Football: Which way for a game left behind?: Beyond the World Cup: Domestic football must now choose between home improvements and a foreign policy: Richard Williams believes the English need to embrace other languages

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN Pieve di Cento, where Graham Taylor's England squad stayed on the eve of their match against San Marino, a bust of Antonio Gramsci looks down on the village square. Gramsci, a founder of Italian Communism, had just the phrase for the plight of English football. 'The old is dying,' he once wrote, 'and the new cannot be born. In the meantime, a variety of morbid symptoms appears.'

Where, in the catalogue of symptoms, do we start? With Stuart Pearce's ninth-second back-pass - 'unscripted', in Taylor's dry phrase - which caused the distinguished football critic of the People to rise from his seat and clasp his forehead in a spontaneous gesture precisely caught between despair and hilarity? Or, at the other extreme, with the absence through a 'family commitment' of Peter Swales, chairman of the FA's international committee, from this most resonant of evenings? Do we begin with Taylor's 160-odd team changes over the course of 38 matches, or his bizarre claim to journalists on Thursday morning that English clubs don't know how to handle millionaire footballers? Between the dressing room and the committee room, between the primary school yard and the international pitch, the list is endless.

Nor do these symptoms come much more morbid or symbolic than the behaviour of the fans at the Renato Dall'Ara Stadium in Bologna last Wednesday. Few England trips can have been so peaceful; whoever produced the attendance figure of 2,378 must have included, for the sake of appearances, the brass band and the squads of riot police, who comfortably outnumbered the little band of travelling supporters. Yet even in these circumstances their manner provided an illustration, quite as eloquent as the display of the 11 players on the pitch, of why England will not being going to the United States next summer, and why their absence will not be much mourned outside these shores.

An hour before the kick-off, in the yellow sodium light under the arches of the Portici dei San Luca, as the cries of Ing-ger-land, Ing-ger-land and No surrender, no surrender, no surrender to the IRA drifted up through the night air to the church on the hill, a fan was addressing a group of puzzled-looking policemen. 'Where - is - the - main - entrance?' he was asking, his Black Country accent suggesting membership of the West Brom party which had come on from the previous night's Anglo-Italian Cup match in Florence. Unable to make himself understood, he slowed down and started to bellow at them: 'Where - is - the - main - entrance? Where . . . is . . . the . . . main . . . entrance?'

This isn't an attempt to make a point about social divisions. You hear the same sort of thing from the middle classes in Umbrian cafes and shops in the Dordogne. It's to do with the English, and their arrogant insularity, and the fears that lie behind it. I was reminded of it a couple of days later, when I read an interview with Alain Prost in which the Formula One world champion, who has spent his career in a multinational ambiance, talked about the need to communicate with a team in its own language in order to share its mentality, and about the special difficulty this presents the English.

'All the English people I know don't want to make the effort to speak another language,' Prost remarked. 'Maybe they're shy. I remember at the beginning of my time in Italy, I was saying all the wrong things. But I didn't care, because at least I tried. I think maybe the English don't want to try something and look stupid, because they're a bit reserved.'

Shy? Reserved? M Prost is too kind. But he has a point: Englishmen retreat behind their barricades, reassuring themselves of their superiority, because they are scared that other people's ideas may be beyond them.

It was certainly chastening to sit under the stand after the match on Wednesday night and hear Giorgio Leoni, the manager of San Marino, quietly analysing the failings of English football, as reflected in the performance of its 11 chosen representatives. The English style was predictable, he said; uninventive, compared to the Dutchmen who had also put seven away goals past his team. English football would benefit from a greater degree of calm and tranquillity. After seeing Taylor retain a four-man defence against a team that offered a negligible threat in attack (the Dutch, remember, had played two and a half defenders against England), after watching Stuart Ripley and Lee Dixon waste about 20 minutes' worth of virtually unobstructed right-flank possession over the course of the preceding hour and a half, Leoni could have been far harsher. In essence, though, he was only echoing the comments of Josef Blatter, the Fifa secretary, quoted a few days earlier as saying that English football was 30 years behind the times, still dependent on kick-and-rush.

On Thursday morning, I suggested to Graham Taylor that - irrespective of his own personal destiny, on which he resolutely refuses to speculate - the failure to qualify for USA '94 might at least provide the impetus for wholesale changes to the English game, the chance to start at Year Zero. This is what he said.

'Well, we're not going to start next season with anything less than 22 teams in the Premiership. I'm not offering this as any kind of excuse, I'm just saying that I took the job three years ago when there were 20 clubs in the first division. Three weeks later, nobody had told me, there were 22. If you look at the way the game is played - not just in our country but all over, because basically it's a much faster game, whatever people say, because you can't stop the development of the human being - if you look at this 10- game qualifying series that we've just played, the number of players who've missed a game because of injury is horrifying, and I can't see how that's going to improve. So Year Zero sounds right, but it won't happen.'

And then he blurted out something about how, in England, 'we're not used to having millionaire footballers. I looked at one of the squads I picked, and to my knowledge I think I'd got seven millionaires in there. We're not used to that in this country.'

What on earth did he mean?

'The point I'm making is that it doesn't matter how much you pay people. There's only so much a person can give you, playing three games a week. But because we pay X million pounds and give a player a salary, the public and all of us expect something special every time we see him play. But he's still playing the same system.'

Taylor is right about the number of teams in the Premiership, and about the number of games the clubs play. He has proved conclusively, though, that he is not the man to inspire the suspicious and the reluctant to follow a new vision of English football. His over-amiability with the media has turned predictably sour, distorting the perception of the job to the degree that even an intelligent man like Steve Coppell, the bookies' early favourite for the succession, can be heard saying that the English manager has 'got to be a media person'.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for Taylor as he lies bleeding, surrounded by sharks. But his attempts to grasp a last shred of dignity are invariably compromised by a failure to keep his thoughts or his tongue in check. His weak attempts to compare his record favourably with those of Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson are distasteful; his inability to refrain from making excuses is pathetic. (Take injuries, hisfavourite theme: in Italy, Arrigo Sacchi has been without Riccardo Ferri, Gianluigi Lentini and Gianluca Vialli for long stretches of the past year.)

In his heart, Taylor knows the problems. But when he said, just before leaving for Bologna, that he was proposing a 4-2-4 line-up because modern footballers could not be made to understand the W-M formation, he was admitting not the limitations of the average player's intellect but his own inability to communicate anything original or significant to them.

When he returns to the very different demands of club football, it will be as a wiser man. But not, please, one to play any further role at national level. Stability and continuity, the words one now hears constantly in his belated and misleading advocacy of 'the German system', are no good if stability is built on a platform of failure and what is being continued is a curve of decline. Old Gramsci also founded a newspaper called L'Ordine nuovo, and that is exactly what England needs now.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments