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Another international break weekend and it’s a chance to take a look at the England national set up. All teams are now based at the superb St George’s Park just up the road from me here in Burton. It a top class facility so good that the likes of Barcelona use it for training breaks, though it has to be said I’ve yet to spot Lionel Messi in the local ‘Spoons taking advantage of the Burger and Pint meal deal.
Home matches are hosted at the massive, if somewhat misplaced, Wembley Stadium.
The national team has just qualified for the World Cup at a canter that has seen them go a staggering 39 games (in qualifying completion) unbeaten.
The under 21s reached the UEFA Championship semi-finals and the under 19s are the current champions of Europe. You would think with a record like this that most English football supporters would be thrilled with the way things are going. Yet many it would seem are not.
There has always been a “club v country” issue in British football. Most fans would tend to place the interests of their club first.
Personally I take the same view as the late great Brian Clough who thought playing for your country was the pinnacle for any player and sent his England players off to Bisham Abbey or Lilleshall with great pride.
Of course, as a Brewers fan, being affected by the international break is a newish thing, and we certainly haven’t seen anyone (yet) go off to join the main England squad. But were we to ever have some an occurrence I would like to think Burton fans would send the lad off with a huge amount of pride and good wishes.
But all is not well with England Supporters, or more particularly English Football supporters. Last weekend I was at a music festival in Derby. Late Sunday afternoon, between 2 live music sessions, I found myself in a bar watching Lithuania v England on “the big screen”.
On the previous Thursday England had secured passage to Moscow with a comfortable but unspectacular victory over Slovenia. Now 3 days later I witness another similar comfortable but uninspiring 1-0 victory. Its an almost robotic performance. No “let off the leash” free flowing football with abandon.
The match seems like a pre season friendly or testimonial. England are easily the better team but the game lacks passion. Unlike the game on the “small” screens dotted around where our friends from North of the border are seemingly doing what they do best…passionate failure.
Across Facebook my “football” friends are making similar postings. References to rather be watching paint dry are not uncommon. The players are derided for lack of ability and (that magic word again) “Passion”.
But how fair is this?
Those of us of a certain age can remember when an England team full of players of talent and “passion” couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup.
Between 1974 and 1978 was probably the worst time. With players like Kevin Keegan, Mike Channon, Coin Bell, Malcolm McDonald, Roy MacFarland, Paul Madeley and Allan Clarke we still had to suffer the indignity of the BBC trying to make Scotland fans of us all whilst forcing upon us the insufferable Andy Cameron song “Ally’s Tartan Army”.
A song that painfully lives on in various guises today. You know the one: “we’re all going to Wem-ber-ley” etc. And this at a time when English Club sides through Liverpool , Forest and Villa were starting to dominate the European club scene.
So what is a fair appraisal of the England team. Well first off, there is more to “the beautiful game” than passion, which itself is often clichéd .
Argentina are expected to have passion. Germany on the other hand are expected to be “organised”, whilst Brazil will have “flair”. We expect the Dutch to be “technically gifted” but “prone to arguments”. But all of these are somewhat patronising.
What any manager or coach will try to do is play to their own strengths and the oppositions weaknesses. Right now England have some good players but not many great players. They can be “solid” and “organised” and I would be disappointed if any opposition were fitter than English players.
The prevalence of overseas internationals in the Premier League is a double edged sword for the English lads. Whilst it gives them the opportunity to develop their game alongside the world’s best it also keeps them out of the action quite often and reduces the number of England eligible players playing at the top level.
The England manager has less players to pick from than some may think. Which is why the success of St Georges Park and the under 19s and 21s is an encouraging sign.
It’s hard to make a case for the current England team coming back from Russia with much more than a set of those dolls that fit inside each other and a case of cheap vodka.
However there are many nations that wish they were chartering their planes and booking hotels and, let’s be certain about this, no one else will really fancy England in their group. Because if the England team find the right balance and just some of the passion the fans will show, then on their day they can beat anyone.
As I write this Holland need to beat Sweden by 7 goals tonight. I wonder how their fans are feeling right now?