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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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism