Growing divide between 'golden generation' and fans

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There have been more arresting examples of football fans' disgruntlement down the years, but for those who heard the boos as the England players walked off at Wembley on Wednesday night it was hard to resist the feeling that this was a nation which had fallen out of love with its football team.

The phone-ins and the chatrooms were packed with more evidence yesterday – most of the opprobrium reserved for Steve McClaren but much of it focused on the salaries and the promises of the players he fielded. For all the comment, Roy Keane characteristically cut to the quick when the Sunderland manager said there were "too many egos in there, too many big heads" in the squad. So ran the thoughts of many in a nation gifted with the most glamorous league in the world but unable to hold a country with a population of four million, whose best club side, Dinamo Zagreb, will do well to progress far in this season's Uefa Cup.

Those who travel regularly with England trace the roots of the estrangement to that grim night in Barcelona eight months ago when an England team which stuttered to put Andorra away 3-0 were subjected to unremitting abuse, levels of which few could remember in modern times. "Still want McClaren out," rang out the chants at the end.

The reasons for the fissure are complex and, judging by the fans' current mood, have much to do with the wages of what one chat-room contributor described as the "over-rated rich boys". In 1992, two years after Paul Gascoigne's tears conjured a sense of heroism in England's World Cup semi-final defeat, some First Division footballers were still earning £45,000 a year. "It was the salary of a headmaster and people in the street related to it," says Mark Bushell, football historian at the World Football Exhibitions organisation.

The Premier League arrived that year and inestimable changes occurred. The cosmopolitan nature found in a new league of international all stars gradually provided alternatives; new teams to support. Following Portugal in next summer's tournament will no longer seem perverse, for example, to those who support Manchester United and worship Cristiano Ronaldo.

"If the brand isn't good enough, some fans will get a new one – and it might just be Portugal this summer," says Bushell, who plots the less jingoistic approach to the national side through some of the chants you can hear at Premier League grounds these days. One of Old Trafford's favourites – "That boy Ronaldo makes England look shite" – tells its own story. "Fans in this country have got their own European and South American teams now," Bushell concludes.

The glamour of the club game has also made international games less relevant, as Keane pointed out yesterday. "Club football has definitely taken over, especially to the top players who are involved in Champions League football," he said. Similarly, the riches of the club game have created a hype about the so-called "golden generation" which leaves supporters more disgruntled than they might have been in the past. The heroics of a more modest bunch of Scotland players under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish has hardly helped.

"The lack of competition in the Premier League is a part of the problem but there's a sense that we just don't get the performance from players that they give for their clubs," says Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters' Federation. One of the curiosities of yesterday's reactions, though, was the warmth for David Beckham – a player who had seemed to sum up the national side's celebrity personae as much as any. "His attitude to the national team has been impeccable. You never felt he gave more or played better for his club than for his country," said Miles. Commitment counts more than lifestyle, it seems.