Behind their stiff upper lips and Dunkirk spirit, the English secretly like the odd moment of madness. The Finns have a wife-carrying contest and the residents of Bunol in Spain take to the streets for a day to fling tomatoes at each other, but they can’t hold a candle to the English at their most eccentric.
We’re far madder than that. We chase cheeses down hillsides. We wassail apple trees.* A large part of the nation spent years believing that Tim Henman could win Wimbledon. Bonkers, we are.
The only explanation for this is a strange combination of planetary activity and tradition. On Monday a long-established event took place – the announcement of the England squad. But it must have happened just as Jupiter and Saturn converged with Uranus because millions of normally sensible people temporarily lost their marbles and shouted at televisions, radios and newspapers. How quaint.
It is an occasion notorious for attracting nutters like a full moon attracts werewolves. As Sven dealt his last cards before departing to leave Steve ‘Interesting’ McClaren in charge, much of the nation flung its hands up as one and howled “That’s it – might as well book Benidorm now. Two fit strikers and one of ‘em needs permission to stay up for evening games. £5 million a year? He’s a clown, that Eriksson.” All this a whole month before a ball has been kicked in anger.
Sven has long been berated for being a bit of a cold fish. Pilloried for lacking passion, he is portrayed in the media as a man who probably folds his socks and underpants in alphabetical order before mounting his latest conquest and rhythmically humping her with metronomic timing and Volvo-esque levels of safety and efficiency. He’s not a proper England manager – he doesn’t jump around and shout a lot like Big Sam or Stuart Pearce, does he?
Sadly the nutters have missed one fundamental point; in naming this squad, the Swede has finally shown he’s one of us. This is a slice of quintessentially English batty eccentricity. The “who needs strikers anyway?” approach isn’t just Sven chasing cheese down a hill; he’s doing it on stilts (how else does he talk to Peter Crouch?) in a Kermit costume. The knowledge that Germany 2006 is his last hurrah has freed his mind and allowed him to throw off the shackles of conservative restraint. This is his version of the post-resignation act of strolling into the office two hours late, goosing a secretary or two (well, old habits die hard), photocopying his arse and telling the boss exactly what he thinks of him. So whaddaya gonna do, fire me? We’ve all thought about it at some point; very few have had the balls to carry it out. Sven has.
There has been much comment on the merits of the chosen few and equally those who were disappointed; some of it sensible, much of it utter bollocks. Jermaine Jenas? Maybe he answered someone else’s mobile when the call came in. Sol Campbell? Sven probably recognises a kindred fruit loop when he sees one. No Darren Bent? Maybe he’s just this season’s Kevin Phillips. Owen Hargreaves? He can allegedly play at right back and speak German, thus he might come in handy when Wayne Bridge needs bailing out of police custody. Lennon and Downing? Both more consistent than Shaun W-P this year. Peter Crouch? Someone has to nibble the leaves on the tops of the trees.
Then there is Theo Walcott – the selection that tiptoes drunkenly along the fine line between genius and madness, the Swede’s stab at surreal humour and one that would have made Spike Milligan proud. Sven’s coup de grace, his genitals in the watercooler before being ejected by security moment. A seventeen year old with no Premiership experience who didn’t see Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in 1998 as it was past his bedtime. We’re doomed.
I beg to differ. The reaction to Walcott’s inclusion personifies the natural state of pessimism that orbits English football like a Chris Waddle penalty. Uncapped Brazilian teenagers are spoken of in hushed, revered tones. Self-appointed experts nod knowingly. “He’s class – new Pele, they’re saying…” having seen a grainy fifteen second video of said player scoring one thirty yard corker, an exquisite two yard tap-in with half a dozen eye-boggling stepovers thrown in for good measure.
Walcott might not get off the bench like Ronaldo didn’t in 1994. If he does, he could run around like an over-excited spring lamb and be about as effective as Boris Johnson in an England shirt. He might get booked, throw himself to the floor and have a tantrum that only his mum, warm milk and a bedtime story can cure. But he might just be the spark (think Gascoigne at Italia ’90 or Rooney at Euro 2004) to send the nation into that ridiculous state called hope once more. So think of young Theo as the boy who might be our own little bit of Brazilian magic – surely better than praying before x-rays of Rooney’s foot, isn’t it?
Not content with moaning about the injustices and peculiarities of the squad, football’s nutters have gone even further. They have extrapolated their lunacy, formed a few conspiracy theories and pointed an accusatory finger at David Dein. Apparently the Arsenal chief has been a busy man. From failed recruitment consultant in the Scolari debacle, he has now transformed himself into a one-man selection committee and team manager, having completed a short-term contract as a chef in an East London hotel with a nice sideline in germ warfare. Please, you’re not barking up the wrong tree – you’re just barking. Which is of course fine as you’re English and therefore allowed to be once in a while.
The ageing, world-weary cynic in me is now at peace with the national side. I never expect anything from them and in general they don’t disappoint me. I have a month of football to gorge myself upon and I’ll be fucked if I’m going to let the possibility of England being shite (again) spoil my appetite.
But just think – instead of Owen Hargreaves appearing when England are 1-0 down and in need of a miracle, there might be a couple of uncapped ADHD-crazed teenagers in England shirts jumping around on the touchline. A nervous continental full back twice their age with tired legs will eye them nervously as Sven totters around the technical area on his stilts, singing ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green.’
It could all be more embarrassing than Richard and Judy’s ‘Little Britain’ impressions. It might be an unmitigated footballing disaster of Taylor-esque proportions. Despite all this, to pull the finest Hollywood cliché I can find out of the bag – it’s so damned crazy that it might just work. But whatever happens, in the twilight of his England career Sven has finally shown that beneath his emotionless exterior there now lies that little streak of eccentricity which runs through every Englishman. So get on your stilts and just enjoy the ride.
* wassailing is the ancient custom of singing to fruit trees to bring good luck and ensure a decent crop in the forthcoming year. Told you we were crackers.