England should learn to love the long ball…

Date published: Monday 23rd May 2016 9:33

Jamie Vardy Turkey

My latest novel, Sugar Mama, was published last week. The second in a series of thrillers set in California, it’s the 12th novel and 14th book I’ve written. I’m lucky enough to have had them all really well received. People seem to like reading them and I love writing them. That’s as good as it’s going to get, I reckon. But this didn’t happen by accident; I made a deliberate decision to play to my strengths and minimise my weaknesses.

These days I often get asked how I go about writing novels (I just make stuff up, that’s it), and while there are techniques you can deploy, I reckon the most important thing is to play to your strengths, don’t write about stuff you don’t have a passion for, and don’t try to be the writer that you aren’t. Do what you do best, not what you wish you did best.

You might want to be Irvine Welsh or Jack Kerouac, but you’re not. You’re you. And you can only be you, and the sooner you mainline your writing to your soul, whether you like what’s in there or not, the quicker your writing can become more interesting. Anyway, that’s basically what I call playing to your strengths.

And that which is true in one area of life, is so often true in another. England’s football team also need to play to their strengths. And no, I don’t mean getting tattoos and buying cars.

For years, watching England try to play ‘good’ football has mostly been several shades of excruciating as we remorsely try to copy the latest successful model, often about two years too late, forever trying to be fashionable, but never quite managing it. Basically, like someone still wearing Ugg Boots.

For years I wanted to be a writer that I just wasn’t, be it Tom Wolfe, Sara Paretsky or Jackie Collins. But I was stuck with being me, in the same way England are stuck with being England.

But what does this mean?

I’m not sure anyone knows anymore. We’ve tried so hard to be someone else for so long that we no longer really have a clear identity. We don’t have a way we play. We just, well, we get by and do okay most of the time, with the limited pool of players who can stay fit for more than a game or three, before being out for five months with a broken watch, or whatever.

England badly need to find its voice and to stop trying to be someone we’re not. In my lifetime, I’m sure we’ve had a go at being West Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain and Germany to largely mixed results.

This season, Leicester City proved that so-called old-fashioned English long ball football, played really well, can conquer all. A good 4-4-2 can win you anything. It always could. It still does. But for years it was outlawed as dumb football.

In 2016, wouldn’t it be possible for England to play like Leicester?

Surely it would.  We’ve probably got the players to do it, not least because some of them actually play for Leicester. Would it be any less successful than doing whatever the hell it is we do now? Probably not, but only if we played it well.

The Foxes proved that so many sides were inexperienced at defending against a side which breaks at speed, but lets you have the ball most of the time. Why should international football be any different? International football isn’t a higher skill level from the Premier League.

Of course, the one reason it currently might not work is that we don’t have two central defenders made out of muscle and pig iron. Chris Smalling is one of those depressingly lithe, athletic defenders that became fashionable a few years ago. Great if you think defending is as much about dancing as it is kicking the ball a long way, rubbish if you want someone who will never be bullied by a striker, while Gary Cahill is made out of tea bags and polystyrene and can’t seem to work out what he’s good at and stick to doing that. Neither of them would survive a small tactical nuclear explosion and I think we all know Robert Huth and Wes Morgan would. We’ve no-one like Huth and Morgan in the squad largely because having centre-halves formed in a blast furnace out of old tanks and lump hammers are now considered not just old-fashioned but actually stupid, in the same way that bypassing the midfield in favour of a searingly accurate long ball to a striker faster than a mouse with cheese became sneered at. Well tell that to Leicester City. Well done football fashionistas, well done hipsters, somehow you managed to emasculate beards, but yes, your revisionism won. And in your winning, we all lost.

England’s strengths have never been and still are not, retaining possession. We’re too unskillful and too psychologically ruined for that, but we can produce people who can run fast, who are quite gnarly, who live off crisps and lager, who don’t mind putting their foot in, quite like kicking a foreigner and getting a sweat on. This is something we should embrace, not reject.

Who knows, maybe the terrible truth is that when Roy goes, the ideal England manager really is Sam Allardyce. He can bring his Filofax, his Atari 1040 loaded with Sensible Soccer, his Brut33 and start deploying very hard buttocks as an actual tactic, because I’m quite tired of England trying to be a sophisticated football nation and I know I’m not alone.

The only thing we haven’t tried in decades is playing long ball 4-4-2 but you and I both know if I’d said that a year ago, I’d have been sternly lectured about the error of my ways.

But I’d love us to have a go instead of trying to pretend we’re any good at the passy-passy, even if it was only for short spells. We briefly saw how it could work against Turkey when a long ball to Jamie Vardy set him through to win a penalty. That was easily the most exciting moment in the game. Is it so wrong to want more of that thrilling dynamism and less sideways passing followed by falling over and twisting an ankle?

We’ve tried being someone else for too long, how about we try being who we are? Because, ultimately, it’s dumb not to be smart about yourself.

John Nicholson

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