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World Cup 2014

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I'll say this now.

I don't have a lot of time for England. I don't like international games, I don't like the endless collection of St George's flags lashed across advertising hoardings, suspended from rooftops and flown from cars every two years. Furthermore, I hate international breaks, as it means no Liverpool game for a fortnight and my weekly fix of all things Red is put on hold so we can watch a host of rookie England players obtain their only caps before the big lads return for the tournaments. 'What have we learned from this game, Alan?' 'Well, we know that the subs board works.'

I'll go further. I hate England injuries. England injuries are potential Liverpool injuries, and again, that impinges on Liverpool Football Club. Example? Time was when a young Jamie Redknapp was the future of LFC, long before his move to pundit couches, roadshow Sky programmes and tight suits. He was never the finished article, but he certainly had something, but one injury for the national side later and he was a forgotten man. He did manage to lift the 2001 FA Cup, but it was in a suit rather than in a sweaty kit. England struck again.

Jamie Redknapp playing in the Three Lions against Scotland. Thefa.com

I'm not just a Liverpool fan but also from the city itself. This does not necessarily mean that all people from my homeland dislike or at least have a disinterest in England, but there's a whole host of us who are signed up to the Scouse Not English cause and I'm certainly in that quarter. Being from a port makes you more open to new ideas and liable to question and pillory your so-called betters. Hence, I can't get on with anything the establishment and blazer-clad anuses of the FA do or say. I can't get on with the support either. I can't do the national anthem, I refuse to paint my face for my own club, never mind one given to me by lines on a map, and I can't add a suffix of 'it's good for England too' when a young shaver scores for his club.

Sorry, it's just not for me.

Oh, I'll watch the World Cup games as I love football. I live for it and it's always my waking thought. I'll also watch anything where there are Liverpool players, and I want them to do well regardless of the shape of their badge. It's the others I can't do. Sorry, but I just can't get excited about Danny Welbeck and Andros Townsend. I don't celebrate their goals nor those conceded (although Suarez's winner drew a wry smile as my mind flew to the FA and the rent-a-quote gobshites Ollie Holt and Patrick Barclay, who did all they could to poison to my club in 2012). I was once angry, indeed I was once involved, but it's levelled off to a casual disinterest now.

“Involved”? Yes, it wasn't always like this. I did have a sneaky regard for the three lions. One of my earliest memories was of my Euro 76 Panini sticker album and a raging thirst to have the Gerry Francis sticker. That taunted me for weeks, and when it finally arrived, I stared at it for hours. England looked brilliant. They had a great kit. They had Liverpool players in the team, and best of all, we got to play Scotland live on telly - a rarity in those days. In fact, I loved the home internationals. Wales had an even better kit and John Toshack, and we always beat Northern Ireland. I was right behind England when I was seven years old.

Phil Thompson on the ball for England in 1982. sport.uk.msn.com

Then came the Subbuteo Years. England 82 was my first non-Liverpool team - bought on the same day as Brazil and Argentina (still my favourite ever kit), but England came with stickers so you could put the numbers on the back. I recall the great joy of Trevor Francis' lopsided number.  I was all in. Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish, Kenny Dalglish Puma boots, The Professionals and England; the five desires of my life.

I've even been to England games. I was at Euro 96 for both the Scotland and Dutch games. I loved both games and the feeling that you were on a journey to somewhere improbable but I was drifting away by degrees. The football was good enough, but there was aspects of the support that I couldn't endure. The No Surrender stuff from one hardened side and the oxygen thief who roared at me for not singing the national anthem. Nah. That bit wasn't for me. Then came Keegan, people dressed as Crusaders (checks your history, lads), Ian Wright, Beckham, Steves McClaren and Curry etc. and the gradual Chelsification of England's support.

I ran away.

This wrinkling of the nose either infuriated people or drew a bored explanation of my reluctance to leap aboard the bandwagon. One colleague, a girl who has never been to fewer England games than I have, told me to 'fuck off back to Liverpool if you don't support England', and doubtless a few of you have similar thoughts at the moment, but that presumes a hatred of England and that's not what it's about for me (although I've certainly been there post-Jamie Redknapp). I'm just not arsed about them. I can't drag up the emotion. That's already spoken for with my one true football love, and I'd rather deny the whole thing rather than fake an interest to please workmates.

So why am I here talking about them? To laugh at them? Nope. To tell you all that you're stupid to waste your time with something that can only hurt you? No. Why then? Well, it's this.

 I find them interesting. Fascinating, even.

Hold on, you just said that you have a non-polemical disinterest in Roy's boys. Indeed I do, but that is only for the emotional side of support. Again, if they score or concede, I'm not going to leave the couch and propel myself skywards or plunge my head into my hands. I can't do the cheerleading of Ian Wright or Jonathan Pearce, but the fascination is different. What I'm interested in is the failure of England. The sheer persistence of mundanity. The wave of optimism and criticism that follows them and the startling truism that no one seems to expect or learn. Despite the wealth of resources, the undeniable talent and an established infrastructure, England always fail. Always.

Wayne Rooney, dejected at England's defeat to Uruguay.

The consistent inconsistency is astonishing. Look at this very week. Young blood made up of predominantly Liverpool, Everton and Southampton players who play glorious football, mixing in with their experienced counterparts and taking on the world. Two years’ work culminating in one tournament. The result - just three hours of World Cup football.

Three. Hours.

The last game is bootless. A nothing. A fixture that just needs to be fulfilled. This should have been England's day off, but Costa Rica, a side with only a shadow of Team England's resources, ghosted past Italy and Uruguay, England's victors, and took 'our' place. That's ridiculous. That's predictable. That's fascinating.

It's not a one off though. England always fail. Look at 2010. Lampard's disallowed goal aside, a rookie Germany battered them four years ago, and even then, it took a narrow win on a cow field to get ou of their group. Eriksson, for all his pomp and European experience, was undone by a vibrant Portuguese side, while Keegan was simply out of his depth. Going further back, they sacked Venables, and dear Bobby Robson began his tenure by losing all three games at Euro 88. This is not the collapse of a dynasty. There never was a dynasty. Eight years after their World Cup victory, they failed to reach the 1974 tournament. 1966 was a glorious exception, not the norm.

Everything is in place for England now. A good goalkeeper, a proper old-fashioned centre back in Cahill, exciting new talent in Lallana, Sterling and Sturridge and, more importantly, time on their side. All the ingredients are there. So what's gone wrong? How can good players be so poor?

Danny Mills hinted at a possible answer during Five Live's coverage of the Italy game (I'd given up on whatever Phil Neville was saying and chosen the radio commentary option). He quite rightly pointed out that the Italians had a great deal of success down England’s left hand side thanks to little or no cover for Leighton Baines. Two minutes later, Balotelli got clear of Cahill and converted for a cross from that side. Mills tutted his displeasure but went no further for a few minutes. Then it came. The blame, and subsequent deflection, began.

'You have to look at the players there. You can't blame the manager.'  Really?

Roy Hodgson has a lot to think about following this tournament.

So, let's get this straight. We can all see where the defence is weak. We're all looking at it. It's the big hole in front of the left back. They take advantage and score, but the manager, who refuses to pull a man back to nullify the threat, shall remain blameless. Hmm.

It's also not the manager's fault when Wayne Rooney, ordinarily a brilliant striker, is out of form and loses his place to Daniel Sturridge, and thus has to make do with a wide role just so he can remain in the team. You see, Rooney has to play. Anywhere. It doesn't matter if he's unhappy and ineffective, you just can't drop him. Now, as it transpired, Rooney scored from a striking position when he followed his instincts and attacked the far post, so the manager gets the plaudits. Nothing is said about the weak decision to play him in the first place. The end justifies the means.

Blame shifting is rife in this set up. Just minutes after the final whistle, Phil Jagielka was all too happy to blame Gerrard twice for Suarez's second goal. He chose not to mention just why he didn't cover Suarez when the Uruguayan had gambled on a similar outcome.

England lasted two games. Just three hours, three hours of World Cup football. Roughly the time I spend travelling to and from work each day. Four years’ work for that.

A lot of the failure is also down to media pressure.  England are always going to win the next competition. Flags appear on front pages, 'I've never experienced such an optimistic mood going into a tournament, Gary.' Hold on, they're a bit shit! Sack everyone! This was particularly evident in the days of the 'golden generation' - a generation, I might add, that delivered precisely nothing. The press love this game. We're going to win it right up to the moment when something goes wrong, and then, and only then, do the vultures defend. It's Steven Gerrard's turn this time, coupled with Suarez and Balotelli - the bête noires of previous Premier League seasons, but more will follow. They ramp up the patriotism, tell the world they're going to back 'our boys', and vilify them the second the final whistle goes. Repeat every two seasons. Someone must be blamed.

Despite having a worse win ratio than Capello, that man is seldom Roy Hodgson. Greg Dyke has already announced that the manager's job is not under threat despite delivering the worst World Cup campaign in English history. Greg thinks we can win in Qatar. I've no idea what he's basing that on, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with logic. There was nothing to suggest that this is a team of coming men in the same sense that Germany's squad were four years ago. It's this lack of reality that seems to be the biggest drawback. Saying it isn't doing it. You can raise expectations all you want, but you need a workable system underpinning it. If England go to the next tournament and play a centre forward on the left because they can't drop him, then what else do you expect?

To his credit, Hodgson is great at lowering expectations. When his woeful Liverpool side suffered an embarrassing defeat at Goodison Park, he claimed that it was the best his team had played all season, and that winning there would be a 'utopia'. Liverpool's record at Goodison was pretty good back then, and it's even better now. Utopia? Keep things on a low burn and the criticism will decrease.

But it isn't all about Hodgson. It's the blazer and 'what's for lunch' culture of the men that appoint him. Roy is 'the right sort of chap' and is less likely to rock the boat than that troublesome Italian and wheeler dealer at QPR. It's the FA that run England and their failure is England's failure. We hear talk of a root and branch change and a reliance on youth, but where is the evidence? Who is brave enough to take on a board room and point out that 1996 aside (tricky manager then too), there has been nothing to celebrate? Nothing. But we're going to win in Qatar. Riiiiiight.

So there's a shortfall between expectation and planning. Schools of Excellence, academies and programmes have all ended with just three hours of World Cup football. There's still the promise and expectation of more, but no one's asking how it'll be achieved.

There's plenty of talent in the country but it's not been given a chance. England players are looked over when foreign talent is available. In some ways, my own attitude is to blame for this. The big picture for me is always Liverpool winning everything, not what's best for England. I don't want my club to be a farm for developing English talent. The rise of Henderson and Sterling is only a happy coincidence. I want world class in my first time team now. I don't want to see an audition for a one-off tournament years away. I want what's best for the Liver bird, not the lions, and if this means more foreign players in the team, then so be it. Ideally, I'd like smattering of Scouse lads in there too, and if they go on to international success then all well and good, but let's not be mistaken here - England will always take a back seat to Liverpool. Always.

 

Uruguay's Luis Suarez consoles England's Steven Gerrard.

If young English talent isn't coming through because of the influx of foreign players and my own selfishness, then how can England develop? Does this explain just why there aren't many English players in Europe, picking up overseas experience? Even in their semi-final heyday there were not many players on the continent. Waddle at Marseille, Gascoigne at Lazio and Ince at Inter. Three, and two of them were on the wane. For God's sake, Steve Bull wasn't even in the old First Division in his Italia 90 days. Not much chance of picking up European strategies and philosophies if they're not there. England is an island in more ways than one.

So are England doomed? Possibly. It would take a massive reversal of policy and structure to even address the basics. It goes right back to how kids are coached, it's about getting them out of the house in the first place, and getting them to play four hour games of twenty a side. That would be a start.

The next stage is trickier as it's the place where the FA faces a Catch 22 scenario. Foreign players fill the Premier League because we as, God help us, consumers, want to see the best players. We pay through the nose for that privilege, and money talks. If you want to see a strong England side, then play just English players, but that can't happen. Sell Luis Suarez and buy Carlton Cole? Suggestion noted.

Maybe the example of others will lead the way. France have recovered from their disastrous South African campaign by slowly removing their troublemakers, while Germany, who were never expecting to win the Cup back then, used that tournament purely as an exercise in securing big game experience for their kids. They still made it to the semis, so it worked to a large extent.

These are decent enough parallels drawn by comparable countries, but the smaller teams may provide a better example. One thing that has become obvious in Brazil is the value of their courage. Costa Rica had no fear whatsoever of Italy, nor Iran of Argentina. See also Ghana's performance against Germany. As with any fight against a bully, you'll accept a bloody nose if you know you can get just one good dig in. England don't do that, preferring to feel their opponents out like two snooker players indulging in hours of turgid hours of safety play. Going for the throat is a big no-no. For example, even though the personnel was much the same, England would never start a game as Liverpool did against Arsenal at Anfield last season. Give them their heads, Roy. You never know. In both games so far, they've played their best football when they've gone a goal down, so the cloak of fear had been pulled off. If you're going to lose or aren't as good as your opponents or cannot compete with their tactics, you might as well go for the jugular and see what happens. It beats the hell out of bumbling along waiting for the excuse (Lampard 2010, Ronaldo 06) or the scapegoat (Beckham 98).

So, there it is. Can England win the next World Cup? Never say never, but until things change rapidly, until a new patient platform is built and a workable strategy is put together, it seems unlikely, as for that to happen, we'd have to start again.

We'll definitely win in Russia though.

Definitely.

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