Richard Brook laments a side packed with potential that is all-too-regularly hamstrung by Englishness.
When Roy of the Rovers goes to sleep, he dreams of the start Rickie Lambert made to this international career. Lambert, who received his first England call on the day his daughter Bella was born, had all the reason in the world to smile when he scored against Scotland. He had been on the field just seconds and it was his first touch with the three lions of England upon his chest.
Lambert won the game with his goal from Leighton Baines corner. The Southampton striker just seemed to want to get a touch more than anyone else as the ball came over, and when he did what a touch it was. His bullet of a header left Allan McGregor, in the Scotland goal with literally no chance of keeping it out.
As Lambert wheeled away in celebration, his unbridled delight could not be missed. In a split second the flash of his smile must have taken football fans around the country back to school boy daydreams and playing field fantasies. Seeing the fairy tale unfold before your eyes, even for someone else, was a sight to behold. Even in Lambert’s pitch side interview there was no wiping the beam off his face.
It was such a pleasure to see a professional footballer attaining such pleasure from playing the game that, we must not forget, is their job. Not many of us ‘men on the street’ are lucky enough to have a job we truly love. As such relatively few of us will be rivalling Rickie Lambert for the title of broadest smile in England whilst at work. Many footballers, by contrast, unsurprisingly do purport to have the career of their dreams.
It is a combination of these factors that causes one to question why the sight of an England footballer, visibly enjoying an international match felt such a rare occurrence. There are a million facetious answers to the question but the truth is England win a lot more games than they lose, as is evidenced by FIFA’s ludicrous rankings system. Playing for England ought to be an enjoyable experience.
Lambert’s celebrations instead, in my mind at least, caused comparisons with the expressions you see on the faces of some of England’s more seasoned international campaigners. Stern faces permeate the tunnel and the national anthems. England’s goal-scorers often appear more relieved than happy as they receive the congratulations of their team-mates – I hesitate to call a sheepish and unburdened smile a celebration. Sometimes celebrations, maybe again through relief, manifest in the opposite form as the scorer finds a face in the crowd, or the nearest television camera, and issues an aggression riddled war cry. Far be it from me to tell anyone how they should celebrate and I am all for any display of passion in the game. This does, however, form part of the observation that there is such a scarcity of players who openly show that they enjoy playing and scoring, particularly in an England shirt.
I am left thinking of the likes of Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard. I cannot help wondering if the pressure weighs heavily on the tattered remnants of England’s ‘Golden Generation’ that never was. Is the fear of international failure so great, that enjoying playing for England is impossible to enjoy even for experienced professional footballers? If so what role does the media, and others that seek to pass public comment – myself included, play in that?
It is difficult to say what sets Rickie Lambert apart in this regard, though time may offer an insight, when we discover whether or not he appears as jaded as the others eventually. It may indeed prove to be his freshness to the international scene. The smile might have been purely due to the latest addition to his family.
There is an alternative explanation in the shape of Lambert’s football background. I am not going sagely state that Lambert once worked in a factory that produced jarred beetroot, as if it is the first time that it has been mentioned. The striker is however someone who has worked his way up to this moment. At 31 years of age he made his international debut later in his career than many. He is not a teenager that was signed to a top club’s academy before either making it at said top club or signing for a mid-level Premier League club and on the England bench almost by default. Rather Lambert was released by Liverpool at the age of 15 and built a career from League Two, in current terminology. Lambert has played for, Blackpool, Macclesfield Town, Stockport County, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers before Southampton. He has earned his chance the hard way, may be that is why he is determined to enjoy it.
While the beautiful game is certainly more than just a game, it is a game and games are for playing. If all players could consistently play football with a smile on their face and with an open enjoyment of the sport perhaps they could find a level of freedom that allowed them to reach their individual and collective potentials.
England are a team that consistently look like they could benefit from playing a bit more freely to their own strengths. The fear of losing looks more like a self-fulfilling prophecy with every passing tournament. This has appeared to be case with various personnel, under successive managers. If playing with freedom could be achieved maybe we could put an end to performances and results such as 0-0 with Algeria at the last World Cup and the 1-1 draw in Montenegro in the qualifying tournament for the next. Ron Atkinson might not have ever managed England but they could do worse than to take heed of the way that he famously used to sign off his pre-match team talks; “Just go out there and play!”