As England manager, you just can't win. Photo: Getty
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Boring Roy dared to become a World Cup cavalier – and he suffered the consequences

With England sometimes, you just can’t win. 

With England, there is always a meta-narrative. The team plays in the knowledge that it has not won a trophy since the 1966 World Cup final in England and in the awareness of the post-mortem that will inevitably follow a defeat. Nothing it does is judged on its own merits but everything as part of a wider history: the team of the present pays for the failures of the teams of the past.

If a club side lost two games narrowly against very good sides – Italy reached the final of the last European Championship; Uruguay are the South American champions – it would move on without too much fuss. England will not play another World Cup game for four years (assuming they qualify for Russia in 2018).

That’s why far too much is read into World Cup matches, nonsensically so, for surely nobody believes that Costa Rica offer a model for England to follow? Nor does this team have much to do with the one that so underperformed in South Africa four years ago, let alone the sides that failed even to qualify for the World Cup in 1974 and 1978: yet it becomes another chapter in the saga of failure.

Certain statistics make this campaign look terrible. From kick-off to elimination, England’s World Cup lasted five days, 19 hours and 49 minutes. Nobody would pretend this was a triumph, or that England played well or were somehow cheated, whether by refereeing or outrageous luck. At the same time, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Because of a difficult draw, an early exit was a possibility and in the defeats to Italy and Uruguay England created many chances.

Research by the former Norway (and Wimbledon) manager Egil Olsen has shown that in about three-quarters of games the side creating more chances wins; to that extent, as José Mourinho noted, England “didn’t have the football gods on their side”.

They lost those vital first two games because of a combination of a lack of composure in front of goal and a couple of moments of inconceivably sloppy defending. The header Steven Gerrard missed to allow Luis Suárez in to score the winner for Uruguay was as basic as they come – and yet it was remarkably similar to Matthew Upson’s gaffe in the World Cup against Germany in South Africa four years ago. These were freakish, inexplicable things, the sorts of errors Upson and Gerrard wouldn’t make half a dozen times in a career. As Roy Hodgson said, “Things happen in football.”

In the banality of the phrase lies a profound truth. Not everything is controllable; there’s not always somebody to blame. But that doesn’t suit the national mood, particularly not when there are 48 years of failure to explain. At least this time there seems to be a reluctance to take the traditional way out and find a scapegoat: Hodgson will be kept on until 2016 and the next European Championship in France. Instead, there is a search for wider forces rooted in economics and English culture. The contributory factors are legion: there is never just one cause.

That there is only about a tenth the number of qualified coaches in England there is in Spain, for instance, can’t help, and at least in part explains the apparent technical deficiencies of the English game. The destruction of school sports and the ongoing sale of playing fields have had an impact. The Premier League – and the way club football is structured towards servicing its greed – is certainly deleterious. That the bigger clubs sign so many talented young English players and then, rather than taking the time and making the effort to develop and integrate them, prefer to buy off-the-shelf exotica, must hamper their progress. Daniel Sturridge was 23 when he left Chelsea for Liverpool in January 2013 but had made just 47 Premier League starts.

But much still comes down to luck. The Dutch have been the darlings of this tournament so far, winning all three group games and beating the defending champions, Spain, 5-1. Yet two years ago they lost all three group games at the Euros. They settled on their formation only a few weeks before the tournament when the key midfielder Kevin Strootman was ruled out with an injury. Whatever else their performances are, they are not a victory for long-term planning. Things happen in football.

If Hodgson erred, it was probably in exposing the back four by not offering them sufficient cover in midfield. Gerrard and Jordan Henderson had fine seasons for Liverpool but tended to play in a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. Although Gerrard has adapted his game as he has got older, he is not a natural anchor and that was exposed – ruthlessly and deliberately so by Uruguay, as their manager, Óscar Tabárez, made clear.

Hodgson had played with an extra midfielder in the 1-0 friendly win over Denmark in March but the stodginess of that performance led to calls for a more attacking approach. Hodgson, perceived as conservative, was perhaps conscious that the only other candidate for the job when he was appointed in 2012 was Harry Redknapp, who is regarded as being far more attacking. It seems conceivable that Hodgson got caught up in the meta-narrative of the post-mortem: he knew it would be crueller if he played up to the stereotype of Boring Roy and so opted for a more cavalier approach.

In that regard, the key moment of England’s World Cup campaign perhaps came in Kyiv, after England had produced a superb defensive display to draw 0-0 against Ukraine, maintaining the top spot in the group and making themselves firm fav­ourites to qualify automatically. Hodgson bounded into the post-match press conference, clearly expecting the tone to be congratulatory; instead, he was faced with a barrage of questions about why England had been so dull. With England sometimes, you just can’t win. 

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Jess Phillips's Diary: Lazy attacks on “lazy MPs”, and how to tackle the trolls

The Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley takes us through her week.

As parliament kicked us out for the conference recess season on 14 September, several tabloids run the predictable story: “MPs go back on holiday today only NINE days after returning to parliament from a six-week summer break.” I imagine the journalist who churns it out hates doing the same tired “all MPs are lazy baddies” shtick as much as we hate having to rebut the nonsense idea that we are on holiday when we are working full-time in our constituencies.

Legislation is on holiday, not legislators. I have still yet to find an MP who thinks it reasonable that parliament shuts for three weeks for conference season. Why can we not have these conferences at the weekend? Or during the summer recess? Hell, why do we have to have them so regularly at all?

Is the nation screaming out for the politically minded to spend hundreds of pounds sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded Airbnb in a seaside town after a heavy night on warm wine and small food? I’ll wager that you cannot find me a person on the Clapham omnibus – or frankly any omnibus, whatever an omnibus even is – who thinks we should have a week off making laws so that the Lib Dems can do karaoke.

Her Maj

As well as time off for conference, it seems that the Tories will be scurrying home early every Wednesday as well. They appear to be on strike from voting on any opposition day motions as their governing partners, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, play fast and loose with their allegiances. (The DUP backed a Labour motion against raising tuition fees, which the government says is non-binding.)

I and other Labour MPs sat in parliament and watched ministerial cars speed off on 13 September as the whips told the great and good to go home. Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition is a pretty important part of our democracy. If I were Her Maj I might be more than a little peeved that Mrs May cannot be arsed to turn up to fight for what she believes in, whatever that is. Presumably whatever Boris Johnson and his gang say it is this week.

Leave the kids alone

I spent the weekend at a local Labour Party fundraiser, at my surgery, and handing out certificates to hundreds of young people graduating from the National Citizen Service. I sat in front of a lively, wildly diverse group of young people and thought we should hand over managing geopolitics to them for a while. Even the naughty kid at the back (whom I had to scold) gave me more faith than what I see on the news.

Family life

At a debate about the abuse of MPs, the traditional Tory colonel Bob Stewart told the house that his son had been targeted and isolated by his schoolteacher because his father was a Conservative MP.

Now, I’ve had my run-in ins with the colonel in the past, but I was horrified by this – one of my sons is the same age as his. As a parent and an MP I dread the idea that my choices will cause my sons’ grief. I’ve got enough guilt about leaving them half the week without their being targeted and bullied. I once found my son and his mates watching videos about me on YouTube that had been made by men’s rights activists. The vicious content was unsettling enough, but the thought of his teacher joining in the hate is harrowing (and, I’m pleased to say, completely unthinkable at his school). Our families are conscripts to this life – some are conscientious objectors.

Troll detection

So, should we ban internet trolls who abuse MPs online from voting? This is the suggestion floated by the Electoral Commission. I can see the argument for trying to make people treat the electoral system with respect. I also think we have got to have a hard line and a punishment. I’m just not sure how we will decide what is abuse. People say sexist stuff to me all the time. Would a negative comment about my appearance count, or are we talking rape and death threats? (What a time to be alive, when I can give a traffic light system to my sexist online abuse.) To some, the idea of having your vote taken away would only provoke a shrug; but to me it seems too much.

Climb every mountain

I have nearly finished More in Common by my friend Brendan Cox. It is about his late wife, my friend Jo, and is brilliant, but I dip in and out because I want it to last. Reading it makes me feel so tired: maybe because I read it in bed, but also because Jo’s energy and adventures seem exhausting. I like mountains on a screen saver, but I wouldn’t climb one, especially not with a tropical disease or a baby in my belly.

I’m also exhausted because of the ridiculous late nights we seem to be adopting in parliament. Jo’s distaste for the silly hours is covered in the book. She couldn’t understand why we couldn’t start earlier than 11.30am and finish in time for people to see their kids. As I put down the story of her life (and, my god, what a life) I’ll gladly trek for her to the seemingly impassable peak of reforming the voting hours in parliament. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left