The England football team in Brazil. Photo: Getty
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Who's to blame for England's failure at the World Cup? There's only one answer

... and it's not foreign players in the Premier League.

Who is responsible for England’s utter failure at the World Cup this year? For all the disappointment with Wayne Rooney for missing a couple of chances we like to think he’d have buried a couple of years ago, or the mystification with Steven Gerrard’s uncanny ability to pick out Luis Suarez with a defence-splitting pass, an ability that seems to function unhindered by the two players being on opposing sides, the simple answer is that the blame lies with the Football Association.

The Football Association know this and, as you would expect, they have a scapegoat already lined up: the foreign players. You have to give Greg Dyke and his cohorts credit: they lined this scapegoat up ahead of time, with proposals aimed at rectifying what they see as the problem of foreign player proliferation.

To see the FA playing the petty xenophobia card in these day and age, while anti-immigrant rhetoric is blasted out of the mainstream media on a daily basis, is hardly surprising. The government and many of the opposition parties to boot have been laying the groundwork of mistrust and suspicion for the last few years. The FA can push the idea that English football is some sort of delicate native species, likely to be destroyed by interbreeding with horrible alien football styles. In a country where an education minister can talk with a straight face about a need to promote ‘British Values’ and not be laughed at and fired, the idea that ‘English football’ is a thing, a thing that must be nurtured and protected, can look almost normal.

The problem with the FA narrative about the influx of horrible foreigners diluting our precious talent pool is that it is completely and obviously false. It was not so long ago that the English talent pool was teeming with the likes of Paul Scholes, a player who is regarded by the best midfielders of this generation as the best midfielder of the last generation; with great centre backs, with Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard in their pomp, with the likes of Rooney and Owen up front and in form. The obnoxiously named Golden Generation of England players were legitimately brilliant. England never won a trophy with that team, but in that same period Greece won the European cup, a cup England would fail to qualify for in 2008.

We have had great players and we have them now, and even if we didn’t there is no excuse. We can say that the current crop of English players is not up to the standards of earlier sides but that is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the dire state of the England performances. Take the USA for example, there are very, very few players in that side that would get into an England team right now. But there is no doubt which team is playing the better football. The USA was cast into a group of death and they came within 30 seconds of qualification with a game in hand. By opting for a balanced team, with a plan to win matches, even if that meant leaving established players behind, the USA has punched above its weight.

We know the England players are good enough because if they were not good enough they’d be replaced with foreigners at club level. The unfeasibly high standards in the league have meant opportunities for young English players are harder to come by, but it also means that the young players who do fight through to their first teams, the likes of Shaw, Barkley, Wellbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling and Wilshere, are extraordinarily good. The English team can call upon young players in nearly every position who would stroll into the vast majority of other national teams, and those other national teams, at the World Cup finals at least, would do better with them than England.

The FA is to blame for this. We can say that Gerrard shouldn’t be captain and we can say that Hodgson shouldn’t be manager, but what point would changing the lower tiers of the organisation serve without a change at the top? Why sack Hodgson when the men who thought he was a good choice in the first place remain in charge to make yet another bad appointment? All the FA has done in recent years is to follow the path of least resistance.

As the desperation to dodge responsibility for their own failures leads the FA to consider measures to undermine the English league itself, we face a very real threat of losing the one thing that England does do brilliantly: its league football. Decades more stultifying lumpball from England on the world stage would be bad enough, but to cripple the league itself would be absolutely unforgivable. And for what? Even if there was some magical way that we could sacrifice our league for a good national side to do such a thing would be absurd.

England has a great football league and it produces great players. Our FA can afford to hire great coaches and managers. There is no excuse for the continual failure of the FA to get results.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.