Gary Neville’s recent assertion that England are not good enough to win next year’s European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine may have raised a few eyebrows and caused many to question his loyalty to ex colleagues and the very country he represented for over 11 years. However, both those that know him well and those that have observed his intelligent and forthright approach to his new role as a Skysports TV pundit will be all too aware that he is a man that rarely minces his words.
Having served under the most successful British club Manager in modern history, during its most successful period, Neville is suitably qualified to offer his views on what he sees as being the right formula for what makes a successful team. However, his illustrious club career was not replicated at international level despite having 85 caps to his name. The closest he ever came to tasting success at international level was during the exultant Euro 96 campaign when England, on home soil, reached the semi-final before predictably losing out to the Germans on penalties.
By the time the European Championships come around in the summer of 2012, England’s limp draw in Montenegro to secure qualification will be a distant memory, although Wayne Rooney’s act of petulance and impending ban earned in that game, will still be hitting the tabloid back pages. What is also certain is that the customary chorus of euphoria, hype and general sense of over-exuberance that precedes every international football tournament that the England national team feature in, will once again raise its ridiculous head. With every tournament seems to come a greater degree of expectation without any reasonable foundation beyond the fact that we invented the game. At the helm is an obsession with propelling a talismanic or iconic ‘Golden Boy’, without whom we are told, we have no chance of winning anything. For as long as football has been broadcast in colour (and possibly beyond that) the English press, media and to a large extent the supporters and indeed some managers have been guilty of buying into the misguided view that their ‘star-man’ has to feature, at whatever cost. Neville was also quick to point this out in his recent column-piece in the Mail on Sunday. He is, of course, absolutely correct in what he says.
Certainly since the 1982 World Cup campaign in Spain, when a half-fit Kevin Keegan was selected in the squad, along with another media-friendly figure who was also recovering from injury in Trevor Brooking, the English tabloid press have always championed an ‘English icon’. Their almost insatiable desire to repeatedly focus on a particular figurehead as the country’s pre-tournament patron saint and savior has become both embarrassing and unwarranted. History has proved that such an approach has been to the detriment of the squad and the team and has heaped excessive and unnecessary pressures on the very individuals they have chosen to shine the beacon of hope upon. Other countries may well be guilty of this too, but the fundamental difference is that in England’s case (Wayne Rooney apart), great technical ability has not necessarily been a prerequisite for the celebrity status afforded to these individuals. Had this been the case, surely Paul Scholes would have been seen as the model English football icon. What is also ironic is that in almost all cases the very fans that adore them in an England shirt often despised them when they have turned out for their respective clubs.
Yet this has not discouraged the press and the media from indulging certain players in this way and the historical evidence is clear. For instance, once Keegan’s international appeal had faded after his pitiful swan-song against tournament hosts Spain in 1982, his mantle quickly passed onto Bryan Robson who was seen as the combative, archetypal British player of his generation. His old England mentor, namesake and fellow Geordie Sir Bobby Robson seemed to also embrace the national adulation held for Robbo. However, once the country woke up to the fact that ‘Captain Marvel’, as he was dubbed by the English press, was injury-prone and therefore unreliable, attention needed to be diverted to a new pin-up. Step forward Gary Lineker, who fitted the bill perfectly. Clean-cut, articulate and with a distinctly English, likable character, Lineker was marketable and one for the housewives, although Vinnie Jones once famously described him as a Jellyfish and of lacking backbone. However, no one could argue that as a player he was a prolific and deadly goal-scorer. Unwittingly, Lineker perhaps did more to justify his iconic status than all those before and after him, as he proved time and time again that he was a man for the big occasion and generally always delivered when all else failed. His international career ended one goal short of Bobby Charlton’s all-time record tally for England, having tamely missed a penalty in a friendly against Argentina, shortly before his final England appearance in 1992.
Well before Gary Lineker sought pastures new on the BBC Match of the Day sofa and as the new face of Walkers crisps, his crown had passed to Alan Shearer. Although Gazza-mania threatened to spiral out of control in the brief hiatus that preceded the Shearer golden-years, Gazza’s propensity for pressing the self destruct button meant he never seriously held down the title of a national sweet-heart for a sustained period. Shearer on the other hand was the perfect replacement for Lineker as Mr clean-cut. Although he had even less charisma (in front of camera) than Lineker, the parallels between them were uncanny, one could almost say striking, if you pardon the pun. He too finished one of the big international tournaments as top-scorer and steadily earned a reputation both home and abroad as a striker of considerably pedigree and a man for the big occasion. The press often coined the phrase ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ when referring to Shearer, particularly whenever he wore an England shirt. Even when he went on a 12-game international goal drought leading up to Euro 96, he never really fell out of favour with the press, the media or the then England Manager, Terry Venables. Following his resurgence during Euro 96, Shearer could do no wrong in the eyes of the English press and we went into successive tournaments believing he was the answer to all of our hopes and dreams. Of course, the 98 World Cup and the 2000 Euro Championships both ended prematurely and resulted in more tears for all England fans.
When an 18-year old Michael Owen went on a mazy run and scored a wonder-goal against Argentina in France 98, a new star was born. Suddenly he represented the best of British (or English) and the media spot-light quickly turned to him. However, his star rating had to be shared with a formidable rival based at the other end of the M62. David Beckham took footballing celebrity to another level and at one point it seemed as though his celebrity appeal even left his vastly experienced and previously very successful new England managerial incumbent Sven Goran Eriksson, spell-bound. Eriksson was guilty of caressing the egos of both Owen and Beckham for the period between 2002-2006 and the three big tournaments in between. All three tournaments ended in more tears and more inquests into why the team and the wonder-boys failed to live up to all the hype. In the case of Beckham, Eriksson took him to the 2002 World Cup in Germany, despite the fact Beckham had given the broken metatarsal injury notoriety just weeks beforehand, believing the team had no serious prospect of winning the tournament without him. He repeated the mistake again with Wayne Rooney prior to the 2006 World cup. This did not say much for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ squad of players he had at his disposal at the time and would have done little to boost the morale of the squad either.
Fast-forward to 2011-12 and it would appear that the lessons have not been learnt. The latest off the conveyor belt of national treasures is indeed the highly temperamental Wayne Rooney, who for all his talents many believe is a potential accident waiting to happen. Much was placed on his volatile shoulders ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa but when he failed to deliver, his churlish tirade at the camera at the end of England’s second group match against Algeria exposed the flaws in his ability to handle the pressure when the heat is on. His cantankerous actions against Montenegro will mean that England will be deprived of its ‘main-man’ for all of the groups matches in the Euro 2012 tournament.
This could of course prove to be the right opportunity and the perfect prelude to breaking England’s obsessive ‘golden-wonder culture’, particularly given Neville’s brave attempt to draw everyone’s attention to the issue. England will need to get off to a good start in Poland/Ukraine and therefore the emphasis will need to be on the best formation and tactics and not the normal over-reliance on certain individuals. Fabio Capello has certainly struggled to find the right formula since his taking the helm as England manager, although there have been some recent signs that he maybe starting to find the right balance.
The deployment two holding players in midfield, enabling a three man attack with a fourth attack minded player ‘in the hole’ is a system designed to get the best out of Rooney, but the squad does have other players that can fill that void provided they stay fit come the Euros. Steven Gerrard has played some of his best football in that role, with Torres ahead of him, in a similar system for Liverpool during the heady days under Rafa Benitez. One suspects that Ashley Young could also fill that role well, especially as there are plenty of alternatives on the flanks in Downing, Walcott and Adam Johnson.
One thing for certain is that no one individual will deliver the Holy Grail for England next summer or any other summer for that matter. But a complete focus on the squad and how best to utilise the players within it might however. Such a pragmatic approach probably won’t sell as many newspapers or make many juicy headlines but ultimately the team’s success must surely prevail for once. In 1998, France hosted the World Cup as underdogs despite having arguably the world’s greatest player in its ranks at the time. Many of the country’s faint hopes may have been resting on Zinedine Zidane’s shoulders, but in essence the French team had established the perfect balance in midfield. They had two good quality holding midfield players in Deschamps and Petit as the team’s insurance policy allowing their creative genius at the tip of the trio to work his magic off a front man in areas where he was hard to pick up. As the tournament progressed, so did the team’s confidence in the system and by the latter stages they became defensively almost impregnable.
One only has to look towards Spain, the current World and European Champions, to see that there is no individual ‘Golden Boy’, just a ‘Golden Team’ and one that everyone else is trying to play catch up with.
They say a change is as good as a rest and with Rooney effectively ‘rested’ for the first three games and possibly more, surely the time has come to abandon the old celebrity culture thing and shift the focus to ‘Team England’…. Just for a change.