Let’s take some brief morsel of respite from our increasingly bizarre world and consider the recent European Football Championships.
I predicted before the competition that the last four would comprise of Poland, Italy, Germany and France – I got two right, but the Poles and Italians, who both looked good in the group stage, perished in the knockout phase and were replaced by Wales and the ultimate winners Portugal.
On the whole this was a competition that will be remembered as much for some fantastic fans and the journeys of the unfancied nations, notably Iceland and Wales, as it will for any feast of football. To be fair Portugal looked awful right up until the moment they met Wales, and even then, they only flattered for a brief period when they scored their two goals. Had Wales still been able to call upon the services of Aaron Ramsay, who was magnificent throughout the competition, then that result might have been different.
Funnily enough once they were in the final, Portugal started to play as a more coherent team when Ronaldo had been stretchered off the pitch with what amounted to a bad knee. Ronaldo infuriates me – sure, all that talent, but it’s clear that in his mind the game is all about him and this is to the detriment of the rest of the players around him. Increasingly, in the last few seasons, teams who play for each other and have good players who understand the common aim are the ones who are lifting the silverware. Wales are a case in point, against Belgium, on paper, it seemed absurd that Wales with players from the lower divisions, should get anywhere near the Belgium golden generation, where just about all of their players have commanded massive transfer fees and played for the elite of Europe’s clubs. But, Chris Coleman’s side had a plan and were willing to work hard for each other – and this combination turns competent players into excellent ones and a good team into a triumphant side. Wales were brilliant, and as a Welshman, starved of any real footballing success throughout his life, I can’t describe the pride that I, and indeed the whole nation, felt.
Iceland had a similar spirit and a similar dogged plan – they comfortably defeated England in the round of 16 and did that with a group of players who included a centre-half who had been rejected by Rotherham and others who mainly plied their trade in the Danish and Swedish leagues.
So, what is wrong with English football?
It’s almost a national joke now that every two years England will take a bright team of hopefuls into a major tournament and find themselves duly dispatched. This time, on paper, Roy Hodgson’s charges looked quite a tidy team – it had goals in the shape of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, it had ingenuity in the form of Wayne Rooney, Raheem Sterling and Deli Ali and in the likes of Kyle Walker and Eric Dier, it appeared to have the type of youthful fearlessness that bodes well for success in tournaments like this. But, once again, when the going got tough, the English players showed that they were uncomfortable as a team, prone to error and unable to change their game to suit the situation.
Many have pontificated about the problems in the English game; every conceivable weakness has been pored over from the lack of school playing fields to the number of foreign players in the Premier League. But, I wonder if the problem now isn’t quite simply the inability of the England team manager to pick the team he would really want to pick for the plan he thinks will prevail. When Alf Ramsay first took over the helm of the England team, his team would be picked by the FA, with a team sheet being handed to him an hour or so before kick-off. After a 5-2 drubbing, at the hands of the French in his first match, Sir Alf said, ‘no more’ I pick the team. And that is what he did – only two players who featured in Sir Alf’s first line-up went on to play in the World Cup Final three years later (Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore); players such as Peter Springett, George Eastham, John Connolly, ‘Budgie’ Byrne and Jimmy Armfield were discarded because they didn’t fit into the plan that Ramsay had to win the world cup. Sure, I accept that if Ramsay hadn’t brought the cup home in 1966, then history may not have been quite so kind to his selections, but, at least he had a plan and at least he had the freedom and balls to build a team to suite that plan.
Of course, the idea that today an FA Committee could select the England football team is preposterous, but, I do wonder if the manager actually has any more freedom than Sir Alf did when he started his reign – because now, it is not a committee of faceless bureaucrats and worthies who pick the England team, but, a coterie of faceless agents and managers, tweeters and pundits. I mean, many people before the World Cup thought that, even though Roonie was playing quite well, his particular attributes weren’t really suited to a fast pressing game – but, would Hodgson been able to drop his captain? Imagine the kerfuffle? Imagine the storm of derision if Hodgson had dropped his captain – I don’t know, but, I wonder if agents wouldn’t have been banging on the door of the FA, I wonder if pressure would have been brought to bear, I wonder if whispered words wouldn’t have been exchanged. I don’t know – but I get the feeling that a number of recent England managers have failed to nail down a system that they want to play, because they have felt an overwhelming pressure to pick players who don’t necessarily fit into that system. The Welsh, Icelandic and to some extent Portuguese managers had the good fortune to have a more limited pool of players to pick from – so they were able to select their system around those at their disposal; German and French players seem better equipped to adapt to different systems, whilst the Italians and South American teams have a good idea of what system they’ll play from an early age. English players are not the same – the English way is a myth, the idea that English players are not as technically gifted as their foreign counterparts is difficult to sustain and in event, not an insurmountable problem with the right coaching – the reality is more fundamental, English players struggle to form a coherent team.
It looks as if Big Sam Allardyce is about to become the new England manager – he’s an interesting choice (though why he wasn’t good enough ten years ago when they picked Ancelotti is a mystery), and he is a man who is very careful to get his teams to play to a certain system – I just wonder if he will be allowed to finally set England up in a certain way and be allowed to pick the players who will best prosper in that way.
I fear he won’t.
Anyway back to the Euros.
My team of the tournament:
1. Mike McGovern (Northern Ireland)
2. Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
3. Neil Taylor (Wales)
4. Aaron Ramsay (Wales)
5. Mats Hummels (Germans)
6. Michal Pazdan (Poland)
7. Renato Sanches (Portugal)
8. Dimitri Payet (France)
9. Antoine Griezeman (Germany)
10. Jao Mario (Portugal)
11. Gareth Bale (Wales)
Moment of the tournament – Hal Robson-Kanu’s goal against Belgium of course.