James Lawton: Our culture was once envy of world – now it's in ruins


Where do we start – again – on the latest breakdown in England's ability to compete seriously against grown-up football nations?

As always there is a dismaying range of options, including the fiasco of Wayne Rooney, who was welcomed here as a saviour when it was soon clear he was really a half-fit parody of a world-class performer. We could dwell on the ludicrous delay of the Football Association in appointing Fabio Capello's successor, Roy Hodgson, and giving him such scant time to prepare.

But then, we have to face it, these are just details in a wide and chronic malaise.

We can rage again about the money-dripping Premier League boasting that it is the best in the world while supplying to the national team a pitifully slim stock of adequate players. We can groan over the portentous announcement by the FA that Under-10 leagues and man-sized pitches will be scrapped, a full 50 years after such a decision by the Feyenoord academy in Rotterdam.

Yet wherever we go we come back to the same starting point. England just cannot cut it at the highest level. They cannot make great footballers and when they happen, in the fashion of Paul Gascoigne or Rooney, they are clueless about the competitive discipline to impose. This maybe brings us to still another withering statement about England's long decline. It is to a question posed by an elderly Italian on a tram carrying him away from the Olympic Stadium – not the one here in Kiev but back home in Rome. It was 35 years ago and England had been beaten by an Italian team that had looked embarrassingly superior.

"What," asked the old Italian, "has happened to the English football player? I have always thought of him as a god since as a young man I saw England beat my country 4-0 in Turin in 1948. Where have such players gone?"

The question had a fresh poignancy on Sunday night when Andrea Pirlo operated in another dimension to Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker. Each of the semi-finalists will this week parade players on top of their careers and their talent. We will see the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta, Mesut Ozil and Pirlo.

The old Italian touched a sore that shows no sign of healing when he invoked the names of those England players who were so unplayable all those years ago in Turin. To remind ourselves that, whatever problems England have they are hardly genetic we need only recall Frank Swift, Neil Franklin, Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Stan Mortensen and Tom Finney. They also beat Portugal 10-0, away.

So if it isn't the genes, what is it, this collapse of a culture which was once the envy of the world as it clamoured for coaching help from the home of the game?

Partly it is to do with the lost years that came with the FA coaching dictatorship of Charles Hughes, an ex-schoolteacher whose pièce de résistance was the theory of POMO – position of maximum opportunity. A requirement of POMO was the long ball – midfielders wore yellow bibs and one instruction was to hit the frontmen and "miss the Canaries".

On Sunday night, a canary called Andrea Pirlo sang a sweet and haunting song that mocked English football.

Hodgson has been criticised for his limited ambition tactically, yet what was he supposed to do with the resources at his disposal?

Should he have gone out and mixed it with a young Ukraine and a much more gifted France? It was, according to a worrying depth of opinion, something close to treachery to argue that in all three of their group games England had been seriously outplayed.

Hodgson made the best of what he had. When Pirlo's Italians took ownership of the ball this seemed, heaven knows, slight enough.

Perhaps he might have invested a little more in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and shown a little more patience with Danny Welbeck, but overall his campaign was marked by a willingness to treat every situation on its own merits. It was an act of desperation throwing in Andy Carroll against Italy but the big man had been an effective rough-house specialist against a fragile Swedish central defence.

When Hodgson's appointment was announced by the FA chairman, David Bernstein, you would not have grasped that the team had been pitched into another crisis. The FA had got the only man it wanted and systems were in place that would guarantee the future strength of the team.

That conviction was presumably still in place when Bernstein sat down next to the Uefa president, Michel Platini, in order to welcome the brave new world of England. It was one that may just have survived the first wave of Italian passing.

So maybe we should give thanks for a more serious disaster avoided – even as we weep again for all the old ground that still seems so irretrievably lost.

On Sunday night, a canary called Andrea Pirlo sang a sweet song that mocked English football