James Lawton: Perhaps Graham Taylor was right – this really is mission impossible
England have pretty much reached breaking point. This is the latest excruciating evidence that their international decline may not have hit rock bottom
Monday 06 June 2011
Glenn Hoddle, it was widely suggested, spent too much time communing with the fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Kevin Keegan decided he was not up to the job. Sven Goran Eriksson ran a celebrity boys' club and snapped to attention whenever David Beckham did as much as sigh. Steve McClaren talked about Stevie G and all his other world-class players and then found that an umbrella was no protection against his roof falling in.
Quite soon now a final verdict will be passed on Fabio Capello, who came here with what looked like a watertight reputation and a salary of £6m.
On Saturday night you would hardly have given tuppence for his chances of emerging with any credit from the challenge that another of his predecessors, Graham Taylor, once said was impossible.
It means, you have to believe, that we have pretty much reached breaking point.
How else can you interpret a head-to-head battle with Montenegro (population 625,266) for a place in the European Championship finals for which we failed to qualify four years ago, and the latest excruciating evidence that England's decline on the international stage may not yet have touched rock bottom?
That, as much as the haunted expression of Capello, was the implication of England's near bankrupt performance against Switzerland.
Of course, the latest convenience is to hound and ridicule Capello, a development he did not discourage with his decision to play the labouring James Milner in place of Ashley Young. It was an odd move, certainly. Young looked very good against Wales recently, but then almost anyone would have done, and the vision of Young as the new messiah of English football is, despite his lively second-half performance and fine goal when replacing Frank Lampard, surely another case of exaggerated optimism.
The truth is that we can confirm Capello in his status as a dead man walking as often as we like, we can jeer at the quality of his English, but sooner or later we have to look at the record and the culture of English football and say that the sickness is beyond the power of any one man to cure.
Given that before taking over England, Capello was generally considered to be firmly established in the upper echelon of modern coaches, a man of formidable self-confidence and imposing authority, his present plight may just be the clinching evidence that Taylor was right, if not for all the best reasons.
The man who failed to qualify for the World Cup finals of 1994 was most exercised by the clamour of the media and the pressure of expectation. Such demands are not exactly peculiar to England, of course. What certainly is, though, is the abject failure to produce enough players in the national league to walk easily into the international game. More shocking than the need on Saturday to recover from the two goals surrendered by doomsday defence, was the growing reality that in the matter of holding the ball and using it creatively, there were times when the Swiss appeared to have arrived from a superior planet.
We could only be grateful – again – for the fact that at Arsenal Arsène Wenger has had at least one young Englishman to nourish among his collection of gifted foreign imports. Young was made man of the match but the reality was that from start to finish the young English player who most consistently suggested that he might be the product of a leading football nation was Jack Wilshere.
His wit and appetite brought England back into the game when he invaded the composure of his Arsenal team-mate Johan Djourou and won a stonewall penalty. Wilshere gave his team life and that might have been translated into a victory if Darren Bent, a sure-fire predator in the scramble of the Premier League, had made more of the pass that by some distance was the most brilliant piece of English work.
More than anything, Wilshere defined England's greatest need. It is players who can shape a game with their natural authority, who have a presence and an appetite which makes such a joke of claims that the demands on the modern English professional are too great, too draining.
That this excuse should rise again to the surface precisely a week after the latest relentless display from men like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta can only deepen the English depression. Had this pair been wearing the shirts of Spain rather than Barcelona a week ago, would they also have been gripped by an unshakeable fatigue, the kind we are told was responsible for the collapse of standards we saw at the weekend? The record says not, of course.
In the summer of 2008 in Vienna Xavi and Iniesta won the European Championship final against Germany, another team of apparently unworldly powers of regeneration. The following spring they won the European Cup for Barcelona. Move on another year, and they are winning the World Cup final in Johannesburg despite Dutch attempts to kick them to oblivion.
Yes, these are players of historic quality, but the issue here is fortitude, a willingness to absorb pressure and maintain a competitive edge until a cause is won or lost. It might also be remembered, if some kind of perspective is of value in this interminable debate, that when England last won the World Cup 45 years ago some key figures had played more than 60 games, many of them on pitches with the consistency of ploughed fields.
Yet now we are told Wilshere is worn out and that it was right that he was talked out of his desire to play – and maybe win a tournament – with the England Under-21 team this summer.
If anything was worn out at Wembley it was most certainly not Jack Wilshere. More likely it was the time-besieged belief that England's football can be revived by anything less than a revolution of values and commitment by the men who, when they are disposed, when they are not nursing some level of pique, deign to wear the English shirt.
It would also help if the Premier League gave more than nominal encouragement to young players who, in improved circumstances, might just qualify.
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