Great expectations

Qualification failure leaves England searching for answers but are supporters aware of how heavy their expectations weigh? 

We had the cover of this issue worked out ahead of the Croatia match. “Disaster for England” would have been the headline, with two players discussing the fact that qualifying meant Steve McClaren was still the manager. We should have known better. Still, in the wake of the Wembley debacle, it has been suggested that England’s worst ever qualification failure may yet have a silver lining if it leads to the “root and branch investigation” of English football promised by the FA.

But it remains to be seen if they know precisely what they are investigating and how much attention will be paid to any findings. The coaching system is in disarray from the grassroots upwards, with no technical director and plans for a national coaching centre on hold. Leading clubs are increasingly happy to go their own way, to recruit from all over the country and all around the world, and will resist any attempt to take young English players away from their academies or restrict the flow of overseas talent. The French recovery after failing to qualify for USA 94 is widely held up as an example to follow (with Gérard Houllier tipped for a role over here this time), but that is to ignore the relative strengths of the respective FAs and clubs.

The specifics of this failure are being debated again and again, but an overall pattern is discernible from past performances in international tournaments. It is reasonable to assume, for instance, that had England qualified they would have stumbled through the group stage at Euro 2008 before going out in the quarter-finals. At the same time, given that England have been eliminated in regulation play only twice (Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup) – and then by only one goal – in the six tournaments since their last failure to reach a finals, the margin of defeat could well have been slight.

Similarly, on the two occasions England have won a quarter-final since 1968, knockout successes were achieved narrowly: in 1990 by David Platt’s 120th-minute winner against Belgium and Gary Lineker’s penalties against Cameroon; in 1996 by the shootout victory against Spain. If England are to improve, there needs to be change within the game. But the media and the fans, too, need to rethink England’s standing.

England have played like failures for much of this campaign and would not even have had that final chance against Croatia had Dmitri Sychev not hit the post rather than the net in the 89th minute in Tel Aviv. This was their worst ever showing and the range of emotions on display was understandable. But even in these circumstances expectations remained far too high.

After Israel had given England a temporary reprieve, a newly buoyant Peter Crouch looked beyond Croatia to the finals and said: “We all believe we have the ability to go on and win it.” Crouch deserves less criticism than anyone else on the pitch for England’s defeat at Wembley and was only reflecting the attitude that would have been adopted by many had that hurdle been negotiated. But everyone – players, coaches, supporters, journalists – must realise that England’s chances in tournaments are not on a par with the favourites’. Alas, the weight of patriotic money skews the bookmakers’ prices, making them half, a third or even a quarter of what would be realistic.

Fabio Capello said, as he jockeyed for position in the race to succeed McClaren, that the problems England’s players have are “mental” rather than technical. “It is clear the shirt weighs heavy even for these winners. In these situations the coach’s role is fundamental and he needs to be more psychologist than tactician or technician.” You can understand why an out-of-work coach – particularly one with a reputation as a tough psychologist – might be putting around this kind of idea. But he does have a point.

English players undoubtedly have technical deficiencies and Trevor Brooking is right to try to address these. But Capello’s compatriots, for example, as well as being more skilful also appear able to think clearly while a game is in play, to adapt to new situations and to show a kind of mental resilience that can be alien even to England’s most senior players – especially when they are wearing England shirts. In 2006 Steven Gerrard scored in the FA Cup final shootout against West Ham. In 2007 he beat Petr Cech in the Champions League semi-final shootout, a contest in which Frank Lampard was the only Chelsea player to beat José Reina. Both, of course, had their kicks saved by Portugal’s Ricardo in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final. Gerrard has played a number of different roles in single matches at club level with great success, but struggled to play even one against Croatia.

There are no simple solutions to England’s problems (though sacking McClaren was certainly a step in the right direction) and some of those proposed – such as Brooking’s targeting of youth coaching – will take years, if ever, to bear fruit. One of the most difficult steps is to reduce the burden of expectation to a level appropriate for a quarter-final team. Pull that off and – paradoxically – the chances of greater success may increase.

From WSC 251 January 2008