I know that he’s not that well received on most northern terraces, but I reckon that Nick Hornby got at least one thing right in Fever Pitch. There’s a bit where essentially he says that football matches are generally crap. We get eighty-odd minutes of terrible, boring or desperate football and it will be punctuated by a couple of minutes where something scintillating happens. A couple of turns here, a dash there topped off with a perfectly placed pass and a tidy finish. Some weeks you get fifteen minutes of the good stuff spread across the 90, others five, some weeks none at all.
Most club football fans of any vintage know this. We can expect all we want, but the nature of the game is what it is and we don’t tend to get too upset, even when we get those weeks where we’re left with ninety minutes of unadulterated drivel. I wonder if international fans understand things in the same way?
England’s performance last night was one of those that any club side, including your Man Uniteds, Chelseas and, probably, even Barcelonas will have four or five times a season. Stuttering, like someone trying to start a car with a flat battery with out the option of calling dad/mate/husband to help out. The sort of game where you know that if one thing goes right, if you can just get that spark, then everything will fall into place and you’ll be motoring in no time. Sometimes you get things jump started, others you just get to the end hoping you haven’t damaged things too much.
Sometimes batteries go flat because they’ve gone flat, sometimes because something in your engine is knackered and other times because you’ve left the radio on (and sometimes because you’ve squeezed the life out of an analogy that you’re now wishing you’d never started with) so which one is it for England?
So are England just not up to it? Has the battery gone? Well they qualified easily and are still eighth in the world, so no. Something must be causing it right?
The about face from some quarters of the media and public with regard to Capello is right up there with the fickleness you’d expect from Latics fans. Remember the mass panic over interest from Inter? And the mass relief when he signed his new contract (sans get out clause) on the plane steps? When was that? During qualifying? Six months ago? A month? No, it was a bloody fortnight ago. Is that all it takes for a man to go from necessity to national embarrassment or is it just that all the armchair experts, and the people who right for them, just love to have someone to beat over the head?
Of course I don’t think it’s Capello’s fault. He’s not playing the formation that I would, or the players I would, but his side qualified easily and are capable of playing much better than this. Talk of fine tuning is for the latter stages, qualifying from this group should be (and could still prove to be) relatively easy going, and there’s no sign that England have been tactically naïve against USA or Algeria, they’ve just not played well enough to score more goals than them. And whilst I’d love to spend a couple of hundred words explaining exactly why Terry, Lampard, Lennon, Wright-Phillips shouldn’t have been on the pitch that’s just my view and when it comes down to it, each and every one of them is actually a quite good player in some regard or another.
So if nothing’s particularly broken, there’s some mileage in the radio left on argument. Not that I buy the ideas that footballers have a hard life these days. But either emotionally, physically or just with the intensity of the league battle, it’s been a tough season in one way. The title was closer than it’s been for a while, the battle for fourth place has been unprecedented since fourth place mattered and so on. Put players through that and then throw them under the pressure of “England expects” and the glare of the World Cup spotlight and you’d need to be a fairly tough cookie. Too precious to cut it? Maybe, look around last night’s team and (apart from maybe a couple) mental toughness didn’t strike me as a dominant feature.
Don’t believe me? Prefer the “we are all captains” line churned out by Rio and Gerard after the Terry debacle? Ask yourself why Capello has seen fit to take Beckham along as a cheerleader. For all his perceived public persona, Beckham has proved himself as a leader, as someone who can take a knock and come back, someone who can take an international team and drag it onto the next step. But he’s not on the pitch, so who’s going to do it now? I don’t know but someone best turn up with some jump leads pretty soon if they’re going to get out of the group.
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