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29 June 2016

The England football team needs a reality check, not a new manager

Thirty years of hurt might never stop you dreaming – but fifty should.

By James Chater

England are out of the Euros. Again. Our conquerors? Iceland. A country whose population roughly matches that of Reading,  that has no professional domestic teams, and whose goalkeeper – in his spare time – directed the music video for his country’s 2012 Eurovision entry.

And yet, I seem to be the only one unsurprised.

Our reputation hardly precedes us. England are currently ranked eleventh in the world, behind five other European nations. They have not won a knockout match at a major international tournament since 2006. And they have only ever won one international title; the now mythological 1966 World Cup. Football’s not coming home.

What leads us to have such bloated expectations for our national football team? Maybe it’s because football was “invented” here in our green and pleasant land? Or maybe it’s the global pre-eminence of the Premier League?

Both are fallacious. The Premier League is thoroughly international. Only around 30 per cent of players in the league could actually play for England. And on the notion of invention implying ability? For comparison, Englishmen invented the telephone and computer. Can you name an English brand of either?

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A more serious suggestion is the enormous amount of money that is part-and-parcel of English football. The value added to the UK economy by the Premier League in the 2014/15 season was £3.4bn. For reference, that equates to just under a third of Iceland’s GDP for the same year. According to financefootball.com, Roy Hodgson was the highest-paid manager at this summer’s tournament, with an annual salary of close to £3.9m. The manager of Iceland, Lars Lagerback, received around £350,000; or roughly the same as what Hodgson earned in a month. The average salary of a Premier League footballer, where most of the team play on a weekly basis, was £1.7m.

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Where there is money, there is both inflated risk and expectation. In fact, the reign of each England manager bears an uncanny resemblance to another financial phenomenon.

Boom and bust. It goes something like this. Battered and bruised from yet another early tournament exit, the newly appointed manager, promising “a fresh approach and better results”, slowly accrues the expectation of the nation’s fans. The anticipation reaches fever pitch in the months before international tournament and, despite losing a pre-tournament friendly to San Marino or another nation of that ilk (you were really expecting them to win?), a million fans’ hearts are broken when the foundations of sand topple beneath the team. The fans demand the scalp of the manager for his misgivings and the FA duly comply. Repeat ad infinitum.

After England’s loss to Iceland, all the headlines parroted those of our last premature exit. ‘Inquest begins’, reported The Telegraph. ‘Archaic, basic and ancient methods failed to inspire England’, claim The Daily Mail. ‘Where did it all go wrong for England?’, despair The Independent. I like watching football. I do. But I have never understood the incessant philosophizing that occurs on Sky Sports every Saturday between August and May. Hours upon hours of scrupulous analysis will bring you no closer to understanding why Joe Hart has butterfingers.

My contention is that, come every major tournament, the English team is just crippled by expectation. They simply crack under the weight of enormous media attention and the expectation their exorbitant pay packages inculcate.

All this heartache and hot air could easily be avoided by simply lowering our expectations. We haven’t won anything since 1966, and nothing even before that. Posterity will teach us that a footballing triumph in England is about as frequent as an appearance of Halley’s Comet. If you just forget about it for a while, its reappearance might come sooner than you think.

Far more frequent is the replacement of the England manager. Contenders for the role include Gary Neville, Brendan Rogers, and Alan Pardew. Speculate all you want, everyone knows in two or four years time the search will begin again.