Tradition has it that the Football Association is run by a bunch of buffoons. Not least on this issue when they have decided to announce their findings of their inquiry into the (gasp) Soho Square sex scandal on the day after we have gone to press.
However unjust their elimination from Euro 2004 might have seemed at the time, the truth is that England will never go further than the last eight in a major tournament until there is a major rehaul of the Premiership
England’s elimination at Euro 2004 felt like a compilation of all their previous tournament crises. The team tend to rely on survival through attrition, of desperate defending with their “tin hats on”. But that never pays off, so other reasons for failure are found, often involving making a scapegoat of a referee (Urs Meier this year, Kim Milton Nielsen in 1998). This means uncomfortable questions don’t have to be posed, such as whether it’s right to place faith in star names when they are playing as badly as David Beckham, or indeed whether the best English players are in fact especially good in the first place.
England go into Euro 2004 confident that they can finally live up to expectations, with the steps taken to prevent violence likely to stop the country being embarassed by its supporters as in previous years. But is enough being done to control their mouths, as well as their fists?
Cautious optimism seems in order for England, on and off the pitch, as they head for Portugal. The team’s prospects are considered as good as they have been for a major tournament since before Euro 88 – but we all know how that ended. More, though, has been done than ever to try to ensure that England are not embarrassed by their support. Everyone knows there is a risk the team could be sent home unbeaten due to violence from a minority of fans and at last some serious steps have been taken.
Discuss the playing standard in the First Division with people who have followed it all season and there’s a chance that they’ll wince and shake their heads and point out that West Brom have been promoted. In fact Albion’s return to the Premiership, whatever one may think of their playing style, is one of the more heartening stories of the season: a team that struggled against relegation from the top level throughout 2002-03 have bounced straight back, rather than being preoccupied with escaping from the financial hole they dug for themselves through trying to stay up.
While the tabloids are busy 'celebrating' the England manager's 'infidelity' when it came to speaking to other clubs, perhaps we should stop and realise that the fact that Sven-Göran Eriksson is in demand can only be a good thing for the national team
Sweden 1 Wapping 0. The tabloids had been so certain of victory in this grudge match that they began celebrating a bit too early. Sneaky Sven was the Sun front-page headline on a Saturday morning as it revealed that he had had a secret meeting with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon two nights before. Stupid said the same day’s Mirror, equally confident that he was about to leave England in the lurch.
It may seem a bit churlish, given that fanzines generally and When Saturday Comes in particular started as and remain vehicles in which to voice concerns over how football is run, but we can’t help thinking that complaining has gone too far these days. Not over serious matters – the survival of clubs, the overarching influence of television, racism and the lack of a decent cup of tea at most grounds – but in the smaller details.
Three years ago, we suggested that if a marketing company were ever presented with the task of revamping football they might suggest renaming it Krazy Kick, or Leggy Fun. In fact, 13 years ago we speculated that soon we would be reading about “the Hyper League or the Supreme Set-up or the Utter Division”. We’re horrified to discover that the Football League are entertaining similar thoughts, only they appear to be serious.
This is the time of year when the newspapers are filled with hopes for the coming year, with pleas for respect for referees, less diving and world peace. All very laudable but, really, we can’t be doing with any of it. There is only one thing we’ll ask for – that this year’s FA Cup isn’t won by one of the top three, or Liverpool. We’re even prepared to tolerate one of the curses of the modern age, tracking camera shots of whooping fans in jester hats and curly wigs, provided they are celebrating a victory for an underdog.
At least once a year there are rumours of a breakaway “Atlantic League” or some such, a competition for the dominant clubs in smaller football countries where the domestic title is only ever contested by at most three teams. The next time it’s floated expect to hear that Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea have been approached about joining, on the grounds that they, too, would get stronger competition from, say, Porto, Anderlecht and Ajax than from any of the other 17 clubs in the Premiership.
England’s qualification for Euro 2004, in all probability delaying the mooted departure of Sven-Göran Eriksson to Stamford Bridge until next summer at the earliest, reduces the urgency of some particularly troubling questions without diminishing their importance: where are all the great English managers? Or even half-decent ones, especially among those with international playing experience? Was there something in the water at Spain 82, Mexico 86 and Italia 90 that ensured an entire generation would struggle to achieve mediocrity?