Horrors for Hodgson

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!

File:Genève Indoors 2014 - 20140114 - Roy Hodgson.jpg

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

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

You Don’t Have to be Brazil to Prosper

“My eyes have seen the glory of Espana ’82;

When little Northern Ireland showed the world what we could do….”

So goes the opening line of Northern Ireland fan favourite:”We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland.” The song goes to the very heart of the identity of the Northern Ireland international football team. “Our wee country.” The idea that you don’t need the resources of Brazil to be successful is embedded in the culture of Irish football, north and south. The Irish have long punched above their weight in the international arena. This week provided another example of this wonderful fact when lowly Northern Ireland defeated Ukraine 2-0 at the European Championships. This was a spectacular win by anyone’s standards. Michael O’Neill’s men had faltered in their opening game, losing 1-0 to Poland. Northern Ireland entered that game with a defensive mindset, seemingly determined to stifle the Polish with unrelenting pressure. The tactic worked to an extent, but eliminated Northern Ireland as an attacking force-there wasn’t a clear shot on target throughout the whole game. O’Neill was criticised for abandoning the positive philosophy that got his side to the tournament in the first place. A response was needed. And what a response it was. Northern Ireland were quite superb as they outplayed the Ukranians, with a display full of passion, commitment, and bravery.

Prior to Thursday’s game, Northern Ireland’s finest hour was the victory over Spain in 1982 to secure their place in the quarter-final of the World Cup. That win has assumed an almost mythic significance in the Northern Irish football psyche. Northern Ireland tore the form book into millions of pieces as Gerry Armstrong’s goal condemned the Spanish hosts to an embarrassing loss in their own tournament. That night in Valencia is etched into Irish football folklore, ranking alongside the Republic of Ireland’s win over Romania to reach the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup. The Irish don’t enjoy such nights very often, and that’s why they deserve to be celebrated when they come along. The victory over Ukraine has earned the right to be cherished amongst the greatest Irish sporting wins.

Sporting success has always had a disproportionate influence on Irish life and culture. The McGuigan fights, rugby Grand Slams, Rory McIroy’s rise to the top of the golfing world. They all have a special place in Irish life. Because sporting triumph means more to smaller nations and populations.  The likes of England, Germany, and the USA may beg to differ, but it’s true. The reason is pretty simple. Such successes resonate with possibility and hope. Small nations aren’t expected to succeed on the international stage, and therefore such success transfixes spectators when it happens. And it’s not just the underdog factor at work here. In these austere economic times, sporting victories have the capacity to enthuse an entire nation, to give hope that potential exists beyond the daily grind. Such  elation is short-lived, but it means a great deal in those fleeting, transient moments. Sport is the ultimate form of escapism, where millions can live vicariously through their heroes. It’s all very well cheering for the multi-millionaires of Manchester United or Barcelona, but we all feel much more involved when success is achieved by our international sportsmen, regardless of the pursuit. These are people we can relate to, our neighbours, whose exploits carry our own dreams and aspirations.

In a divided society, sport has always been a rallying point that unites us in the midst of polarisation. Soccer has often been the exception to this rule, where more tribal realities regularly come to bear. However, there are signs that times are changing. With both Irish football teams qualifying together for a major tournament for the first time, there had been fears that such division would manifest itself, both at home and in France. In the event, Irish fans have been magnificent thus far, their behaviour an exemplar of inclusiveness and tolerance. In the attitude of Irish supporters, a template has been set for cooperation among rival fans. In France, we have seen Irish fans united, united not in the support of one team, but united in mutual tolerance and respect. And therein lies the lesson.

Sporting rivalry doesn’t have to divide, doesn’t need to appeal to the worst tendencies of human expression. What the Euro 2016 fan experience has shown us is that sport should be about colour, fun, enthusiasm, and happiness. National identity exclusively expressed in a positive, joyful, and non-threatening way. Irish fans have set the example, but it’s clear that the vast majority of international football fans just want to cheer on their team in a positive and respectful manner. They want to participate and celebrate, celebrating great wins like Northern Ireland’s on Thursday night. In a tournament where the spectre of hooliganism has raised its ugly head once again, it’s heartening that the Irish (north and south) are leading the way in setting an alternative example. Best fans in the world. Regardless of what happens on the field, that alone is worthy of celebration. Just ask the Northern Ireland fans who are still celebrating an historic win. You don’t have to be Brazil to be successful.

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Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey