“Three Lions on a Shirt,
Jules Rimet Still Gleaming,
Thirty Years of Hurt,
Never Stopped Me Dreaming.”
Thirty years of hurt? I’m guessing a majority of English football fans would give their right arms for it only to be thirty years at this moment. You must have been living on the moon if you don’t know the biggest sports story of the week. I don’t suppose any of you missed it, but for those that did, England crashed out of the Euros in the last 16 to the minnows of Iceland. Tiny Iceland. One of the incredible statistics being bandied about is that apparently the Scandinavian island has a population equivalent to Leicester. The 2011 census estimated Leicester’s population as approximately 330, 000. In terms of population, this allegedly makes the midlands town the eighth biggest city in England. You could say the result was like Premier League Champions Leicester City beating England’s national team. But it’s not. The majority of Leicester’s players don’t hail from the city, and the club’s owners are free to sign players from all over the world. To use a better analogy, then, this was like a Belfast team defeating England’s superstars, with the side being comprised only of Belfast born players. Although rather glib, such statistics help put Iceland’s achievement in some kind of context. I’ve been to Iceland. It’s a beautiful country full of wonderful, natural sights, but they wouldn’t be known as one of international football’s superpowers.
I remember when Terry Venables was England manager. English press and supporters absolutely loved him. Venables was regarded as a tactical genius, a coaching guru who could inspire any team to consistent levels of achievement. He used to talk about the “Christmas Tree” formation. Or maybe it was the “Diamond” formation? I don’t know. To be honest, I kinda switch off when football people make the game out to be overly technical or complicated. Football is one of the simplest games imaginable. I just don’t get it when fellas make it sound like rocket science or existentialist philosophy. Nevertheless, whatever Venables had, it worked. The former Spurs manager successfully got his charges to the semi-finals of Euro ’96, the first major tournament held in Blighty since Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. 1966 and all that. English football was carried along on a wave of popular euphoria until the inevitable moment when Gareth Southgate missed the penalty to send the rival Germans into the final in England’s stead. Oh well. At least, he got a Pizza Hut advert out of it. My point is this. Even the oracle that was Venables couldn’t get the perpetual under achievers over the line. What chance does anyone else have? I saw a documentary about Euro ’96 recently which revealed that Venables is now running a hotel in Spain. I imagine he’s not coming back any time soon.
From the outside, it seems that one of the biggest problems facing English football is a lack of self-awareness. Post-1966, the English have always had a superiority complex when it comes to football. And indeed most other major sports too! They think they should always be contenders. The prevailing attitude even creeps into sports like tennis where the English have no reason (based on history or climate) to consider themselves one of the game’s superpowers. Therefore, there’s usually a massive disconnection between expectation and achievement. It’s almost inherent, built into the English psyche. Before I get inundated with responses from beleaguered English friends, I’m not talking about the average English punter here. I understand that expectation among English football fans, for example, has been consistently low for many years. Year after year of penalty shoot-out elimination and knockout heartache does that to you. I’m talking about the media. The English press just can’t help themselves. Despite protestations to the contrary, they will always champion their boys as potential winners. It’s the same old story. For sure, they’ll mercilessly slate Hodgson’s boys for the latest underachievement, but as soon as his successor musters a couple of wins, they’ll talk England up as football giants again. It’s inevitable.
It’s a curious phenomenon. And it’s a syndrome we see at close hand from this side of the Irish Sea. Despite having our own televisual and media outlets, us Irish spend a disproportionate amount of time watching English t.v. and reading English papers. Therefore, we’re in an excellent position to assess the English propensity to talk up their sports stars. Sure, all countries do it, but the English are masters at hyping their sports men and women. One of the reasons we’re fascinated by such hyperbole in Ireland is that it’s so different from our own experience and reaction. In Ireland, we’re instinctively modest about our sporting prospects. Even on the rare occasions our sportsmen actually deliver, we scarcely believe it. It doesn’t seem real. We’re programmed to accept mediocrity and disappointment as par for the course. Any success we achieve, therefore, is welcomed as an unexpected delight. And once the euphoria dissipates, we eagerly resume our natural role as underdogs and challengers.
From the outside, certainly, it seems the English media view their sports teams and individuals differently. Maybe it’s a relic of empire, but the English appear to have an ingrained propensity to expect success. And such expectation doesn’t always correlate with the ability of the individuals and teams concerned. The consequence? The English public is almost guaranteed to experience disappointment. When the only yardstick of success is actually winning the competition, you’re setting your teams up for constant failure. The only way to break this perpetual cycle is to lower expectations.The English football manager’s job is a poisoned chalice. Regardless of remuneration, who’d want an impossible job? I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’ll be a queue of top managers wanting to succeed the unfortunate Roy Hodgson.
As a post-script to my last blog, I notice that Boris Johnson has withdrawn from the race to be prime minister following the latest bout of infighting within the Tory party. I know there are more global issues at work, but given the belief that one of the primary drivers of the Brexit campaign was giving Boris a shot at his lifelong dream, doesn’t the Leave victory seem a little hollow now he’s backed down? The Boris-supporting leavers have campaigned for something that’s proved ultimately futile, a quest for professional aggrandisement that hasn’t even worked. For this-amongst other reasons-, we’re in a period of grave uncertainty? It’s a funny old world!
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: [[File:Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson.jpg|Genève Indoors 2014 – 20140114 – Roy Hodgson]] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gen%C3%A8ve_Indoors_2014_-_20140114_-_Roy_Hodgson.jpg