England Should Expect Less and Understand More

There’s a lot of crap written and spoken about football, and more particularly the England team whenever a major tournament comes around so with the assurance that there is safety in numbers, it’s probably the safest time to venture my own opinions on the matter.

The problem, I believe, is that for a few weeks every two years (England’s qualification permitting, of course), the game is taken from the realms of the ‘proper’, habitual fan who has spent years watching the game, following the players, the teams and the tactics and building up their understanding.  Instantly, the game becomes thrust into the wider public domain.  On the plus side, we get more air-time of football-related programmes and all the visible accoutrements of a national mood being captured; flags of St. George flown from pubs, houses, white vans and other, less likely places. Of course, to some, sniffier parts of society, the proliferation of England-themed indicia is not seen as a good thing but there’s no reason to treat this view as anything other than naked, self-aggrindising snobbery, so that’s precisely how I’ll describe it.  Such overt displays of national support are by definition a positive act and whether it’s to your taste or not, we should be glad that so many people have something to be positive about at the moment.

The more objectionable side-effect is that it encourages those who would never normally venture a footballing opinion to begin to pontificate ad nauseum about the relative merits of a traditional 4-4-2 versus the deep-lying striker in the ‘hole’.  It’s all well and good for such fair-weather football ‘fans’ to be caught up in the national mood and I applaud that in general.  What I find irksome is that the same people who, for the rest of the tournament cycle, look rather pityingly at any fan who ‘admits’ to having watched an obscure game, or one at an unearthly hour, presume to have the same credibility in their observations.  Yes, that’s right, I did enjoy watching Manchester United Reserves playing Blackburn Reserves the other night and I will be up at 7am on Sunday to watch Barcelona playing  Flamengo in the FIFA World Club Championship, live from Japan.  If you ‘come out’ with such comments throughout the year (actually, the FIFA WCC is every December, if you know what you’re talking about), you invite a cheap shot from anyone who’s more motivated by the ‘mood of the room’ than the love of the game: “Bless you, you poor little sad-act”.  You become an easy source of comedy, which is fine, I suppose, as long as everyone remembers where they stand.

You see, when a tournament begins and suddenly, the airwaves fill with talk of England’s chances and with commentaries about their effect on the country at large, things begin to change.  The mood of the nation and with it, the ‘mood of the room’ (indeed most rooms in the country) now begins to embrace the beautiful game.  Those who play to the zeitgeist are now liable to forget their previous antipathy to football fan-dom and find themselves forced to join in.  This is not fine as it means that their half-cooked views are expressed unselfconsciously for all to hear without any disclaimer like: “…but then I did miss the Champions’ League Final because I was at a dinner party”.  I’m perfectly happy with the fact that not everyone wants to be as much of a football purist as I am (some of my best friends are not, as the justification goes) but I do take issue with being asked to take quite so seriously the considered views of those who are not.

If you don’t know who plays at St. James’ Park, I’m afraid it’s you I’m describing.  If you know it’s Newcastle United, while I applaud you for your effort and also for resisting the pernicious claims that it is now allegedly known as ‘The Sports Direct Arena’, I’m still talking about you.  If you know it’s both Newcastle and Exeter, you’re in the clear.

This isn’t just a tirade against footballing johnny-come-lately acquaintances.  The media can be just as bad with a sudden proliferation of ill-informed, pointless comments about Wayne Rooney’s hair or endless column inches about the daily antics of the WaGs.  In fact the very construct of the WaG emanated from the biennial silliness that surrounds football tournaments.  The media obsession with the England players’ wives and girlfriends at the 2006 World Cup in Germany was precipitated by Sven-Goran Erikkson’s lenient regime which tolerated their presence and by the the celebrity-hungry tabloid press who realised that this was the ‘fresh angle’ that they spend their waking lives searching for.  To the football purist curmudgeon, which I freely admit I am, this cycle of asinine media comment leading to asinine people’s comments is almost a perfect storm.

And finally, the most depressing symptom of tournament-itis and one that really shouldn’t be expected to happen is the change in the footballing press.  Even in these supposedly informed, experienced circles, it seems that viewpoints can change when the setting is changed from ‘normal’ to ‘tournament’.  Every detail of England matches is examined with an intensity that borders on the maniacal and a level of pessimism that borders on the paranoid.  Conclusions are drawn that I honestly do not believe would have been throughout the domestic season, indeed that appear to be the opposite.  For example, in the world of rational footballing comment, if Arsenal are drawn to play Dynamo Kiev away, much emphasis would be placed upon the importance of Arsenal ‘keeping it tight for the first twenty minutes’, largely, I’d say, based on the assumption that unless they ‘give themselves a mountain to climb’, they ‘have enough quality going forward to nick one’ and thus ‘get the result’.  I know we’re in a territory full of cliché here, but if you overlook the potential for parody, the face-value of these maxims illustrates perfectly the thinking behind the commentary.

In the case of England playing Ukraine in Donetsk last night, the use of the standard ‘first twenty minutes’ football truism was notably absent.  Why?  Are England expected to be impervious to the same pressures that are so often applied to all of our top club teams?  Should they be so busy steamrollering their opponents that they must decline to give a second’s thought to defensive effort?  Or is it because for some reason, there isn’t quite the same assurance that the goal will come and that when it does, it must be the winner not the equaliser?

The same is true of ball possession.  On the one hand, we’re invited to eulogise about Barcelona’s and Spain’s ability to hold the ball for 60% or even 70% of the game but on the other, when England hold the ball, they’re accused of being ‘directionless’ and ‘lacking a cutting edge’.  Yes, possession stats aren’t in themselves worth any goals but if we want England to be capable of controlling a game, it can’t all be from the traditional route of hoofing it forward to the big striker and ‘playing the percentages’, can it?  It strikes me that when reporters cover England they do so with greater levels of expectation and yet with lower levels of faith.  If that’s not a perfect recipe for disappointment and therefore negativity, I don’t know what is.

All I’m saying is that if reporters merely translated their usually level-headed, rational analysis of a game from our club matches to the England team, we’d probably all have a more satisfying experience whenever tournaments come around.  And if anyone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about could acknowledge that when they comment, that would also be great.

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