I wonder how we would view an England game if we didn’t know it was England playing. Would we enjoy the football more? Would we be less critical? Would we see the good in this team more clearly? I suspect we’d think we were not bad at all. I think we’d like us a whole lot more if we didn’t know we were England because we’re quite messed up about the national side.
Isn’t it odd? I think most of us are a bit weary of watching England games, especially at this time of year when it feels very much like the party has ended and all that remains are fag burns on the carpet and stained underwear in one of the bedrooms. The qualifying process for each tournament in the last dozen or so years is usually conducted in a strange atmosphere where England win almost every game but leave behind a feeling that they’re not very good.
We almost never lose any games at this stage – Steve McClaren’s inglorious reign aside – and we often win quite well. But even today, with six wins out of six under our belt, do we feel good about England? No, we don’t. We feel a bit grumpy and sour and a lot of things annoy us. Most of the players seem a bit rubbish and we don’t have any great alternatives.
It must be hard for Roy Hodgson. What more do we want than a 100% win ratio? When you have such a successful campaign, he’s every right to think the fans will be behind the side, but we’re not really. Not whole-heartedly. He was charged with transforming an ageing side and he did that, only to see a youngish side given a kicking in the World Cup. He stayed on against many people’s wishes and has delivered a side that is a winning machine. He’s only lost five games in charge of England. But somehow we all know it’s papering over the cracks. Or that’s what it seems like. The endless failures, both in terms of performances and results in tournaments, has beaten any faith in England out of us, no matter how well they win in qualifying.
It’s a very odd situation to support a football team that almost always wins but in doing so just seems to reaffirm their mediocrity. Normally, winning six out six would be seen as a superb achievement, at any level, let alone internationally. It really is a great run and if you’re in a positive frame of mind, you can point to an excellent goalscoring record and a very good defensive record too. We have exciting younger players and a lot of the old failures have thankfully retired.
Yet we don’t feel positive, almost despite the facts. All too often the defenders look dodgy, the midfield stodgy and the main striker podgy.
At times during commentary, as usual, Wayne Rooney’s two glaring misses followed by being gifted a goal was, as it always is, portrayed as an illustration of how brilliant he is. As though missing open goals becomes a virtue when you score one in the end because “you can’t keep him down for long” and “eventually he will put one away”. The rest of us pine for a top-quality alternative, or just someone who can score an open goal, but there are none, so Wayne it is.
In fact, he seems to be a totem for modern England. By any stretch, he’s a very good footballer, but has been over-elevated to the level of genius and he obviously will never be that. So we feel let down by him when he’s turning in one of his regular ineffective games for England. Yet the stats ‘prove’ he’s great and we’re told this time and again. But we see what we see and we don’t see that much greatness. This is the England conundrum. This is our dilemma. It is as though we mistrust everything about the national side and simply don’t want to believe in it anymore. Is Rooney any good? I see the numbers and you can’t argue with those. But I see the games and he just seems unexceptional most of the time. Welcome to England’s contradictions.
Even when a player like Jack Wilshere plays a really good game, it stands out precisely because it almost never happens. It shouldn’t stand out that much, it should be more typical. And in that way we turn a positive into a negative. That’s such an England thing to do.
Perhaps media sychophancy, as all-too-often best illustrated by ITV’s commentary, is another reason why we flinch at belief in our national side. We’ve heard poor performances dressed up as displays of awesome talent all too often.
Yet, perversely, despite the fact that our collective belief in our national side is probably at an all-time low, we still turn up in huge numbers on TV or at games. We’re still addicted to England and when that second Wilshere goal went in, I bet most of us had our hands in the air in celebration. Because we do still care. Sometimes we don’t want to, but we just can’t help it. We want England to be good – and looking at the stats suggests we are pretty good – but we just don’t believe it. Are we right not to believe it? Or have we got locked into a negative mindset that only winning a competition will break?
If we’d watched England win 3-2 yesterday but didn’t know it was England, we’d have enjoyed a good, attacking game and we would have been much less critical of all concerned. We’d have praised their ability to come from behind to lead and then to win in the final minutes. We would have enjoyed it. But we knew it was England so we couldn’t quite do that. To us it looked like a dodgy win gifted to us by a defensive howler scored by an over-rated, misfiring striker. Which is the truth? I just don’t know anymore.