England: The Wasted Years

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I’m not English, but I’m a huge fan of England. Like every fan of England, I’d looked forward to seeing the team go places in Germany. This wasn’t just an emotional or subjective investment; it was a decision I’d accepted first with my head, before putting my heart in it. But then, two things happened to shatter my belief.

No, it isn’t Rooney’s injury; any team with designs to win the World Cup cannot be a one-man team. They must have different permutations to take the prize and they should be able to adjust to the loss of one of their best players, no matter how seemingly irreplaceable. Frankly, I’ve been roundly embarrassed by some of the supine comments following Rooney’s injury, especially those that tend to place too much burden on the 20 year-old boy. Thus, after the injury, I was still very much convinced of England’s chances.

But the first assault on my hope was the appointment of Steve McClaren to the England manager’s job. Yes, I’d almost shouted myself hoarse calling for the appointment of an Englishman as the national team manager, but in my calculation, McClaren shouldn’t have even been considered at all. I am not keen on great CVs or staggering experience of football management for the national job, because history has proved it’s not a great criterion for result at that level. So, on that score, I have no problem with him. My key point against McClaren is that being part of the Eriksson set-up for that long should have immediately disqualified him. Rather than spin this as the obvious advantage after the Scolari fiasco, it should have been clear to the FA that what was needed was not continuity, but real change. True, Eriksson’s record isn’t bad football-wise, but it isn’t great as well. England has bettered Eriksson’s record at the World Cup and European Championships with English managers, so why continue with his system in the guise of McClaren who’d worked very closely with him throughout?

Secondly, I believe McClaren’s presence in the mix was unfair to other applicants. If the FA was interested in who’s worked with Eriksson and who knows the system, it was obvious to everyone that none of the other English candidates should have even been contacted. So, why raise their hopes, disrupt their clubs’ affairs and call them in for more than one interview when all along you aren’t keen on them? The FA should have been bold enough to simply appoint McClaren immediately and give their reasons (whether the public accepts it or not), rather than coming back to him after the rigmarole, time-wasting and unnecessary humiliation they put the nation through. Such near-criminal shoddiness gives nobody confidence.

Again, I thought the appointment should have been used to kick the team up their backsides as a way to mentally and psychologically prepare them for the World Cup. We all know there’d been clear cases of indiscipline and loss of focus within the team. And, even though the players are always quick to announce their respect for Eriksson, anyone can see this is mere lip-service. These guys are virtually law unto themselves as Eriksson had since lost control. For instance, while everyone celebrated England’s qualification for the tournament, not many will forget the fact that England had one of the easiest groups and that the boys showed distinct lack of motivation in some of those qualifying games. It was therefore important for the FA to make a strong statement with the appointment. Sadly, McClaren’s appointment will simply return the players to their slumber because they know him well enough to ignore him or take him for granted, as they did Eriksson. They are not suddenly going to start giving him what they never gave him under Eriksson. They know their positions, as it is now under Eriksson, is guaranteed under McClaren, so why go burst their guts in Germany? But an entirely new man would have put all of them on their toes. They would have been going to this World Cup to impress him in order to keep their places. With McClaren, that obviously can’t happen, because it’s business as usual.

In fact, when I consider the appointment more deeply, as cynical as it may sound, I can’t help thinking that the choice of McClaren as the England manager is an FA conspiracy against English managers. It is a case of the FA giving England an English manager (because the nation clamoured for one), but then choosing the worst possible option amongst those available to increase the chance of failure, in order to have a convenient excuse to continue appointing foreign managers after McClaren.

However, the last straw for me is the Eriksson-McClaren squad selection for the World Cup. Eriksson isn’t ashamed to tell the world he’s acting illogically by choosing Theo Walcott! What has Walcott done in football to be in the provisional squad? Until three days ago, no one anywhere was remotely thinking of him; but less than 24 hours after Wenger flew his kite, Eriksson jumps at it. This is a boy he’s never watched play! This is a boy who’s played just 24 games with a Championship side (11 as substitute) and who, in spite of the hype had not managed more than 5 goals. Why are the influences of Arsene Wenger and David Dein that strong at the FA? Wenger does not have confidence enough to play him since he’s acquired him, yet he recommends that England picks him!

I think Walcott’s choice is political. Eriksson, introduced to the England job by Dein, is playing paddy-paddy here, especially if we consider also that the boy shares the same agent with McClaren. Eriksson keeps proclaiming his right to make one gamble out of 23, but the fact is, he’s made more than one gamble already and Walcott’s own is particularly senseless, considering the strikers situation. With Rooney and Owen serious doubts, isn’t it utterly ridiculous to expect Peter Crouch and Walcott to score the goals? Isn’t it more baffling when you have Darren Bent, Jermain Defoe, Marlon Harewood, James Beattie, Shola Ameobi, Dean Ashton and Andy Johnson cooling their heels at home?

Of course, there’s also the case of Aaron Lennon. Granted that he’s been a revelation at Spurs this season, but for Christ’s sake, what did he achieve there? How many times did he begin a game and what experience does he have to rival Shaun Wright-Phillips, even though the latter hadn’t played particularly well this season? Everyone knows that Wright-Phillip’s position is somewhat peculiar, because he’s just come into a Chelsea side with abundance of riches in his position. Having to be kept on the bench by the likes of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff doesn’t mean people like Aaron Lennon or Owen Hargreaves should keep him out of the England team. They didn’t even deem it fit to put him on the standby list. Perhaps, that is David Dein and Wenger punishing the boy (and his father Ian Wright) for choosing Chelsea ahead of Arsenal! Besides, I think the team lacks balance with the lopsided choice of too many midfielders at the obvious expense of strikers, especially where two of the main strikers are doubts. And, with all the strikers apart from Crouch being ‘little’ men, England could have done with another ‘big’ striker.

In any case, I wish England luck and certainly would still be cheering for them, even though right now I have no great hope anymore. Whatever are Eriksson’s intentions, they definitely are not geared to giving England the best possible chance in this World Cup. In fact, even his choice of Rooney is ill-advised. No miracle is going to get the boy ready and match-fit before the end of the tournament. As I implied earlier, it is embarrassing to pin England hopes on a severely injured boy at a time he should have been left to quietly heal and recuperate at home. It is unnecessary pressure on the boy and the medical team looking after him. In fact, this kind of expectation could endanger the boy’s career, especially where they rush him into action too early. He’s still very young and has many major tournaments ahead of him. Why the indecent haste?

The England band of the battered and the bruised, the rookies and the politicians, the goodbye-foreigner and eternal number two is not a World Cup fighting machine. Of course, some of the boys will go there and play their hearts out, but I’m afraid, on this level, England would be found terribly wanting, having pressed the self-defeat button before even boarding the plane. It is my fear that in years to come, the Eriksson and the McClaren decade in English football will be remembered as the wasted years. And the more painful part will be the realization that England has never had it so good in terms of readily available talent to do the business this time around.

Of course, I’d dearly love to be proved emphatically wrong, but I doubt it. There are just too many self-inflicted wounds to pose serious enough problems for the mission.