears to have occurred eight months early, as the Three Lions securing their place at Russia 2018 has been met with a grim realisation: we’re just not very good.
A tedious 1-0 win over Slovenia on Friday at a barely-full Wembley has set the bar lower than ever.
The tried-and-trusted tabloid hype machine is still to properly click into gear – and just wait for it if Harry Kane gets anywhere near 30 goals this season or if the Three Lions are drawn against teams whose top-scorer requires a frantic Google search – but there is a sullen feeling around the country.
Where there was once anger is now apathy; a resignation of just how average England have become. The FA should be horrified. Gareth Southgate is the latest manager unable to energise a team who, for the last 8-10 years, has been in terminal decline.
Although when the rot set in is probably up for debate given England’s appalling record in major tournaments outside of their own shores.
Of course, the players who huffed and puffed past Slovenia are vastly different from the ‘Golden Generation’ of Terry, Ferdinand, Neville, Cole, Lampard, Campbell, Gerrard, Beckham, Scholes, Owen and a young Rooney who, at various times in the last decade, were world class players domestically, but rarely replicated it in national colours.
Southgate can only use the tools at his disposal and a dwindling player pool means it didn’t take much before he was left fielding a midfield duo of Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier. Ironically, in style they’re as English as they come.
Committed and combative but neither particularly technically-blessed and with a penchant for David Batty-ing it sideways rather than providing any passing craft in the final third. But we shouldn’t be surprised, even if Kane and Dele Alli can string together a couple of performances in Russia, the best they can hope for is a knockout match.
Even Southgate is already talking up the tournament as a learning curve for his squad – 13 of this 25-man group being 24 or younger – and that is no bad thing, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem that continues to erode the national team.
The two main pillars of the game in England: the Premier League and the FA are as distant as they’ve ever been, the cracks as wide as Southgate’s ever-furrowing brow.
The league where all 25 of his players were drawn from has never been in ruder financial health nor more popular. And yet England as a football nation have arguably never been so poor and forgettable. Richard Scudamore’s role as executve chairman of the Premier League is to maintain the success and financial interest of the product he oversees, and he does it very well.
To achieve that he’s enabled a free-market model open to overseas ownership, which has resulted in the construction of superteams at Manchester United, City, Chelsea and to a lesser extent Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.
An arm’s race in buying players and recruiting the world’s best coaches has ensued and left the national game on the sidelines. Interests lie in growing the global brands of clubs; international football an awkward afterthought of ill-timed injuries and disrupting fixture lists.
And that attitude, as England fall further into irrelevance, is now mirrored by fans. The financial risk of failure is too great for United, City or Chelsea – winners of six of the last eight FA Youth Cup, no less – to patiently wait for homegrown prospects to develop or a young and upcoming coach to learn his spurs.
The same is true, to a lesser extent, at the other end of the table where relegation comes with a financial hit. That’s why we have a situation where an inexperienced Southgate is in charge of the England team and if he were to leave, the best alternative would probably be Burnley’s Sean Dyche.
A fine manager but indicative of the lack of feasible options out there. That is what’s happening at macro level. Below, we have academies matching their first teams in terms of cosmopolitan talents, and just last week it was revealed the cost of loaning a young player from a top Premier League club for a season was around £750,000.
Guess what the answer tends to be. This then overvalues English players who make the breakthrough, via luck or judgement, and they are rewarded contracts in excess of £50,000 after just a handful of appearances, earn quick caps, and the self-determination to succeed becomes ever-harder.
It’s a never-ending cycle of the Premier League expanding with the bubble indirectly bursting on the national team. One is leading the other, when it should be a relationship of mutual benefit. It’s all as disjointed as any of Henderson crossfield passes.