James Lawton: Culture of excuses behind the decline of national prowess

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The Independent Football

Sometimes, when a decline runs as deeply as the one afflicting England's national football team, it is maybe necessary to step outside an unbroken circuit of underperformance, tactical lunges, random injuries and coaching failures.

Sometimes you have to face up to the fact that a whole culture is shot to pieces. That a fundamental truth is being ignored. That the idea – painful as it is in the wake of England's failure to match what amounted to Germany's B team at Wembley this week – of providing something to compare with the regular revival and revitalisation of German football, with its three World Cups and six finals, is beyond England's wildest dreams.

Part of the problem, you have to suspect, was encapsulated in the refusal of the goalkeeper Paul Robinson to ascribe anything much more serious than bad luck to the appalling mistake which allowed the Germans back into the game and on to a platform from which they delivered still another example of how easy it is for the leading nations to get the better of England, (one World Cup, at home, one final). Robinson's self-serving evasion of the fact that he had made a critical error was no great surprise.

It did, after all, take us back to several bad places, not least the one occupied by Robinson in Zagreb last year when his ludicrous air-kick allowed a back pass from Gary Neville to trickle over the goal-line and, perhaps, contribute to England's failure to qualify for next year's European Championship.

That, we were told, was nothing to do with Robinson's breakdown in the concentration which underpins the careers of the great goalkeepers. No, it was more about a failure of Croat pitch preparation.

There was the same reluctance to face up to individual failure when England slipped so dismally to defeat against a 10-man Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup in Japan. England's goalkeeper David Seaman wasn't culpable when he wandered off his line and was beaten by Ronaldinho's floating free-kick. No, he was victim, like all the England team, of a freak, some conspiracy of fate to do them down.

They didn't go out of the World Cup admitting to their shortcomings. Seaman wept and his captain, David Beckham, wrapped him in his arms and excluded him from all blame; as no doubt he did himself after jumping out of the tackle that led directly to Brazil's equaliser.

There were tears from Beckham after another ritual exit from the big time at last summer's World Cup quarter-final in Gelsenkirchen. He cried on the touchline after being substituted, then wept copiously on his way to the press conference he had called 24 hours later to hand in, unbidden, the captain's armband.

Frank Lampard wrote in his autobiography at his shock that the team's failure drew so much criticism. He thought he and his team-mates were entitled to "more respect". But respect for what? Serial failure? A befuddling routine of big claims and miniscule performance? A routine failure to look into the mirror.

Two years earlier, after England's exit from the European Championship in Portugal, Beckham was aghast that his own performances and leadership were questioned. The team threatened to strike on the way to those finals when Rio Ferdinand was left out of the squad after pleading guilty to failing to take a drugs test. The team coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, in the middle of his dinner, was summoned to listen to the deliberations of his players. He went.

Eriksson rejected all criticism of his performance after three successive failures to outcoach Luiz Felipe Scolari, the coach of Brazil and Portugal in two World Cups and one European Championship.

Graham Taylor believed he lost his job after England's failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup not because of poor team development but a refereeing error in a match against the Netherlands in Rotterdam.

It is as though a manual of excuses and self-justifications is handed out with the job. Glenn Hoddle was in such denial that he claimed he was still revered in the nation even after being fired for voicing crackpot religious theories, writing a diary of the 1998 World Cup which shattered coach-player confidentiality and suggesting that his chief mistake was not to include his faith-healing friend in the England squad that went home after the round of 16.

The culture of doubletalk and evasion is rampant now in both the national team and in the Premier League. Last weekend Jose Mourinho made absurd claims on behalf of his team's mediocre effort and, naturally, did not see the incident that produced the phantom penalty that dragged his underperforming team back into the game at Anfield.

Where will it all end? Certainly not in the angst that consumed Jack Lambert, the famed linebacker of the San Francisco 49ers who, after a defeat for which he held himself partly responsible, spent a weekend applying a small hacksaw to his jeep. Eventually he cut it in half, but then confessed to feeling not a whole lot better.

Heaven forbid that the same fate should ever befall one of the luxury motors that increasingly inhabit Premier League car parks. However, some kind of gesture of regret would not be out of place.

The trouble is that it would require some kind of serious appraisal of the truth. It is a habit English football appears to have lost, along with so much else.

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