England too arrogant to learn lessons of history

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The Independent Football

Every once in a while, either in print or across the airwaves, and sometimes in friendly bars, I feel obliged to argue a salient fact about English football of which all manner of people appear to overlook or choose conveniently to ignore.

Every once in a while, either in print or across the airwaves, and sometimes in friendly bars, I feel obliged to argue a salient fact about English football of which all manner of people appear to overlook or choose conveniently to ignore.

It is that the position of England coach, recently vacated by Kevin Keegan, ought not to be sought by anyone blind to a long history of comparative failure and arrogant presumption.

In the days since the shock of Keegan's resignation on the grounds that the job had proved more difficult than he imagined, many names have been put forward along with the devoted assertion that football offers no better opportunity for employment. Precedent flatly contradicts this popular theory. To my mind, it isn't the stark probability of being held up to public ridicule if expectations aren't met that deters many of those who have been mentioned but the realisation that it would take an extraordinary run of success to justify the grandiose belief that England are one of the game's leading powers.

As brought home by the draw in Finland last night and Germany's victory at Wembley on Saturday, the facts speak for themselves. Since England first deigned to enter the World Cup in 1950, when a humiliating 1-0 loss to the United States put paid to the chances of a squad that included such notables as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, Billy Wright and Jackie Milburn, they have only twice made the semi-finals. England's record in the European Championship, just one appearance in the semi-finals, at Euro 96, is equally revealing.

It's true that England have experienced their share of misfortune. But for the terrible accident that overtook Manchester United they would have been a real force at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. And the loss of Gordon Banks shortly before a quarter-final against West Germany in Mexico 12 years later proved to be an insurmountable blow.

However, even the World Cup triumph of 1966 contains some persistently ignored realities. First, there was the distinct advantage of playing all their matches at Wembley (not in the tournament's original structure) and the questionable dismissal of Argentina's gifted, if belligerent, captain Antonio Rattin in a close-run quarter-final.

The popular ditty of Euro 96 - "Football's Coming Home" - centred on "30 years of hurt" as though events prior to 1966 were an irrefutable endorsement of England's stature.

No wonder that the successful German team of four years ago cheekily sang the words as their own. Germany's record over the same period of time is hugely impressive and probably out of England's reach; three World Cup victories and a total of six appearances in the final along with three European titles.

Amazingly, despite the lessons of history, arrogant assumption persists in English football, clouding the judgement of men whose minds appear to be less on the game than commercial possibilities.

Let's go back a bit in time. Between 1970 and 1982, England failed to qualify for the World Cup finals and fired Alf Ramsey, the hero of 1966. Their return was a close-run thing, secured by a victory in Hungary. Shortly before that game a question was put to Sir Harold Thompson, then chairman of the Football Association, who had led the conspiracy against Ramsey. Where, he was asked, did he think England stood in world football. "Certainly not among the leading nations," he replied.

It strikes me that nothing much has changed, or that men now in position see the future of English football in a clearer light and can act in accordance with the truth.

One constant factor remains. Of the committee assigned to the search for England's next coach, only one member, Howard Wilkinson, has a professional background in the game. Of the critics who denounced Keegan and preach patriotism at every turn, none, to my knowledge, have played or coached the game at any level.

A former manager, invited to comment on the sorry business, groped for an adjective and came up "asinine". He happens to be a notoriously nice guy. Speaks kindly of everybody.

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