by Rob Wilson

Pain and anguish resulting from football’s cruel cycle of success and failure is part and parcel of being a football fan.

Those Manchester United fans that lost “their” 20th league title thanks to the last meaningful kick of the 2011/2012 Premier League season to a team whose local derby was once Stockport County not so long ago will know this, the Luton fans that have gone from having regular visits paid to them by the best players in English football to non-league copies of those players within a very agonizing and unrelenting collapse spanning over 20 years will know this, and even the most ardent England fans – who in 1966 saw George Best smash home a left-footed drive into the top corner to win the World Cup at the old Wembley Stadium – that are now greeted with a puffing and panting Glen Johnson, and Adrian “I gave up a career in cruise-ship-comedy to become a boring football pundit” Chiles’ level of what can only be politely described as “bad pub banter”, every time they want to watch a few men in white shirts kick a football around will know this.

In short, football is shit and painful for an impossibly large portion of its followers. It brings nothing but – to quote a friend of mine – perpetual misery, worry and shame to all that give their time, money and last hopes to it in exchange for perhaps a single moment of happiness which is then taken away again by the cycle of success and failure that seems to move too quickly for most teams, too slowly for a handful of teams or not at all for those of you reading this that have followed your teams around the lower divisions from John O’ Groats to Land’s End on organised minibuses, loud coaches, packed motorways and slow trains in uncomfortable heat, “that really, really wet rain” and the coldest winters, for what feels like an eternity. I digress – my point is that what goes up must come down, no matter how slow or quick the process, no matter how measurable the distance is between the high and the low, no matter how euphoric the rise or depressing the fall – it must happen. So, where do we begin, and what does any of this have to with the English national team? Well, we begin several decades after the actual starting point, and at the home of the English national team.

It’s a rainy night at Wembley Stadium in November 2007, and England are currently 3-2 down to Croatia in the final game of their European Championship qualification campaign – a score that, should it turn into a result, will see England fail to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since the World Cup in 1994. The game is entering its final minutes and as potential heroes Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch and poor old Ben Foster try their hardest to salvage something – anything – to devise a scientific experiment and make fiction a reality by creating enough energy for Roy of the Rovers to spontaneously explode into existence in order to progress from their qualification group, they look towards the bench for inspiration from their manager, like any player (or supporter) does when they’ve run out of ideas for how to overcome yet another hurdle and have entered the wallowing depths of despondent chaos as they see their dreams collapsing to dust in front of them. Their manager at the time, Mr. Steve McClaren, is out of his seat and stood defiantly as a beacon of ambition in the technical area, studying the field of play and arranging complex ideas – the like of which we’ve never seen on a football pitch, just as any inspirational figure, leader of men and rally-er of the troops should be:

Yup that’s an umbrella and a mug of tea.

That umbrella actually provides a perfect metaphor for the way English football has hidden and protected itself from the rain-like criticism that’s finally arrived around three decades too late, but I’ll get to that later as the not-too-distant past is stronger in my memory and my fingers are burning.

England lost that game in November 2007 to Croatia and failed to qualify for Euro 2008 – which, might I add, turned out to be a reasonably enjoyable tournament that all of us back in England could leisurely gaze at without any possibility of everything be ruined by anything, other than seriously misjudged predictions and betting choices that were made at the start of the tournament as to which country would reign supreme at the very end of it all. Steve McClaren was relieved of his duties and a strict new regime under the watchful eye of Fabio Capello was installed.

If any of you reading this have been to the new Wembley Stadium to see a football game or live concert, you should be well aware of the rules and regulations that are glued to the turnstiles as you enter the ground. I can imagine Capello’s “strict regime” was probably similar to this, and I can imagine the England players followed these rules just as the turnstile etiquette is obeyed by Wembley’s customers – so, not very much. Capello did, however, seem to do something right where McClaren had gone so wrong: England did qualify for the World Cup in 2010 without that much of a problem and that strange feeling you’ve all had that I like to call “unified national optimism” appeared again, four years in waiting. But in true England style, everything fell apart. Dropping points to Algeria resulted in Wayne Rooney deciding to complain to the fans that were in there in South Africa (in the same stadium as him) by rambling angrily into a television camera that was transmitting images to people back in England, who he wasn’t angry with in the slightest. England were brushed aside by a young German team and embarrassed royally – the lasting image of the entire campaign formin in the shape of Gareth Barry’s large backside waddling after Mesut Ozil, who skipped around the England midfielder to slide the ball into the box, for Thomas Muller to score Germany’s 4th and send England packing with their souvenir vuvuzelas.

Perpetual shit and painful cycles.

Now here I am, sat up at 00:22am on March 27th, 2013 – a Wednesday – just over two hours after England’s 1-1 draw with Montenegro. In the grand scheme of things, it was a difficult point to earn in a hostile ground that a team like England should be grateful to come away from with something to hold, yet the result itself still comes as a shock to those that have watched England’s “Golden Generation” (in other words, any England squad picked by any England manager from 1997 onwards) fail to produce the goods and be overtaken by Spain, by France (twice) and do nothing to sort it out other than change their “leader of men” to somebody else who just isn’t quite good enough. So, in a constant climate of change that sees underperforming managers mercilessly swept aside, it sure seems unusual for underperforming players to keep their positions, right? Well, in an ordinary world known as “most of club football” this would be the case.

Admittedly, in club football there is a wider pool of players for a manager to choose from due to the slightly less tight nationality restrictions, but this shouldn’t be an excuse for not trying new strategies, new ways of thinking, and not experimenting. England have at least three or four International friendly weekends during every football season and we all love a good moan about how pointless they are, so why not give these friendlies a purpose and use them to introduce new talent to the national side? Hodgson was supposed to be the manager that was going to think outside of the box and select younger English players such as Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Jake Livermore on a regular basis, wasn’t he? And by “use them to introduce new talent to the national side” I mean exactly that. Perhaps Hodgson could try to name an England team without Steven Gerrard, Joleon Lescott, John Terry and Frank Lampard, rather than just omitting one or the other for fear of pressure from the tabloids.

Roy Hodgson does his best Mike Bassett impression.

As much as I fear I could annoy a lot of people here, England are like Chelsea in the way that they can only begin to move on and build for the future when John Terry and his best mates are moved aside. For example, in the case of Chelsea it’s players such as Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, the ghost of Jose Mourinho and the player power that has come with it, that need to be slowly erased from each fresh team sheet. There’s a culture of fear to introduce young players into an ageing team that has too much of a say because of the expectancy and pressure that comes with being Chelsea manager, admittedly. In saying that, teams like Manchester United and Barcelona have never had an issue, mainly because of the culture they’ve attempted to build down the years. It’s not like Chelsea have a poor academy either – Oriol Romeu and Ryan Bertrand are two academy graduates of recent years that have graduated from Chelsea’s Academy and managed hold down a starting place in the team for a run of games.

Where England are concerned, John Terry and his best mates: Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard should not be in the squad, never mind playing 90 minutes against teams like San Marino. I’m not simply talking about the latest squad announcement here; I’m talking about the squad for Euro 2012 and the events leading up to it. England should have taken Euro 2012 as an opportunity to give the younger payers some experience at a major tournament instead of sending out players running on fumes – sure, they would have gone out at the same stage, but they’d be better prepared for the World Cup qualifiers for, and actually performing well at, Brazil 2014. This was a chance for Jack Wilshere, Kyle Walker, Micah Richards, Phil Jones, Stephen Caulker, Leighton Baines, Martin Kelly, Daniel Sturridge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott to show the FA and the world that they could deal with the environment of their first major tournaments and prepare well enough to regain some credibility in time for the next one – the World Cup in 2014. England shouldn’t have necessarily written Euro 2012 off as a practise go, but there’s nothing wrong with planning ahead and not being totally bloody short-sighted. To be fair to Roy Hodgson, a handful of those players I’ve listed were named in the 23-man squad and another handful may or may not have been included had they not missed the tournament through injury (Chris Smalling for one), but the number soon decreases when you ask how many were given an actual chance to prove themselves – and by actual chance I mean anything more than a ten-minute cameo at the end of a game.

But instead, England went over to Austria and Poland all guns blazing with the previously named old guard of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Scott “Scotty” Parker who, apparently, were sure to lead England to victory with the roar of the three lions, just like they have done for every tournament since I became interested in football. Convinced they were going to brush aside France – who were apparently “shit now” because the team had fallen out with its old manager two years ago – and sail to the semi-finals because Hodgson had gone in there, got the boys organised and made them hard to beat, England made it through the group stage (thanks to Lady Luck concerning a certain goal-line decision against Ukraine) and before you knew it, that old friend, and eventual foe, “unified national optimism” began to reappear. But of course, England came up against a technically superior side and were flicked back home by Italy. Some of that “Brave English Lion” spirit took the quarter-final to penalties, and the effort certainly did enough to restore some pride, but the point England reached there – another disappointing tournament showing, another scratched chin, another remark from Mark Lawrenson, another quip from Adrian fucking Chiles – was one that had slowly become all too familiar. England were given another “reality check” that they were sure to bury their heads in the sand from and pretend wasn’t happening – again.

But there’s a pattern forming here that should tell England’s Golden Generation everything they need to know in order to fix the problem, and it’s something that Spain woke up to somewhere around the mid noughties, which is why they’re currently double European champions and World Cup holders.

In Part 2 – What exactly is the problem and where did it come from? Well, it’s the culture at grass roots level, definitions of passion and how passion can be displayed on a football pitch and ignorance that have brought England to this point. That’s what’s happening in Part 2.