The caller on Line 1 had it right. "The pundits keep saying we're not as good technically,” he told the BBC. “Surely that means we’re just not as good at football?"
It was the type of cynical realism the English pride themselves on. It followed on from former footballer Chris Waddle’s biennial rant about how England can never win a tournament if its players display such a lack of technique.
Waddle should know. His gangly gait disguised a technique that made him one of the continent’s best players once he joined Olympique Marseille in 1989. While hailed as a king in France, he was rejected by England manager Graham Taylor, these days ironically one of his punditry colleagues in the BBC Radio team. By that point in his career, Waddle had converted from being a winger into a free role of the type that Taylor did not countenance.
Freedom is a quality that England’s football team has rarely played with. Energy and brio are always fallen back on. And they are exhaustible qualities when compared to the class that never deserts the very best players. When the stakes become high, the English ability to play calmly and incisively always lessens. It is almost impossible to imagine an Englishman taking a shootout spot-kick in the manner of Andrea Pirlo did against England on Sunday in the quarterfinals.
“I always say that the only excuse for not hitting a penalty hard is if you score,” said Taylor as England prepared for the shootout in Kiev. It is unfair to place Taylor as some kind of bogeyman against development, since he is a decent man who achieved much in his club career. But his attitude is of the type that has held back the English national team to the time when Walter Winterbottom coached a starting XI chosen for him by a group of selectors.
Current manager Roy Hodgson, despite his cosmopolitan curriculum vitae, is a graduate of such thinking. That England was being bossed by an Englishman was celebrated by fans and pundits alike. And Hodgson won many friends with his avuncular demeanor and his winning of the respect of a group of players who never shared the same warmth for his predecessor, Fabio Capello. However, reaching the quarterfinal served as both a minimum and maximum level of achievement.
A failure to get beyond the group stage would still have been a disaster, even allowing for Hodgson’s tardy arrival on the scene (he became manager only in May). Getting beyond Italy, or indeed Spain as might have happened if England had not won Group D, was always going to be too much to ask. England never dominated its group opponents, France, Sweden and Ukraine. History dictated that a step up in class would be the end. Outside of home soil, England has beaten only one former champion of either Europe or the world in normal time on one occasion, and that was Denmark in 2002.
Such moments of aftermath are usually a time to call for root-and-branch reforms. We do so after every exit exhibits those signs of failing technique, and in the case of penalties, faulty psychology. However, the long-awaited building of St George’s Park National Football Centre may be the answer to the question. In 1999, the FA closed down its Centre of Excellence at Lilleshall in Shropshire. From 1984 to its abandonment, Lilleshall turned out a conveyor belt of decent talent, with Sol Campbell, Joe Cole and Michael Owen leading its alumni.
Its closure occurred after the clubs’ continual complaints about losing star youth talent to a centralized body. Since then, the Football Association spent years neglecting the development of the plot of land it had purchased in Staffordshire, mostly as a result of the crippling cost of rebuilding Wembley and of the silly money lavished on imported managers like Sven-Goran Eriksson and Capello. That pair’s costly pedigree and entourages prevented money being directed toward development.
The German example that followed their collection of dinosaurs’ exit from Euro 2000 is bearing fruit now. And failure has been accepted on the way. Germany reached the final of the 2002 World Cup with an interim bunch of players, but followed that up with disaster at Euro 2004. Its development curve began in earnest in preparing to host the 2006 World Cup, and has a good chance of bearing the fruit of glory a week from now in Kiev. The Germans, already blessed with a greater pool of talent and a superior mentality, have had to be patient in developing their next generation of player. The English will have to share that virtue, though it never comes easy to a culture of quick fixes and short-termism.
Could England ever find a Pirlo, or six midfielders of the type that Spain plays in lieu of a center forward? Well, it had one recently -- his name was Paul Scholes, and he is still admired by the likes of Pirlo and Xavi. He fell prey to the star system of media pressure and cronyism that forced Frank Lampard into his place. His colleague Michael Carrick, who is capable of similar ball retention, booked his holiday this summer after saying he would not be prepared to sit out an entire tournament as he had in 2010. Even after England failed to complete anything beyond the simplest passing move against Algeria in Cape Town, he still remained on the bench.
That same star system allowed a clearly unfit Wayne Rooney to complete the 120 minutes in Kiev on Sunday. Antonio Cassano, his Italian equivalent, was hooked by manager Cesare Prandelli when his energy level dipped. The bald truth was that Rooney, even allowing for his lack of physical fitness, was still England’s best chance of creating something.
There were still positives in England’s loss. John Terry, for non-footballing reasons, had to play without fanfare and delivered his best tournament performance yet. How good a player might we recognize him as, if we could forget the hoopla that surrounds him? Joleon Lescott was his equal, while Ashley Cole was his consistent self, though far too consistent in his penalty-taking practice.
Cole’s failure to convert -- that that feint-and-slap into the keeper’s left -- served as a symbol for Hodgson’s first campaign and England’s continuing malaise. It was a moment of failing technique. We had seen it all before. It wasn’t good enough.