THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

A week of hopes and fears for Scotland and England led to double failure but contrasting reactions online, as Ian Plenderleith found out with the help of a folk singer and various dead writers

England’s and Scotland’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 not only proved there is no longer a British team in the continent’s top ranks. The contrast in home reactions to that failure also showed us that, although the end result may be the same, an underdog country’s sporting patriots generally maintain a healthy perspective, while a Bulldog Nation’s repeat anticipation of glory only perpetuates its misery and ill-humour.

Although online opinion on both teams ran the full gamut of emotional reactions before, after and during the days that spanned the end of the campaign, Scotland fans easily won out when it came to the management of expectations. Before playing Italy, they were almost carelessly optimistic, as though making the most of the rare chance to be facing the world champions and having an outside chance of winning. Afterwards, they could afford to be generous to their own team, casting one eye to the future even as they proudly touted their third-place finish in the same way a plucky but limited Olympian might wear a bronze medal.

For England fans, the end of qualifying might as well have been the end of the Empire. Resigned to losing and having already written off both the players and the coach before Israel’s surprise defeat of Russia, they enjoyed a brief few days of browsing Google Earth to check out which Alpine trails they’d be hiking next June on their way to the final in Vienna. There was no question of hoping they’d manage a draw with Croatia – it was already in the bag. The question was merely whether or not McClaren should stay and manage the team, or should we bring in someone else to take Stevie, Frankie and Wayney to their rightful place on the golden podium.

England before Israel v Russia

“The English people never expect any one to be original.” Walter Bagehot – essayist

Indeed, which was the last English team to play original football? Where is, or what is, the English system? But that’s never the discussion. It’s all about whether or not the coach and the players are any good. “Has he [Steve McClaren] under-achieved in the job or are the players to blame?” asked a poll at Who Ate All The Pies. “Has he had enough chances to stop the rot or does he need more time to stamp his authority on the England set-up?” The readers voted, and before the weekend a brave 86 per cent stuck their necks out by pressing the button that said McClaren had to go.

Michael Walsh at Sportingo looked ahead to the Croatia game as “a fitting farewell for the so-called Golden Generation, who have delivered so little and, quite frankly, were never half as good as the hype suggested”. He didn’t blame McClaren for the team’s “abject failure. Old tart Malcolm McLaren could have won Group E if David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the Coles and Co were half as good as their publicity and wage packets implied.”

Simon Martin at Bleacher Report declared McClaren’s position “untenable, regardless of whether or not we qualify”. But there’s always one starry-eyed fan in the corner who’s prepared to back the lads, come what may. “We support England,” Ahmed Bilal pouted defiantly at Soccerlens . “This is no time to shit on Macca. This isn’t fantasy football, this is real life football and we can’t pick our managers.” He exhorted the team against Croatia to “play for pride at least”.

Scotland before Italy
“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled/Scots, wham Bruce has aften led/Welcome to your gory bed/Or to victorie.” From Scots Wha Hae by Robert Burns – poet

Many Scottish fans were happy that their team needed to win rather than just tie against Italy. There was the feel of “all or nothing” that could, at a rhetorical stretch, be said to have descended from the spirit of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, as depicted by Burns in the above lines. There seemed to be little feeling among Scottish fans online that there was any point in considering defeat.

“I am arrogant enough to believe that we will beat Italy,” breezed Allsportlive. “I’m predicting a 2-1 victory for Scotland, on the strength of goals from McFadden and Ferguson, with a Pirlo free-kick going the other way,” chirped The Offside . The freedom afforded by still being in with a chance seemed to be making writers delirious.

“All these optimistic Scots are making me nervous. It’s hardly natural,” cautioned Tartan Football, while Kirsten Innes at The List fell back on tradition: “Get your lucky rabbit’s foot out, let your epidermis come into contact with as much wood as possible, and try not to annoy any black cats, alright?”

Only Alex McLeish was trying to rein in hope. He talked about “the bigger picture… if we don’t qualify for [these] finals, we have made great strides, because we’ve gone up in the rankings... it will help us in terms of the World Cup draw. So out of failing to qualify, we do get some reward.”

Bigger picture? Long-term thinking? You’ll never get the England job, laddie.

England after Israel v Russia, before Croatia

“The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.” James Agate – diarist

Or, as one might sum up the at least partial feeling in the brief week of England’s apparent reprieve: McClaren, maybe he’s sort of all right after all. He took Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final. Might as well let him have the benefit of the doubt, at least until the finals are over. Now that we’ll be going. Well, after we’ve dropped by at Wembley to pick up that point against Croatia.

Back to that Who Ate All The Pies survey, which in fact only ended up with “a massive 74 per cent” calling for McClaren’s head “even if we do qualify”. But was there any point, the wavering website asked, “in giving the manager a hard time before the game that next summer’s future [sic] depends on?”

Still, for many there was no going back. How, asked the blog 245, can the Tel Aviv result “possibly have either increased or reduced by the merest fraction the fitness of Steve McClaren to continue managing the England football squad?”

Mitch Phillips at the Reuters Soccer Blog thought qualification would only postpone England’s next fall: “Away defeats in Croatia and Russia and dropped points against Israel and Macedonia will be forgotten as the Brasso comes out again for one final polish of the Golden Generation.”

Such timorous beasties, as Burns might have called them. All hail Soccer Source for its pertinent and courageous headline: “With Carson In Goal, England Cannot Fail.” And no, they weren’t being ironic.

Scotland after Italy
“Scots are the kind that will change direction in mid-sentence if it looks like you’re agreeing with them.” Dick Gaughan – folk singer

Or change direction mid-campaign. Beat France twice, but lose to Georgia. Positively hammer Ukraine and look like we’ll qualify with two games left, then lose those last two games. Wha’s like us at being contrarian buggers, eh?

So there was failure, ultimately, though no one called it that, and the position of Alex McLeish was never questioned. Scotland did their best and, even though defeat came as “a right boot in the baws” to some (A Bhoy In Leith ), there was little anger at being labelled moral victors, at being patronised for having done jolly well for little Scotland, or at once again having been just not quite good (or lucky) enough.

True, the Kirkcaldy Tartan Army site printed a cartoon, “Italy’s winning goal – an artist’s impression”, which showed a ref outjumping all Scottish and Italian players to head the ball home. But as Rinaldi’s Blogspot (written by “a Scottish-Italian journalist”) put it after balancing the refereeing decisions, which went in Scotland’s favour: “Call it what you will, but not a robbery.”

“Overall no complaints, we were beaten fairly and squarely and our team did everything they could to try and win the game,” surmised Drinking During The Game . Nonetheless, some were eager to rail at the Spanish referee for Italy’s late free-kick award and blame it on “the English. If they had finished off the Armada properly, this might never have happened.” (DC Trojan )

“Our boys have everything that England lack,” staunchly croaked Soccacritics . “Passion.” Not enough goals, but passion. Just what England are going to need to get a result against Croatia…

England after Croatia
“The winner’s shout, the loser’s curse/Dance before dead England’s hearse.” From Auguries Of Innocence by William Blake – poet

“All those who called for passion got it, but passion is hopelessly over-rated,” said one respondent to a column posted the day after the Croatia game on the Guardian’s blog page. “Top level football is a physical, intellectual and organisational challenge.”

“As usual, [England were] great when seemingly out of it and allowed to go full pelt, hopelessly lost when patience and precision are called for,” said another. Passion, as objective Scots might tell you, is not a bad way to make up for a shortfall in talent if you’ve nothing else to offer. But if you supposedly have the gifts, it’s best to use them effectively.

Kerron Cross at The Voice of the Delectable Left partly blamed the press for hounding out Luiz Felipe Scolari before he even took the job because “the tabloid media absolutely demanded an English manager – because ‘they understand how important it is to the nation’”. Had nothing been learnt from Kevin Keegan’s appointment? He reminded us that the popular media had broadly proclaimed McClaren as the right man for the job.

The wisdom of hindsight was pouring out across the web as bloggers pointed up the stupidity of playing an inexperienced keeper, starting with Shaun Wright-Phillips, sticking with Lampard and Gerrard, allowing foreigners to take over the Premier League, and abolishing the Gold Standard. Just for the sake of obstinacy, it would have been nice to find one writer who wanted McClaren to stay on, even if it was just a Scottish contrarian in disguise.

What next? “There should be a wholesale clear out of the England old boys,” said the Lakenheath Old Boys blog. For the wake-up call is always followed by the wholesale clear-out. “The Beckham era is well and truly over. Bye bye Lamps. See you, Sol Campbell. We need to rebuild the side around the U21 side that’s won the last six qualifying matches.”

To the future! To youth, carriers of the next tranche of England’s lofty and inflated hope! To, erm, Scott Carson and Micah Richards. To South Africa 2010 and another loser’s curse.

From WSC 251 January 2008

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