Leading Article: Not as good as we think we are

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The last major football finals that England failed to qualify for was the 1994 World Cup. In the six tournaments in which they appeared between 1996 and 2006 they reached three quarter-finals and one semi-final. Throw in England's historic standing in the game and the seemingly inextinguishable after-glow of that 1966 World Cup win, and it's understandable why the nation has an expectation that – when it really matters – the team will be there alongside the best, fancying their chances of ultimate honours.

Unfortunately the basis for this view does not bear closer scrutiny. England's record in recent years may look respectable, but the facts mask a deeper truth – that the quality of their football rarely matches the levels achieved by their peers, and often falls below that of supposedly lesser nations. Events at Wembley two nights ago followed a pattern that emerged quite glaringly during last year's World Cup in Germany in which England got to the last eight in spite of a series of thoroughly mediocre performances. Now, a stuttering qualifying campaign for the 2008 European Championship finals has come to a gruesome conclusion with a defeat at home to Croatia that consigns England's players to the sidelines next summer.

That outcome was sadly deserved, and it is time now for serious reappraisal. Coaches may come and coaches may go – the latest, Steve McClaren, duly went yesterday – but the starting point for the latest round of rebuilding must be an unflinching recognition that no team is entitled to succeed. History means nothing, and the hype that surrounds the top players is utterly misplaced. We are not as good as we think we are.