The playing fields of England were awash with tiny feet yesterday, the nation’s juniors engaging in the eternal Sunday morning rituals that have shaped the experience of footballing folk down the ages. My own son, Jonny, slotted a couple in a friendly for Moretonville Under-15s in Buckingham. Left foot, right foot. Tidy.
Adjacent pitches hosted matches featuring players of varying ability and enthusiasms. One or two were exceptional in their touch, movement and instinct for the game. While I accept this was not Copacabana Beach, there was enough talent on view in this microscopic corner of rural England to reinforce the idea that football remains central to the sporting lives of our kids and that there is sufficient raw material with which to work.
It was pleasing therefore to read the deliberations of Rafa Benitez, now coaching Napoli in Serie A, and Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino, the subject of Gary Neville’s wisdom in his newspaper column, both of whom advanced the argument that English players have the required technique and other qualities shared by their foreign counterparts. So, in a week when English football was once more down on itself following another uninspiring outing on the world stage in Ukraine, it fell to members of the foreign legion to remind us that the source material is there, that we are, in fact, not inferior beings on a football pitch.
Any deconstruction of the myth of inherent foreign superiority is to be welcomed. The fact that it comes from a Spaniard and an Argentine, nationalities that occupy territory deemed unattainable by most in the mother country, so much the better. The national side is indubitably a problem but technique cannot be at the heart of it. You cannot wrap your foot around a ball like Steven Gerrard and lack technique. But you can fail to see the pass, make the run, intuit the space, the things that Xavi and his Spanish brothers do so well.
The explanations for English failure centre on the falling number of home players filling shirts at our pre-eminent clubs. This line of attack has always baffled this son of the Seventies, who remembers arguably the darkest decade in English football history during which England failed twice to qualify for the World Cup. There was no shortage of local produce then, yet the England team was hopelessly adrift on the international stage.
That period marked the end of the cycle that at its height brought England’s only success in international competition. The superpowers of the European game, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and now Spain have subsequently reinvented the wheel in their own image, producing dominant teams and era-defining players. Through the introduction of systematic change each nation reacted to others to fashion their own time at the head of an ever-evolving curve.
In Kiev it seemed that England had learnt nothing from the intervening 40 years, appalling ball retention, poor movement and creeping inhibition. Said son gave up after 15 minutes, defaulting to the PlayStation in pursuit of the thrills and spills he associates with the game that infatuates him. Roy Hodgson thinks England fulfilled their obligations by keeping a clean sheet and retaining their position at the top of Group H.
In one sense he is right, of course, but what is the point of it all if the experience is not one to be enjoyed, if it fails to excite or inspire? Hodgson’s pragmatic positioning meets short-term goals but does not provide the nourishment the game needs at grass roots and is therefore counter-productive. It is, however, neither fair nor useful to hang around his neck four decades of malfunction. The new chairman of the Football Association, Greg Dyke, is the man tasked with plotting a route out of the malaise and returning the national team to the heart of the footballing enterprise in England.
Just over a decade ago Germany found it necessary to rip up the template that had delivered three World Cups and seven final appearances and started again by making the Bundesliga subservient to the national team. That is Dyke’s great mission, to persuade the most successful economic driver in football, the Premier League, to find a place in its heart for dear old England; to persuade the Premier League elite, in Manchester and London, to put at the nation’s disposal the huge coaching and infrastructure resources they command, to share ideas and agree a common policy.
Only when our clubs think better of England will the team develop the cohesion required to string the passes together that might yet yield Dyke the World Cup he has earmarked for 2022. Better still, it might also give them a shot at the one after that, and after that. You never know, Jonny might even slot a couple in a final. I know. I’m dreaming.