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England in need of Historic Performance?

June 21st, 2010 by · 2 Comments · Features, Football

The Anatomy of England

Be careful what you wish for. Oh, the familiar summer sound of English footballing anguish. The only shocking thing is that the tabs, pundits and the public are reacting with surprise. This is England, business as usual. The phone-ins are alive with calls for this England team to ‘get stuck in’, ‘work harder’ have a ‘fire in their bellys’ and have ‘pride in the shirt’.

Let’s all calm down and have a little history lesson while we prepare for the storm to come.

Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid, has produced a book that puts all the gobshites to shame. The Anatomy of England, A History in Ten Matches, should be compulsory reading for all pundits, from the professional hack to the bar-room manager. By using a key England game as a basis for each chapter The Anatomy of England shines a light on the habitual failings of the English game.

Each chapter adds wonderful context and detail to the times and the expectations of the country. The book moves from the defeat to Spain in Madrid in 1929, that was explained in familiar tones – ‘I didn’t expect them to be that good’ and ‘the heat’, to the 2007 defeat to Croatia under Steve McLaren.

Two of the interesting aspects of that last chapter, the 2-3 defeat that meant failure to qualify for Euro 2008, are the parallels to this week. The first is that, three years on, the team was pretty much the same as the current one. The second is that the draw for qualification, like this World Cup group, was greeted with relief. Croatia, Russia, Israel, Estonia, Macedonia and Andorra were seen as weak hurdles to be overcome on the way to inevitable qualification.

The golden age of English football, when ‘we’ were the best team in the world, is often dug up in these times of crisis. So when was that exactly? Wilson says that although some hark back to the dimming vision of 1966, correctly, and 1970, wrongly, the only sustained ‘era’ of dominance was 1886 to 1900.

The book is full of wonderful quotes from figures in the English game that could have been made yesterday. ‘They coach, we don’t, and until we coach we shall not control the ball and play high-class football’ – That was the 1930′s. And here’s the Aston Villa chairman in 1936: ‘I’ve no time for these theories about football. Just get the ball in the bloody net.’ Yesterday we had Lineker and Graham Taylor calling for more ‘passion’.

Although Wilson spurns the temptation to declare any universal truths the book does establish a clear pattern. Suspicion of ‘tactics’ and an over-reliance on pace and power. He does make one damning, and accurate, assessment of the failures of English teams. Against Croatia, and at many times since, the players lacked ‘moral courage’, displaying a fear of taking the ball, a fear of failure and playing it long under pressure. He even goes so far as to suggest it may be part of the national character.

The pundits are calling for an historic performance against Slovenia on Wednesday. I fear they may get just that.

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