The Lions That No Longer Roar: How English Football’s Abject Mediocrity Has Been 20 Years in the Making

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It was a poor penalty from Gareth Southgate. Andreas Köpke, helpless at best for the previous five, had little problem in palming away the Aston Villa defender’s tame left-sided effort, and put Germany on the brink of reaching the final of Euro 1996.

That memory, and the image of a despondent Southgate, standing, hands on hips, staring blankly at his feet as Andreas Möller blasts the ball past David Seaman, and players and staff from the Die Nationalmannschaft charge towards the goal to embrace their newly-heroic goalkeeper, lives painfully on in the minds of England fans everywhere.

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Fast forward 22 years, and a now bearded and more matured Southgate has traded in his white shorts and baggy shirt for the royal blue three-piece suit of an England manager looking to imprint his own character on the national team. The intermittent two decades, however, have seen a continuation of the hapless heartbreak England’s latest boss is all too familiar with.

1996, to this day, remains England’s last venture past the quarter-finals of a major international tournament. Instead, the Three Lions have created their own signature cocktail of underperformance, disappointment and woeful ineptitude, which has seen its fair return of group stage exits, last-eight stutters, and a shambolic failure to qualify for Euro 2008 altogether. Yet, the transformation of a team who at the beginning of the century were labelled as entering their ‘golden generation’ turning into the generation of frustration, should perhaps not come as a complete surprise to the England faithful. In an era marked by stagnant indecision and deplorable arrogance from the upper echelons of the national footballing hierarchy, that has more often than not been translated onto the pitch, it is of little wonder that the Three Lions’ roar has become muted and distant.

June 27th 2016 was a fateful day in the history of English football, but it should not have been a surprising one. A 2-1 defeat in the Round of 16 against European Championship debutants Iceland, a result almost universally acknowledged as the national team’s worst since their humiliating 1950 World Cup exit at the hands of the USA, was met with shock and outrage up and down the country. In truth, it had been a long time coming. In 1996, despite their agonising German penalty defeat, England, for all the heartbreak, had come away from the tournament with their heads held high in the knowledge they had gone toe-to-toe with the best, and lost only by the very finest of margins. At that point in time, the Three Lions could quite rightly place themselves amongst the very elite of international football. Terry Venables’ side boasted the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams and Alan Shearer; it was a team filled personality, led from the front by their high-spirited, outspoken manager.

Yet football, with its characteristic unpredictably, has all too often seen the heroes of one major international tournament wistfully meander their way into becoming the washed-up primadonnas of the next. England’s World Cup winning manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, sacked just a few years after leading the national team to zenith of the game, would perhaps be the first to testify to such a phenomenon. In the past 20 years, there has been no shortage of footballing heavyweights that have fallen victim to the sport’s competitive ruthlessness. The Spanish team of the early 2000s which witnessed a dramatic plunge in results, or the Argentines who were so unglamorously dumped out at the group stages of the 2002 World Cup spring to mind. Even the German side that knocked Venables’ England out in 1996 found themselves thrown into crisis just 8 years later following a shambolic European Championship performance in Portugal. For every one of these teams, the realisation that, in the cutthroat world of football, there can be no God-given right to be regarded as a top international sides, has quickly became apparent. Every one, that is, except England.

Where other sides have taken their respective dips as opportunities to restructure and revitalize –  Germany, for example, completely redesigning their grassroots system and investing in cutting edge performance-analysis technology in the wake of 2004, or Spain switching their focus onto a particular playing style and identity, England, it would appear have made no such effort. Instead, the Three Lions have ploughed blindly on in the aftermath of botched tournament after tournament in the naïve belief that next time around, things would be turn out differently, that England’s status as a top team either 5 or 10 or 20 years ago would eventually carry them back to success on the international stage. The arrogance of the entire situation, in spite of years’ worth of warning signs in the lead up to the Iceland debacle, almost beggars belief.

Since the turn of the century, the Three Lions’ setbacks have included defeats in competitive fixtures to both Scotland and Northern Ireland, a 1-3 friendly loss at the hands of Australia, a 0-0 draw against Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup and the humiliation of failing to qualify for the 2008 European Champions altogether, following a decisive 2-3 loss to Croatia. When put into the context of the last two decades, therefore, that Iceland result should perhaps not have come as so much of a surprise after all.

The reality of the situation is that England’s elite international status vanished as soon as their 1998 World Cup campaign ended in the Round of 16 at the hands of Argentina (a tournament where Glenn Hoddle’s men came out of the group stages languishing behind Romania), and yet for the last two decades the Football Association has refused to accept or acknowledge the status of its own pernicious decline. Instead, the nation has watched on as those at the top of the English footballing pyramid have proceeded to implement the ultimate paper-over-the-cracks job. In place of any of the real, deep-rooted changes required, the entire national set-up has been saturated with shallow solutions designed to solve superficial problems. Where Germany, following their decline, used its resources to set-up 121 regional footballing youth centres to nurture talent in rural parts of the country, England plugged £105million into building a solitary national football complex. St. George’s Park, in fact, remains a fitting testament the showy, peacocking attitude that has run deep into the English system for so many years; a brand new, shiny, expensive and ultimately relatively worthless construction, designed more as a nesting ground for those already forging a career at the top end of the game, rather than focusing on any of real footballing development.

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Perhaps even most worryingly however, is the FA’s continuously cavalier attitude towards managerial appointments. When Vicente del Bosque was placed in charge of the Spanish national team in 2008, it was a decision taken as part of a long-term vision, begun following a failure with an almost eerie similarity to that which begun Germany’s decline, an inability to advance beyond the group stages of Euro 2004. For Spain, building a new footballing identity focused around the short passing and technical precision of ‘tiki-taka’ football became a paramount priority. The revolution, sparked by Atletico Madrid legend Luis Aragones following the 2004 campaign, was taken up by Del Bosque, who would remain in charge of his country for 8 years before eventually handing the reins to Julen Lopetegui, in that time leading the team to both World Cup and European Championship success. In Germany too, this sought-after stability was almost identical, only instead of Aragones the Germans turned to former Tottenham striker Jurgen Klinsmann, and instead of del Bosque to Joachim Low. Yet like their Spanish counterparts, both men were given the time and freedom to establish a brand, or identity, for their national team. By the time Germany won the World Cup in 2016, Low had already been in charge for 10 years, slowly and deliberately building a philosophy which would see his side climb back to the top of international football.

Yet this process of creating a long-term vision or identity, appears, inexplicably, never to have been in consideration for England. Instead, the powers that be at the FA have engaged in overseeing an ever-rotating merry-go round of managers with no clear progression between each. In the time since Low has taken charge of Germany, England has seen the rise and fall of Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson and Sam Allardyce. The list of names, now containing Gareth Southgate as its most recent addition, is almost amusingly haphazard in its nature. Jumping between the brazenly motivational methods of McClaren to a tactician with barely a word of English to his vocabulary demonstrates in itself an almost drunken bravado; throw in the rigid defensive caution characteristic of so many of Hodgson’s teams and the direct, ‘route one’ approach often associated with Allardyce, and the reason for England’s seemingly chronic lack of success becomes transparent. Where teams like Spain and Germany showed patience and direction to build clear footballing identities, England never started to search for theirs. Even now, there remains no straightforward description of the sort of football England play, or indeed the sort of football they want to play. The national team, tragically, simply has no identity.

In recent years, England’s lack of footballing success has been washed away by the FA in a wave of flowery, Johnny Cochran-esque rhetoric. Martin Glenn, the latest chief executive to come off the conveyor belt, is often quick to reassure English fans that brighter days are ahead, with talk of “passion” and “wisdom”. Yet the 56 year-old, whose prosperous business career saw him recruit Gary Lineker to represent the Walkers Crisps brand and humorously become hailed as ‘the man who killed Captain Birdseye,’ has yet to demonstrate any of the canny decision-making or expertise that led to his appointment in 2015. Instead, England find themselves in a new, shapeless form of freefall, marred by years of stagnant refusal to address the key problems facing the team. Their manager, appointed in the aftermath of a corruption scandal which saw his predecessor’s particularly ugly demise, is a man who was never intended to become king, and yet has had the burden of responsibility for digging up some form identity for the national side cast upon him. In one of those peculiar twists of fate that football occasionally serves up, Andreas Köpke’s current position as goalkeeping coach for the German national team may see this summer’s World Cup grant Southgate an opportunity to exact vengeance on his old semi-final nemesis. Time to step up Gareth. There’s no room to miss penalties anymore.

 

 

 

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