by Bob Lethaby
I have never quite experienced such bizarre feelings towards being English as I do at the moment; I am almost in a state of paranoia about my existence, my patriotism or perhaps lack of it, leaving me wondering what, or indeed, who I am supposed to stand for.
I have never really had a problem with being European, British or English and despite the fun poking and sporting rivalries, I have always enjoyed meeting people from other nations as in general, most are decent, even if their outlook, humour and sense of irony may differ.
There is an exception. In 1993 when I was in Spain travelling, I met a Swiss girl who was attractive enough to nearly make me faint. However, I soon discovered that her blue eyes had no spark and she had been brought up to believe that laughing was a crime.
As you can imagine, the romance was brief and my sweeping generalisation of the Swiss has remained intact ever since. Some people have suggested that Britain should use the Swiss as an example of what we could be outside the EU. I would argue that whilst we do have personalities, we don’t have underground banks and cuckoo clocks stuffed with Jewish gold that was stored for the victorious Nazis.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend the Swiss model of independence.
Anyway, we were told last night that as a way of distracting ourselves from the back-stabbing and political confusion as ‘Article 50’ becomes the proverbial hot potato of all proverbial hot potatoes; we should all get behind the England football team and cheer them on to a spirit lifting victory.
Well, that didn’t go quite to plan did it?
I can remember in 1977, Mr Searing, our school headmaster, venting his spleen at an England team who had just beaten Luxembourg (perennial whipping boys) 2-0, with a 90th minute Paul Mariner strike sealing a memorable victory against a team that had never won a match.
“What an embarrassment to this supposed football nation!” he seethed.
Because of our pathetic goal difference, this defeat effectively sealed England’s fate as we had already lost to Italy the previous autumn in what is the first international game I can recall watching. I can remember England looking frail and white whilst the Italian’s were shiny and handsome with romantic sounding names like Antononi and Bettaga; it seemed a mismatch from the start, and so it turned out.
Apart from the occasional anomaly, England have always been useless.
Now, forty years on from that performance against Luxembourg, England, far from lifting the spirits of a divided nation, have hit rock bottom. This was not even a heroic failure featuring rattled crossbars, goal line clearances, and miraculous saves by a goalkeeper dubbed a clown, red cards, and various other injustices that have been gut wrenching highlights of previous tournaments.
No, it was just a plain mental and physical breakdown that went from annoying, to almost funny, to excruciating. It was a bit like a calamitous 1970’s sitcom, with poor old Roy Hodgson playing the part of Frank Spencer with increasing aplomb as the game went on. I have never seen anything quite like it, it was ineptitude personified.
I say ‘poor old Roy Hodgson’ in jest, because he’s not poor of course, he is a multi-millionaire, unlike the Iceland manager who undertakes his other job as a dentist whilst he works out how to field a team from a country that has more volcanoes than professional footballers.
The crux of it for me, is that if you are going to lose to a spirited and well organised team like Iceland, it has to be a freak, a situation where you have 30 shots on target but the Gods are not on your side and you just have to accept that what makes football a wonderful sport, is its ability to throw up a shock against the odds.
However, this wasn’t that, in fact Iceland should have wrapped the game up earlier than they did. This was like a team of players acting like strangers as they panicked in their roles as square pegs in round holes and subsided into passing the ball like they were wearing hobnail boots. It was a remarkable case study for collective mental breakdown that will be used by sports psychologists for decades to come.
There have been many sporting breakdowns over the years...Don Fox in the 1968 Rugby League Final and Jean Va De Velde in the British Golf Open spring immediately to mind, but this is the first time I have seen it in full flow as a collective.
It is thought in sports psychology circles that athletes can be either internally or externally focused (or a combination of the two).
Internally focused athletes reach their peak performance when they’re continually focused and immersed into a training session, without any distractions, whereas externally focused athletes perform best when they only focus on sport as and when they are about to start the training session or drill, to minimizing the chances of competitive anxiety arising.
It is generally thought that athletes who are externally focused may be more liable to a mental block occurring. This is because aspects of the game or exercise become critically, and often negatively, over thought about, which consequently causes a forced unnatural performance.
For eleven rather than just one player to collapse like England did last night, suggests to me that there was something fundamentally wrong in the preparation for this game, because whilst these players are not world beaters, they are not that bad either, with all evidence suggesting they were to a man, better equipped with footballing skills than Iceland.
A good example of over analysing is to go out and drive your car and see the chaos unfold when you analyse every gear change and manoeuvre, rather than doing what comes naturally through years of practice and assessing different scenarios.
When we are told to do things that are not instinctive, we are useless and I think that is what happened to England last night. I will fess up and admit that I am no psychologist but I think Hodgson unwittingly set up a team with a heavy analysis based on not making unforced errors, rather telling them just to back their ability to beat an inferior side.
I’m told that playing them in their right position can also come in handy.
I have been mulling over trying to make the England performance last night seem like a metaphor for the state the country is in as the post-Brexit chaos shows no sign of slowing up, but it all feels a bit confused and clumsy, a bit like me.
However, it appears to me that whilst the England football management team were coming up with needless and confusing strategies rather than just playing a simple game to conquer a basic team, the politicians were in a similar state with regards to ‘Article 50’ with everyone, Boris Johnson in particular, appearing to be understandably shit scared of entering a process that will end his career. It was such a spectacular parting gift from his Bullingdon buddy that I almost admire it.
In that way, the England team were something of a metaphor for Britain as a whole, as like the players on show last night, we all seem to be in a state of analysis paralysis.
What I do know, is that if I didn’t care about my country, I wouldn’t have written this.
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