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9 November 2022

The tragedy of English football

The miracle of 1966 aside, Paul Hayward’s “biography” of England’s national team is a story of sorry failure.

By Michael Henderson

When Thomas Müller rolled home Germany’s final goal in a 4-1 thrashing of England at the World Cup of 2010, the BBC commentator was a broken man. How many German players, Guy Mowbray asked mournfully, would make the England team? A convincing answer followed swiftly from thousands of viewers. At least ten, and it might be a full house if Philipp Lahm, the captain and right-back, fancied a go on the left.

The regular thumpings suffered by the national men’s team clearly counted for nothing in the world of make-believe inhabited by England’s fans. Scotland’s “Wembley Wizards” taught the first lesson in 1928, winning 5-1. There followed the United States debacle (1-0) at the World Cup of 1950. Three years later the Magnificent Magyars, led by Ferenc Puskás, put six goals past them in London, and seven more a year later in Budapest. The Germans in 1972 and the Dutch in 1988 revealed the chasm in skill and tactical sophistication.

Then, six years ago, came that 2-1 defeat by Iceland, the most brutal humiliation of all. What a dismal record it is, and still England expects. Nay, demands. In the mythical realm of “Ing-er-land”, English exceptionalism remains unexceptional. We gave the game to the world. They owe us.

[See also: Football’s data delusion]

Is English football even “English” any more? The Premier League, created 30 years ago for commercial reasons, is a televised international entertainment which happens to take place (for now) in this country.

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Ian Chappell, the great Australian cricket captain, said that after giving cricket to the world, the English did nothing to develop the game. It is a charge that might more usefully be applied to the winter sport. The English codified the laws of football but the national team has little to show for a century of huffing and puffing, other than one success in the high summer of Swinging London.

At the heart of England’s failure lies a suspicion of unusual talent. Peter Osgood, a centre-forward of rare gifts, was awarded four caps. Alan Hudson, a beautiful passer of the ball, won two, which was one more than Charlie George. Those were the dark days of the Seventies, when England failed to qualify for two World Cups, and wondered why. The English, said Miljan Miljanić, the widely travelled Serbian coach, made the “best average footballers” in the world, admired for their spirit. England has never produced a Pelé, a Di Stéfano, a Cruyff or a Zidane.

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“Glenn [Hoddle] must learn that disappointment is part of football,” said Ron Greenwood, a particularly weak England manager, when he dropped the Tottenham midfielder after a superb debut in 1979. Ah, wrote Brian Glanville, the king of football writers, but whose disappointment? That question goes to the crux of the matter, for the answer is plain: England’s, every time.

“We are absolutely out of date as regards our training ideas,” wrote the coach Jimmy Hogan in 1931, “and the sooner we realise it the better.” Three decades later, in The Football Man, Arthur Hopcraft lambasted a British arrogance “reflected vividly, and calamitously, in football”. There is no shortage of witnesses for Paul Hayward to call upon for his history of the national team.

Happily, there are other tales, which the author unfolds with clarity and even-handedness. Hayward, no parochial tub-thumper, finds much to admire in the best players, from Nat Lofthouse to Harry Kane, while keeping an eye on the evidence of history. He knows we love football in this country, in an increasingly shallow and tribal way. He also knows we have never been as good as we imagine.

Apart from Wembley in 1966, was there ever a golden day? There was. On 7 June 1970 England lost by a goal to Brazil. Two weeks later Brazil were crowned world champions, a team without parallel, yet that day in Leon England were their equals. That was a manly side – perhaps the finest XI England ever put on to the field.

Another World Cup is upon us, and the cheerleaders in the television studios (“We’ll batter ’em!”) have begun rehearsing their platitudes in fractured English. Feathers in our brains, lead in our boots, and millionaires occupying every village in Cheshire. Will we never learn?

England Football: The Biography 1872-2022
By Paul Hayward
Simon & Schuster, 613pp, £25

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[See also: Does the FA Cup need saving?]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink