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The World Cup qualifiers have produced the usual bag of results that make you sit up and take notice. Spain rediscovering their touch with their victory in Paris, Israel suggesting they might become more than a country that makes up the numbers but, inevitably, it was been England that has made all the headlines and the wrong ones at that.

So the common refrain has been why cannot the English play like champions to be? This, of course, is a very familiar story and one that keeps cropping up every time the English team take the field. However England’s performance, particularly in the second half against Montenegro, does raise some urgent questions. For England to go from a team in total command in the first half to such abject surrender in the second that it made you wonder what was in their half time oranges suggests a serious management flaw that needs to be addressed. The need for this is all the more urgent given the fact that the home team manager so changed things round at half time with his substitution that he emerged at the end of the match looking like a genius. In contrast Hodgson appeared in a frozen stupor in not being able to do anything to arrest England’s dramatic fall.

But there is a subtext to these questions that also needs to be considered. It is hard to disguise the feeling that the sharpening of knives on what used to be called Fleet Street is partly because some of these writers would have preferred Harry Redknapp to Roy Hodgson as national team coach. They would love to be rid of perhaps the most cultured, most foreign-aware, football manager this country has ever had.

However, beyond that there are other issues which need to be looked at. And in this context it was fascinating to watch a program on Sky Sports hours before the match against Montenegro. The panel composed two former managers, Glenn Hoddle and Steve McLaren, and also Ray Wilkins. Hoddle and McLaren were very interesting in talking about how an England manager interacts with the media and the demands the football press make. Wilkins made perhaps the most astute point that not only do the media hype every match the national team plays, and particularly before a major championship, but that most English fans do not know much about players in the opposing teams. This is particularly the case when England play less fancied nations.

This makes them expect victories even when there is no realistic basis for such optimism and also see defeats as failures of their own players, not due to the brilliance and skill of the opposition.

And here it is worth noting that such an attitude was not confined to football. I can recall a moment from the summer of 1971 when the then BBC commentator could not conceal his surprise that English batsmen were falling like nine pins to Indian spinners whose names he was struggling to pronounce. The cricketer being asked, Peter Walker of Glamorgan, pointed out that whatever their names these were good spinners and it was no shame to get out to them. The commentator was most surprised. That, of course, was the summer India won its first ever Test and with it a series in England. Since then Indian cricket has come a long way, they finance world cricket now, and most English cricket fans know not only about Indian players but that of most other Test playing countries. A similar revolution in knowledge and understanding has taken place in rugby.

It is, of course, easy to see why these sports had such monkeys riding on their backs. England, having invented these games, had every reason to think it was the best and any unexpected opposition was not only a surprise but an affront.

It must be said that cricket and rugby are not the only sports that had such monkeys on their backs. For a long time this was true of the British Olympic movement. With Birmingham and Manchester, twice, failing to win the right to stage the Olympics the feeling was strong that Johnny foreigner was never going to let Britain have another Olympics. This was all the more difficult to bear because the British felt that they had twice come to the rescue of the Olympic movement by staging the 1908 and 1948 Games. That monkey was finally shaken off when London beat Paris for the 2012 games.

And then during 2012 the performances of British athletes did much to erase the sense of hurt this country had long nourished that the modern British sportsmen and women could not match the achievements of past heroes. The pre-Games angst was that, despite this country having invented modern sport, British athletes kept getting beaten. The fact that the past was such a foreign country was completely forgotten. So back in 1908, when London staged its first Olympics, the Games were in such infancy that Britain could write the rules for many sports. Indeed the London police could even win gold in the tug of war by beating the Liverpool police.

London 2012 was a world removed from that time but the Olympics demonstrated that Britain could not only lead the world but even teach the world. This was magnificently illustrated in the cycling where, such was Britain’s dominance, that rivals freely admitted that they had to learn from this British generation if they wanted to discover the key to success.

English football, of course, has two monkeys. Apart from not winning the World Cup since 1966 there is also the matter of this country not having staged it since 1966. To make matter worse, its last attempt to win the 2018 World Cup ended in a humiliating exit in the very first round with only two votes. And one of those voting for England was an Englishman, Geoff Thompson.

Against such a background, the fact that the media and the fans are ready to see conspiracies at every turn is not surprising. But while the media needs to shed some of its insularity it would help if the football fans, as the cricket and rugby fans have done, tried to familiarise themselves with players from opposing teams and do not see every loss as a conspiracy on the part of the English team.

Of course the monkey on the back of English football will only be got rid off when England again win the World Cup or at least get to the finals. But such success on the field must come by playing football in the style that is accepted and recognised by the world. Success through the long ball game will not do. But it would be unfair to say that Hodgson’s team played the long ball game against Montenegro. They do not and they can pass their way out of defence. This may not be quite like Barcelona but it is a world removed from Wimbledon’s box-to-box game. However, England have a long way to go before they can be considered one of the top teams in the world. At best they are middle level and, as Roy Keane said, not likely to go beyond the quarter-finals.

But that does mean that the monkey stays perched on the back of the national game.

      

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