The usual suspects

Some of England’s best players are, naturally, with the most successful teams. Now, though, it seems to Barney Ronay that moving to a big club confers star status and that once achieved it’s never shaken off

The England team have always had problems. Reassuringly, they always seem to be the same ones. Here, in no particular order, are a few old favourites: obsession with long-ball football; the poor technique of players; rigid adherence to a 4-4-2 formation; players don’t like running around in the heat; ­everyone gets injured all the time; terrible at penalties; manager gleefully hounded from office. Factor in the periodic brief new dawn under a replacement gaffer/skipper combination only a tiny bit different from the last one and you have a pretty accurate summary of any recent visit to a major ­international tournament.

Things have begun to change, however. Steve McClaren’s squad for his latest traumatic overseas assignments in Israel and Andorra provided a reminder that England have recently succeeded in developing a new kind of problem. It has taken a while, but they’ve finally done it. This time it’s the players: ten years of an increasingly centralised talent pool have led to a steady congealing of personnel. Throw in a minor slump in on-field fortunes and a post-Beckham power vacuum, and we find ourselves making the final wrong turning into England’s latest, and deeply modern, cul-de-sac: the era of the undroppable celebrity player.

The best current example is Frank Lampard. He is a vital player for Chelsea, but his flaccid England performances since Euro 2004 have been central to many of the team’s most disappointing results. This has sparked a circular mini-debate about his ability (apparently non-existent) to dovetail effectively with the slightly more impressive Steven Gerrard. There isn’t any great mystery about this. In a previous era, Lampard would simply have been dropped, classified as someone whose triumphant club form “didn’t translate” into international colours, then intermittently and frustratingly recalled across several seasons. There are plenty of precedents for this kind of talented but ultimately underachieving ­England ­midfielder. ­Lampard already has as many caps as Glenn Hoddle, for example.

As ever, the whole thing is tied up with the hypnotic effects of the Premiership and Champions League. One side-effect of the new order has been the creation of an unusually steep player hierarchy, even at the top level. Now that the initial dollar-bills- falling-from-heaven wonder at the first decade of subscription-TV football has palled, the English game has been able to get on with some serious internal stratification. We all know who the Big Four clubs are: the ones with the most money; the ones in the top league positions every season. So the Premiership’s elite quartet have also begun to dominate the England dressing room.

In this environment, headlines such as the Daily Express’s Don’t Pick Lippy Joey: England stars’ plea to McClaren can pass without much comment. The paper revealed that on his first call-up, for the friendly against Spain in February, Joey Barton had managed to offend the refined sensibilities of “senior players like Steven Gerrard, John Terry, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand” with his “big-time Charlie” attitude. Someone identified as “an England source” explains: “Basically the rules are simple. New players are not expected to be shrinking violets but neither are they supposed to throw themselves around like big-time Charlies… Players like a bit of character but not to behave like they have got 100 caps when Barton hadn’t even one”. It turns out that being picked to play for England now involves as many complicated social nuances as a late ­19th‑century ­debutante’s coming-out ball. Get above yourself and you could end up being cut in the showers, slapped down in a national newspaper or, it seems, dropped altogether.

At the same time, talk of a general scarcity of suitable England-qualified talent is true only up to a point. This assumes that picking players from outside the top four clubs is in some way a gamble. Darren Bent scored 22 goals for Charlton last season but still didn’t go to the World Cup, while the non-scoring duo of Theo Walcott and Peter Crouch, of Arsenal and Liverpool respectively, did. If there is a shortage of available personnel it is, to a degree, self-inflicted.

The prominence of a clique from the top clubs is sometime referred to as an example of “player power”. This suggests that the manager and the FA are little more than hostage to a coterie of sporting egomaniacs; and also that they have nothing to gain from perpetuating the situation. But, just like everyone else in football, the FA always have an eye on their revenue stream. Suggestions that David Beckham survived as England captain solely because of his alchemical powers of shirt-shifting are unfair; Beckham was one of England’s most effective players right until the end. But his passage from the team clearly wasn’t rushed and the FA ­certainly made the most of their asset.

Marketing has been a major aspect in the reinforcement of this sense of a slightly closed shop: the same players from the same top clubs model each new replica shirt, undoubtedly those who in the previous 12 months have shifted the most units. Then there’s the disproportionate degree of celebrity (and therefore earning capacity) that attaches itself to a regular Champions League player compared to his ­bog‑standard Premiership-dwelling international team‑mate. On top of which, players with endorsement deals stand to earn extra while they stay in the national team; captaincy and vice-captaincy appointments are handsomely rewarded. A picture emerges of ­something that looks less like a football team and more like a complex commercial entity shot through with personal interests.

There are other forces at work, too. Football doesn’t exist in a vacuum, immune to the obfuscating magnetism of celebrity culture. Top-level players now have various discrete identities: athlete, famous person, TV personality, international sporting brand. It would be naive to claim that these competing forces have no effect on team selection.

At the very least, this presents an easy default option for an England manager. Losing with your Champions League celebrities in the team leaves you far less exposed than deciding to drop one or two of them, possibly in favour of lippy Joey Barton, then losing all the same. One thing seems certain. Picking an England team has never been so difficult. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for all those old, comforting problems, like just not being very good, for example.

From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month