The day after the Brexit referendum, the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer John Crace wrote his reaction piece. ‘Referendum day: rain, floods,’ it began. ‘But at least the shouting was over.’ You have to hope that Crace has had his head buried 50 feet into a silo of sand since penning that piece. The notion that the shouting would end with the Brexit vote was as ludicrous as the idea of the NHS being given a cool £350m a week to spend as they pleased.
That’s how England qualifying for the World Cup in Russia feels. ‘Qualification day: tedium, unrest but at least the shouting is over.’ Good luck with that. The questions over England’s players, manager, coaching and entire ethos don’t now go away, they just get asked at increasingly louder volume without any competitive international football to get in their way.
What do you mean you aren’t in the mood to adorn your face in paint, reacquaint yourself with Fat Les and dance in the nearest fountain? England have won their group. We are only the third European team to qualify for the World Cup, not including our hosts. No team in qualifying has conceded fewer goals.
England have also extended their unbeaten record in qualifying to 38 matches, a run stretching back to a dead rubber in Ukraine in 2009. To put into context how long ago that was, Carlton Cole played.
That run is not only outstanding but by some distance the best in the world. Germany? Lost to Ireland in 2015. Spain? Lost to Slovakia in 2014 (yes, the same team England have beaten home and away in this group). Italy? Got humped by Spain last month. France? Lost to Sweden in June. Want to see real crisis? See how Argentina’s World Cup qualifying is coming along.
Yet watching England in qualifying remains a thoroughly demoralising business, epitomised by last night’s fare. The players seemed to be taking part in two simultaneous competitions: The first to see how little attacking impetus a team could offer while still winning a match, and the second to see how little credit could be gained from victory. Before Harry Kane’s late, late winner, the two biggest cheers of the night were for a paper aeroplane hitting Joe Hart’s net from the stands and a pitch invader evading two puffing stewards. Reports of Liverpool signing our unwelcome guest for £40m are as yet unfounded, but he certainly made a greater impression than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
When England are in this semi-comatose state, beset by a lethargy that makes unpicking a deep defence look like a Sisyphean task, it is impossible not to look to their manager and shake your head. Gareth Southgate has all the intimidation and inspiration of a substitute geography teacher insisting that he will go and get the headmaster if you don’t put down that bloody globe, but without the spine to discipline the under-performing children himself.
Southgate admitted before the Slovenia game that “one or two” of his players did not deserve their place in the squad. By 9.30pm on Tuesday, I had a list of 12. The lingering suspicion is that Southgate was the man in the job rather than the best man for it.
Yet there is a degree of retroamnesia to all this mid and post-qualifying negativity. England failed to qualify for three successive major tournaments between 1972 and 1980. Even in 1986 and 1990, two of England’s better tournament years, getting there was hardly a hoot. In World Cup ‘86 qualifying, England scored two goals in four matches in games against Romania and Northern Ireland, the teams who finished second and third in their group. In World Cup ‘90 qualifying, half of England’s games ended 0-0.
If the anger is not at qualifying but England’s woeful recent (and we’re stretching the definition of ‘recent’, here) record in major tournaments, surely this is the wrong time to express that anger? At least wait until we’ve finished third in a group behind Iran and Nigeria before declaring that you’re never watching this mob again.
As for the notion that England supporters are suddenly out of love with this team, that also offers a rose-tinted view of the past. England have had home attendances higher than 70,000 more times in this qualifying campaign than they did in all qualifiers played between February 1980 and October 1990.
Of course empty seats at Wembley are never a good look, and it would be wonderful if every school in the borough had been given a row of tickets to hand out to children. But this is the Football Association, remember. You can’t trust them to read a damning document on the manager of their women’s team for four whole years, so expecting them to sort out a ticket initiative in the space of three days is a little optimistic.
The reality is that there is an expectation gap between England and their public. International breaks cause a pause in the Premier League, the all-consuming product that absorbs all of our attention. We are cynical of the Premier League’s financial might and avarice, but our collective Stockholm syndrome rears its head every time it breaks for our national team to play. “I haven’t even got my fantasy team to sort out,” is repeated to a soundtrack of sobs.
In its absence, we need one or two England games to provide as much intrigue and interest as five televised Premier League games might. The England team see qualifying as a hurdle to be overcome with the minimum of fuss, like a Premier League team in the early rounds of the FA Cup. They want qualification with the minimum of fuss; we want entertainment.
There is nothing quite as dull as uneventful achievement. Mighty Ducks would not have been the same film had they won every game without conceding.
England’s problem is that only through entertainment can they generate positivity. Once bitten, twice shy; bitten in every major tournament since 1996, shy forever. The England team are locked in a cycle of uneventful qualifying campaigns and limp tournament failure, and it is difficult to see either changing soon.
Still, at least the shouting is over. Until it begins again tomorrow…