In one of his early appearances as a sports reporter on The Day Today, Alan Partridge tried to explain the format of the 1994 World Cup finals, with a nonsensical piece of stage apparatus which he, naturally, had no hope of operating successfully. Almost 20 years on, and still no sports broadcaster, even in their most ambitious attempts to liven up the coverage, has topped Alan's "Soccer-meter".
Now with his own feature film, the beauty of the creation of Alan is how he has managed to be wrong about just about everything, persisting with his world view despite clearly diminishing returns. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he just continues in the hope that eventually everyone else will fall in line, taking small solace in being able to tell fellow motorists when they have mistakenly activated their fog lights.
His new feature film Alpha Papa articulates beautifully this wilful refusal to acknowledge his dislocation from the rest of the world. Only occasionally do you witness that look of horror and revelation in Alan's eyes in the brief moments of insight when he sees his situation for what it is. You may feel like you have seen it before. It is the same look in the eyes of every England manager on their blackest days in the job as the paucity of their resources is laid bare to them.
It is that moment when the reality intrudes on the dream and there is nowhere to hide. For every one of Roy Hodgson's predecessors in modern times it has been a painful, lonely occasion. The occasion when it turns out that the shaky conviction that English football can hold its own is blown apart by the Croats or the Germans or the Italians.
What an awful summer it has been for England teams. The Under-21s, Under-20s and Under-19s managed one win in nine tournament/competitive games between them all summer. In the case of the two older age groups, the successful sides in their tournaments – the Under-21s European Championship and the Under-20s World Cup – often looked like they were playing football from a different era.
Only the seniors' 2-2 draw against Brazil in the Maracana, along with the Under-19s' solitary win over Scotland, defied the trend. Otherwise it was just plain worrying for the future of the England team.
But is it any surprise when you analyse the figures for English footballers in the Premier League? Opta's research from last season revealed only 189 English players featured in the Premier League and of that total only 88 played more than half the games for their club. Of the rest, only 40 made more than five appearances. That figure of 189 compares to 332 Spanish players in La Liga; 320 French in Ligue 1; 269 Italians in Serie A and 224 Germans in the Bundesliga (which has only 18 teams).
Truly, how did English football find itself in such a dismal situation? From where will the next generation of players hope to emerge?
Roy Hodgson's England team play Scotland on Wednesday at Wembley, their last friendly before the remaining four World Cup qualifiers for next summer's finals in Brazil. It will take a significant change in England's recent form for them to win all four games and top the group. Finish second and they could potentially face France, who may not be seeded, in what will be a nerve-racking play-off whoever the opposition.
It is not Hodgson's fault that his time in charge has coincided with the retirement or career twilight of a good generation of players – or that the next generation is not of the same quality. His squad for Wednesday's game is a classic example of how shallow the pool of players has become. There are few absentees – Andy Carroll, Daniel Sturridge – and yet it feels thin.
The inclusion of Rickie Lambert at 31 is a nice reward for a good player but, as when Fabio Capello capped Kevin Davies at 33, it is not a sign that this is an England manager blessed with resources. Hodgson as good as admitted that himself.
This month is a year since the launch of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). This is the strategy on which the Premier League has staked the house when it comes to reviving that endangered species, the English footballer. Those who know it well believe that the EPPP, with a greater number of contact hours for coaches and the licence for the biggest clubs with the top-ranked academies to scout and poach all over the country, will yield results within three to five years.
The argument for the EPPP's success is that club investment in academies has been so big that, along with the impetus lent by financial fair play rules, it simply has to produce more home-grown players. The EPPP is as close to English football's year zero as it gets. This is England's equivalent moment to Germany post-Euro 2000. It is the big play. In fact, it is the only play. If this does not raise the percentage of English players in the league then heaven help us.
In the transfer market this summer, the news for the English footballer is almost entirely gloomy. Aside from Carroll, Steven Caulker and Jonjo Shelvey, no significant Premier League money has been spent on English footballers and none by the leading clubs. Of course, Wayne Rooney's potential move to Chelsea might change that. Yet while he would stay within the elite, the other three have all traded down in terms of the prestige of their clubs.
It is hard to overstate just how bleak it looks currently for English footballers as their stock wanes. Or how much is riding on the success of the EPPP to change the situation. Neither of those factors is in Hodgson's favour for the four qualifiers in September and October. Of course, the blame will mostly be his if England fail. What a ruddy-bloody mess, eh?
As Keane says, Rooney should be allowed to go
Roy Keane has never given Manchester United a very sympathetic hearing since he started his post-playing, post-management career as an ITV pundit. But his take on the Wayne Rooney situation was instructive. Any player who wanted to leave United should be sold, Keane said, for the right price. But he added that it should be acknowledged what Rooney had done in nine years at United. Increasingly, any other take on the situation looks irrational.
Dyke is right on Qatar but he has no real say
The Football Association chairman Greg Dyke's stance on holding the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar is, of course, right: they cannot play it in the summer. They should not be playing it there in the winter either. The problem is that the English FA has no say in the matter, unless the tournament is taken off Qatar and a new host voted on by every Fifa nation. Given that FA rules will give Dyke only four years in the job, he will do well to make any inroads into Fifa politically.Reuse content