10 and counting… How English football needs to change
Should English football accept the count?
1966 “They think it’s all over, it is now!” The greatest moment in English football history some might say. A new dawn beckoned with years of world domination ahead. But what happened? Where did it all go wrong?
The 1960s certainly heralded a new dawn with the adversity of the Munich air disaster resulting in the Busby Babes, George Best, TV and the beginnings of football celebrity culture. The 1970s and early 80s presented a less optimistic future with hooliganism, racism and the slow painful demise of domestic football despite the ensuing European domination. Death on the terraces, infernos of crumbling old stadiums and the banning of English clubs from European competition signalled a cross-road in English football’s direction.
The Premiership, Champions League, Commercialism, TV revenues, global reach, foreign managers and owners, astronomical salaries, freedom of employment across the EU and the phenomena that is Arsene Wenger have since transformed football in this country beyond recognition. With suave, Gallic sophistication Mr Wenger strolled onto English shores and with a flash of his metaphorical sword transformed a stuffy old giant wallowing in its ancient castle into an attractive global football brand watched by 60,000 fans in a shiny new stadium. With geek like professionalism, this football professor introduced new diets, training methods and types of players to English football, like that never seen before. A Six-foot plus midfield enforcer with technique superior to most of the indigenous folk took the premiership by storm and soon had other managers scrambling for similar specimens. Another fine 23 year old Olympic-speed athlete with a feather-like touch was transformed from undoubted potential to one of the greatest strikers to have graced this land and beyond. Even old campaigners commented that their careers were extended by Mr Wenger’s innovative techniques. From there on, a continual stream of young super skilled prodigies, often unknown, continue to manifest themselves from all corners of Earth and hit the ground running under his professorship. It should be remembered that BW (Before Wenger) many overseas players were seen as exotic but frustratingly ineffective figures, petrified by the pace and thundering challenges around them.
Within the flash of a paparazzi lens, Wenger had secured a league & cup double and set the bar at a level way above any standard the nation had achieved-to-date. The football establishment like primitives seeing modern technology for the first time were captivated by his every move and absorbed by his every word. With limited appreciation of his unique brilliance, club directors scoured Europe for others like him offering big salaries and large transfer funds. Being held in such reverence, foreign managers jumped at these opportunities with both hands. Backed enthusiastically by clubs directorships, these managers set about purchasing numerous overseas players that were conducive to strategies they had successfully deployed in other European leagues. Many of those early pioneers, needless to say, found their tactics trampled unceremoniously under foot by the unforgiving, unrelenting physicality of the English Game. At a time of escalating property prices and cheap credit, risk seemed a fairly safe bet and clubs persisted with the dream of replicating Wenger’s achievements. Certainly some have been more successful than others and we have enjoyed the exploits of many wonderful overseas talents during the last decade. Without doubt, the Premier League as a global brand has benefited massively and refereeing has evolved to accommodate a more skilful game.
However, the discrediting of the English manager soon became a sad and sorry sight as the image of track suited, gum chewing, ‘up and at em’ figures almost appeared comical against their well groomed, designer-suited foreign counterparts speaking in sophisticated Latin tongue. Gone were Neanderthal terms like “letting them know you are there” and 4-4-2 systems with wing-backs and centre forwards. In came midfield diamonds, 4-3-2-1s and players that seemed capable of operating in multiple positions. Gone were the days of the ball rarely touching a blade of grass in 90 minutes, as it whistled through the air at great speed from one end of the pitch to the other. In came the strange phenomena of the ball being plucked from the sky and re-introduced to midfield players and fizzing around in dazzling patterns along the pristine turf. Gone was the standard bearing self-importance held by English football and in came the reality of the gulf between it and the outside world.
Of even graver concern was the plight of the English footballer, the very life blood of the nations self esteem? Almost overnight, they found themselves challenged with the art of ball control and retention, of accurate passing and subtle movement, of staying on their feet and tackling the ball and not the man. Suddenly the so-called shoulder-to-shoulder charge resulted in their opponent spinning in spectacular and convincing patterns along the floor with arm raised in anguish at the brutality of the challenge. Late-night drinking and stodgy diets found them panting and lumbering around the pitch as they chased an ever moving ball to no avail. Terrifyingly, they were faced with the stark reality of why England was no longer the force it once was in world football. With stereo-typical vision, I can picture a demoralised pale figure watching his exotically tanned colleagues oiling their well honed physiques while discussing the virtues of beautiful women and good wine. Then on the pitch, stumbling around after the ball as it cannons off their shins into the path of their silky smooth team mate who caresses it and sweeps it 30 yards across the pitch with pinpoint accuracy. Inadequate, underrated and forgotten many soon found themselves confined at best to Premiership training grounds or at worst kicking their heels on cold and muddy lower division pitches. The respected old-guard retired gracefully to the commentary box where they could analyse and criticise from a safe distance, telling us what they would have done their day. Young hopefuls looked back with disdain at the failure of their football education in preparing them for competition at such a high level.
Has the modern game left us so far behind? Might the acutely professional, tea-totalling, pasta and chicken-eating lifestyle of today’s game become too much for our culture of indiscipline and debauchery? Even Wenger himself who promises he will eventually produce a team with a distinctly English spine has chosen to pick 6-8 year olds off our streets and so he can condition them to be less prone to English fallibility. Has English football been left alienated from the rest of the world through arrogance, foolhardiness and stubborn resistance to changing its outdated romantic traditions? The miserable failure of our World Cup bid might suggest so. Can England compete with the likes of Brazil, Germany and Spain as a world force again? After decades of self-denial, where lies the expertise in our schools and boys clubs to elevate the next generation to these new standards? What does excellence even look like in today’s football?
As a deep-rooted football nation down to its core and having once been at the top of the food chain, we all believe that we magically transform into Lionel Messi when we step onto a park pitch and fail to look beyond the smoke screens and mirrors of our football passions. Criticise as we do each inept England performance, our memories are short once the boys pull on that red or white shirt for the next game. It takes but a few beers, to have us again imagining with misplaced optimism that this time we will see the real England. Put down the beer for a moment, walk down to the park on Sunday morning and observe the reality of our children and the coaching they receive. What you are likely to see is a bunch of kids fumbling around the pitch bayed on by the obscenities of aggressive and competitive parents, numerous collisions, continual throw-ins and the occasional messy goal. What you are unlikely to see is the serene calm of respectful adults, controlled play directed patiently from astute, well-versed coaches, the green shoots of technical excellence and the occasional Messi type goal. Our outdated culture of brave islanders and indigenous tribesmen no longer intimidates the football world. Global TV coverage has demonstrated too often the superiority of players from other nations who ply their trade in the English Premiership. More sophisticated weaponry has been in existence for a long time which easily overcomes the spears, arrows and stone clubs of our traditional game.
Should we consider more purposefully the successful multi-cultural models of France and the Netherlands? They appear to have developed an overriding foundation of football excellence with a reality that their multi-cultural populations bring something extra to the table which should be utilised to its full potential. This, I feel, is an obstacle in the subconscious of the nation’s imperialistic tradition. Football is this country’s ego and a bastion of indigenous pride. There does appear to be a tipping point in terms of superior football ability versus ethnic representation. I am certain that some of the old fuddy-duddies in the corridors of power might choke on their port at the very notion of us being presented to the World inappropriately. Can the nation’s majority accept a team dominated by its ethnic minority population if indeed they represent the best 11 players available? Would we be proud of a team full of players like Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly, Ruud Gullit, FrankRijkaard and Edgar Davids?
Our loose-disciplined culture, dogged defence of an outdated game style and the resulting technical limitations of our coaches produce a product that is undernourished and inept. It feels to me that our game is on the canvas right now and our foolhardy, ‘never be slaves’ mentality means that we are yet again pulling ourselves up by the ropes only to wade thoughtlessly towards another damaging straight jab. Listening to the corner man and accepting his advice to “take the 10 count for your own good” may be the most humbling of experiences. But an intelligent fighter realises this means living to fight another day. To know next time the importance of keeping up your guard and to fight with strategy, not heart. To understand the improvements required to your training methods, skills and diet. To have the conviction and discipline required to follow your new fight plan through to its ultimate goal and become a winner.
10 and counting… Should English football accept the count?
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