When I was a small kid I thought cars had an on and off lever. The lever had to be set to ‘on’ for the car to work and any car that didn’t work had merely had its lever pulled onto ‘off’ by mistake. In fact, I thought this was the case with everything electrical or mechanical. In my simple little brain it made perfect sense. When our electric cooker stopped working, I crawled around the back to try and find the on/off lever. Even though my mother told me time and again there was no such thing, I couldn’t be persuaded. And the whole ‘levers’ thing has rather stuck with me as an idea, to the extent that even today, when I happen to sell a lot more books than usual, I’ll say ‘the orders lever has been pulled to on’. That’s how it feels.
It works for football too. When your side suddenly starts scoring a lot of goals – that’s because the goals lever has been pulled to ‘on’. Obviously, the lever doesn’t exist, but still we search for it, especially after England have been eliminated from a tournament and the manager has resigned.
By far the worst thing about England getting knocked out in ignominious fashion isn’t the actual football, it’s the endless post-mortem, hand-wringing and anger.
Time after time it’s the same word cloud. Leaders. Coaches. Fitness. Tiredness. Tactics. Mentality. FA. Strategy. Rooney. Passion. Money. On and on it goes as a million voices search in vain for a definitive answer to England’s problems, search for some truth or definition. Always looking for the lever marked currently set to ‘off’ to pull it to the ‘on’ position.
The trouble is, as you’ll already know if you’ve ever listened to the various debates, there is a riposte to every so-called truth about England’s failures. The garbage spouted this week about us lacking leaders is typical. It is blind to the fact that plenty of teams have leaders and lose. Italy just did. It’s blind to the fact that all the past leaders such as Butcher, Adams, Shearer or whomever you want to say, all played in poor, failing England sides. The evidence that a lack of leaders isn’t the problem is all around. But then, you can contradict any argument in football. There are always sides who have won against the odds, who didn’t have this or that advantage. There is no pattern to achieving success. No route to follow to make it happen. No logic, no planning, nothing.
The one explanation for England’s failure never, ever offered is this: there is no reason.
It just is what it is. Football is not just a game of fine margins, it is a game of complete chaos. That is, anything can happen at any time and it can change a win to a draw, a draw to a loss in a microsecond. One flick of a foot, one deflection, a split-second reaction, cocking your foot to 46 degrees rather than 51 can all make a profound difference. You can have a great manager and lose, you can have an average manager and win. A worse team of players can beat a better team of players in any 90-minute period. We see it again and again. That’s the nature of knock-out football. Iceland and Wales have just proved it, if it needed proving again. Portugal have got to a semi-final without even winning a game in 90 minutes and by not playing very well. What does that prove? Nothing, except that football really is chaos and those who seek to tame it with systems, routines and forward planning are going against the very nature of the sport.
Those who seek ‘answers’ and want a plan or a route which can be plotted to success will always be disappointed. There are no answers, only reasons why, after the fact. Hindsight analysis doesn’t help with predicting or planning the future when it comes to football. There are myriad variables and almost no certainties. But this frightens a lot of people. Maybe it even frightens the players. The very nature of the game means you can go from hero to zero, zero to hero in split seconds.
Football is not a computer game. It is not programmed. There isn’t any right thing to do, or wrong thing to do, outside of the basics. When ex-FA Chairman David Bernstein was interviewed this weekend, it was clear that he hadn’t a clue how to make England into winners and why should he? Anyone with an answer is always proven wrong in the fullness of time. Tournament football undermines everything and everyone. It isn’t a simple meritocracy where the best one wins. He listed all the usual things from the state of the FA to the grassroots and coaching. But how did any of that explain being beaten by a country with none of the advantages we have in England? It didn’t and it can’t. No-one can suggest a definitive solution because there are none. So we might as well stop worrying about it and start enjoying the random nature of the whole thing.
Sure, get more coaches, make things less competitive for children, stop buying newspapers that tell lies and promote negativity. Stop worshipping players. Stop hating players. But do all of these things because they’re worth doing, not because it will make England successful. Football will never surrender to this sort of scrutiny. It is always one deflection off a passing pigeon away from contradiction.
I know everyone always wants answers and, even more in the divided, fetid, febrile atmosphere that is currently the norm in England, wants someone to blame. It’s all a waste of time. It’s everyone’s fault, it’s no-one’s fault and that’s just the nature of the beast. All you can hope is someone accidentally kicks the lever set on ‘Lose’ to ‘Win’. Until then, embrace the chaos.