Before I start, I have to say something. Never having met a top-flight English footballer since running into Middlesbrough defender John Craggs in my local chippy in 1974, I have no idea if any of what you’re about to read is true or accurate. It’s one man’s view. He may be totally wrong or deluded. To me, it rings true, but then it might just be confirming my existing prejudices. But I do think it’s very interesting, and it does make some sense. So with that caveat in mind, I shall begin.
Recently I met a man that I know – in the course of his profession for the last 15 years – comes into regular contact with Premier League players most days of each week. Over a few drinks, he told me that in his view, English-born footballers were “almost always the most stupid” of any he met.
When I asked him what he actually meant by stupid, he said: “Let’s just say they’re very educationally undernourished. I wouldn’t be surprised if their average reading age was about 10 or 11. Some read with their finger on the page, like a kid. Most of them are likeable and are nice lads, but you wouldn’t want most of them on your pub quiz team. It’s hard to talk to them about anything other than football, because they rarely know much about anything else and it always amazes me how intellectually incurious some are. They have no idea about current affairs at all. Some wouldn’t know who the leader of the opposition was, in fact they wouldn’t know what that term ‘leader of the opposition’ even referred to.
“I know someone who worked at a top-flight club, he’d been to a Monet exhibition and mentioned this in passing one day, and one English player thought he meant it was an exhibition of money! He’d never heard of the painter. Apparently, a couple of his European teammates were astonished at this, took the mick, which made the English lad really defensive and it opened up a bit of a rift from then on. That’s probably an extreme situation but it is indicative of a big strand of English football culture.”
He went on to say how the internal culture of English football sometimes seems to celebrate stupidity. “It’s like being stupid is cool, reading books and improving yourself intellectually is sneered at from an early age. They’d pay lip service to education in public, but that’s all it is. There is a pervasive culture of anti-intellectualism amongst English players that there isn’t amongst European players – or not the ones that come here, anyway.”
He pointed out that this was a self-perpetuating condition because anyone with any intellect or sensitivity would likely have drifted out of the game quite early, feeling like it was “a culturally hostile place and they don’t want to put up with bullies and idiots who think humiliating practical jokes are funny; that sort of thing. We seem to specialise in producing grown men who often behave like silly boys well into their late 20s. When you come into it from the ‘real’ world, it still feels quite like school, with a player hiding another’s shoes, or putting dog muck in his sock; that sort of thing.”
He said there were a few genuinely smart English players, and named a couple he’d met or known, but said they had consciously suppressed their intelligence and “pretended to be as thick as the rest of them” in order to get on, saying that “some British managers don’t even like intelligent players because they’re more likely to question their authority”.
“When they’ve retired, they tend to be the ones that make good pundits, because they don’t have to pretend they’re stupid anymore. But for years they’d had to keep their head down and play dumb. A player once told me that he lied about what he’d been doing on a day off, saying he’d watched a trashy movie or something, when really he’d been reading the Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, which is just a mainstream novel, it’s not exactly Will Self. But that was too ‘posh’ for ‘the lads’. Can you imagine being in a workplace where you have to be dishonest, for fear of being thought clever and then ridiculed for it? And by clever, I don’t mean really brainy, all I mean is just mainstream intelligent. Honestly, if you were reading the Telegraph, a significant amount of them would think you were like a university professor.”
He went on to contrast this to the European players he came into contact with. “To a much greater extent, they just do stuff like regular people. Reading books, cooking, going for walks in the country, go to a gallery or museum, some will even go to the theatre. Not high-brow stuff, but they are just much more well-rounded, culturally. Not all of them, obviously, there are some knuckleheads, but far fewer as a percentage. Maybe the really thick ones stay at home.
“I’m not being snobbish about these lads. I like them. They’re often fun to be around and tend to be very generous with their time and money. They earn a lot and can live like they want to live. Fair enough. And they are really talented. There’s no doubt about that. But if you’re looking for reasons why England fail at tournaments, you need to look at this problem first. A lot of them don’t have the intellect to understand in-game tactics. They tend to like just having one thing to do. They’re good at doing what they’re told. Good at not thinking, in effect. That’s an asset to a club manager who has the overseas lads to be creative and do the brainy stuff. Club managers love a few who will run through a brick wall, rather than spot that you can just go around it, and the English lads are often great at that.
“But as we saw again this summer, their in-game management talent seems almost non-existent. That’s where being intelligent matters. They do realise when it’s all going wrong, it’s just that they don’t know what to do about it. Then they panic, know they’re making a fool of themselves on a big stage, totally bottle it and as a result, lose the ability to even do the basics well.”
He mentioned several England players in the Iceland game as classic examples of this. “The irony is, they are really good footballers, obviously they are. The problem isn’t with their football talent, it’s with their minds. They just have this gaping void where their brains should be and that means they can’t work out anything, when things go wrong. They’ve been brought up to believe bravado beats brains from an early age, and sometimes that is a good asset in a player. But not when you have 23 of them all together at a tournament; it’s a recipe for disaster. We’re not mentally fragile, we’re just easily confused when under pressure and can’t work stuff out. I know that sounds harsh, and I’m not saying it makes them bad people, because it clearly doesn’t. But it’s still true and it does affect the team’s performance.”
He quoted what Jens Lehmann had said a couple of weeks ago. “He said something which the Germans take for granted, ‘even on the pitch you must always be thinking’. Our lads don’t do that. In fact, I’d go as far as to say many can’t do that. That’s not something a manager can fix because not thinking much is 100% of who and what they are. It’s what made them successful to this point.
“Sports psychologists should be able to help, but for some reason, they just bounce off most of the English lads. Maybe they don’t take it seriously. It seems to goes in one ear and out the other. Some of them have learned to say the right things, to make it appear that they’re on board with it, but it’s usually all a front. Mostly, they’re default is fundamentally anti-intellectual and they sometimes mistrust anyone with learning, because those people always had the whip hand over them from an early age, so it’s a defensive ‘they’re not one of us’ mentality they have towards clever people. They probably don’t even realise this themselves, but it’s very commonplace. Yet if anyone was to suggest this to them, all they’d do is point to their money as justification for how they are. And, I suppose, they’re right. Losing at tournaments doesn’t seem to affect their earning powers and the way they are has made them very rich, so why would you even try to change?”
I asked him for a snappy quote for a headline to sum this all up.
“England: too thick to win.”
So there you have it. Is there anything in what he says? Is he right? Are we too thick to win? Is lack of basic intellect a hindrance for the national side, when push comes to shove? Do we rate bravado over brains in this country? Does big money make learning irrelevant? “The best skill you can have is your brain,” said Thierry Henry about Didier Deschamps this weekend.
It might be an unfair comparison but if you read Harry Kane’s words on Brexit against Giorgio Chiellini’s as reported here, it’s not hard to feel there must be something in it.
I think these are questions worth asking. And if it is in any measure true, perhaps the way ahead is to have a manager who can only play one way and who knows he has to keep it simple, stupid. We’ve tried cultured managers from Bobby Robson to Fabio Capello to Roy Hodgson. Clever sophisticates, all.
In so many areas of society right now, idiocy is the most valued currency. Idiocy is winning. Even intelligent people are dressing up as stupid and pretending learning is to be mistrusted. So maybe the FA should follow suit and just put a big stupid in charge.