National interest in decline

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The Independent Online
If there is one thing of real importance to be learned from the recently published results of a Premier League questionnaire, it is that English supporters are not greatly moved by their national team.

In spite of all the strident editorialising, the defence of attitudes taken long ago, it seems that club before country is no longer an issue. It is a fact, or at least as close as you can get to a fact by the only practical means available.

As only 9.5 per cent of Premier League fans watch England at least once a year at Wembley and fewer than 40 per cent would take the trouble to turn out if international matches were staged in a more convenient location, the survey raises the question of whether preferences have altered radically.

Well, yes, they have, no question. To get a true picture of what English football fans desire, you might have to make many more exhaustive surveys, but it appears that there is less interest in the national team than ever before.

What bothers me about this is the insularity it implies; a game so besotted with domestic issues that it becomes almost impossible to produce a national team that plays with intelligence and originality.

It is easy to get the impression that English football is marching to a different drummer than the rest of the world. Time in which to prepare the England team is given grudgingly. Fans openly resent the intrusion. Chairmen speak out against it. More, not fewer, club matches is their vision of the future.

Since 1966, nourished by arrogant assumptions, no issue in English sport has raised more controversy or brought down more vilification than the performances of the national football team. A solid purpose of the Premier League was to provide it with better opportunities and a plentiful supply of quality players. In that context the public's apparent indifference is alarming.

Following England's 1966 World Cup victory, the then Football League secretary, Alan Hardaker, characteristically opposed the notion that it would have a dramatic effect on attendances. Figures proved him wrong, but minimally. A greater influence was the impact British clubs were beginning to make in the European club competitions.

An interesting comparison can be made between football and cricket and rugby union. With a few exceptions, club rugby attracts the sort of attendances that would quickly put the majority of League football clubs out of business, but tickets for international matches are at a premium.

County cricket, in the main, is watched by only a handful of spectators but grounds are invariably at capacity for Test matches. This despite, in both cases, the availability of live television.

The most striking thing to me about this comparison is the potency of club football, especially in the Premiership, and the attraction it has for people who did not inherit a passion for the game: a more affluent audience, but one that puts results above quality, not always fully conversant with what it is watching. Winning is all that matters.

Maybe things are better than they used to be, and maybe not. What we need to ask ourselves is where the obsession with club football may be leading.

Some years ago, in a moment of despair with prevailing standards, I put forward the facetious notion that no great harm would come to British football if it was isolated within a perimeter wall.

The impression conveyed by the Premier League survey is rather more subtle. Unquestionably, English aspirations are more international - but mainly through tribal affiliation. Pride in the national team may be a thing of the past.

At this point it might be worth throwing in a cautionary note about the great range of wise and stupid people who make up the Establishment. Ultimately, the strength of every country's football is evident in the performances of its national team.

Qualification for two World Cup finals and a European Championship raised football's profile in the Republic of Ireland beyond the wildest expectations.

To consciously surbordinate the England team other than in arrogant response to defeat may be courting disaster.