England’s toughest opponent: Self-doubt

Daniel Storey

“We can take a lot of positives from that. I thought we played well. We started the way we wanted to start. We knew they had players who wanted to get on the ball. They have some very good players but we started the game really brightly, did well and there wasn’t too much we did wrong. Sometimes it’s cruel” – Gary Cahill.

“I think after the game it firstly tough to take but then we saw the reaction from the public back home and it was positive. We tried to do the right things and on another day we would have liked to score a few more goals if we put the chances away. Going forward that is how we want to play and we feel if we carry on like that we have a chance” – Jack Wilshere.

Public displays of confidence – particularly after setback – are an interesting phenomenon. At their most transparent they become oxymoronic; the fact that you are telling everyone how confident you still are is a propaganda exercise rather than a representation of reality. It’s the equivalent of the ‘some of my best friends are black’ explanation, where the defence itself is warped into prosecution. Those who can, do.

Those quotes, from two of England’s players against Russia on Saturday, were not in fact taken from this week. Both players may have made almost identical statements in the build-up to the game against Wales, but these Cahill and Wilshere interviews were given in June 2014 after England had faced Italy in their opening group game of the last World Cup.

The similarities between the two matches are obvious: a young England team performed above expectation but failed to achieve the result their display merited. Throw in a similar scenario against USA in 2010 (although minus the ‘young’ element), and three of England’s last four tournaments have started in a homogeneous manner.

Unfortunately, while Cahill and Wilshere were quick to boast of belief in the camp and a desire to atone for such perceived injustice, England inaction has typically spoken far louder than their words. In 2010, England were pitiful against Algeria in their second group game, marginally better against Slovenia and desperate against Germany. In Brazil 2014, Uruguay knocked England out of the tournament before their third game had even been played; the 0-0 draw against Costa Rica might be the most forgettable England tournament game in history. In the battle between initial promise and eventual opening-game disappointment, the former has been lost on the wind while the latter suffocates the squad like a smog.

England’s inability to respond positively to setback, particularly one that is considered unjust, has hampered their progress numerous times over the last decade. Aside from those aforementioned tournament stumbles, a profligate 0-0 qualifying draw at home to Macedonia in 2007 was followed immediately by defeat in Croatia. Defeat in Russia later that year was followed four days later by the omnishambles against Croatia at Wembley. Three consecutive England managers (Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson) have all proved themselves incapable of effecting a swift recovery. It’s as commonplace as the serene qualification campaigns of recent years.

Coincidentally, it was Wilshere and Cahill who were both pictured in the seconds after agonising heartbreak on Saturday. Wilshere looked stunned as he traipsed from the pitch, while Cahill sat on the turf with his head in hands. Such was the blow of Russia’s equaliser, the reaction was one of exit, not setback.

That mood was matched back home, in living rooms and pubs across England. ‘Well what do expect, it’s typical England,’ read the first comment on BBC Sport’s website after that 0-0 with Macedonia in 2007, repeated again on Saturday night. It’s a phrase that gets a deserved airing more often than we would like. Lie back and try not to think of England.

The entire football-supporting population has now bought into the cliche that England’s football team will find a way to let themselves, and us, down. The worry is that is has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy, one imperfect first result a harbinger of doom that subconsciously seeps into the minds of the players and staff for the next week at least.

Now comes the true test of England’s credentials and mental fortitude. Wilshere has again been bullish in front of the camera – “We all know what it means, and we will be ready when Thursday comes” – but that would again be rendered futile if England are hampered by their own self-doubt. Players and managers have repeated the mantra of “taking the positives” so often that you feel they’re trying to persuade themselves. Talking the talk is meaningless if you can’t walk the walk without falling over your own feet.

England’s result against Russia was far from catastrophic, but it renders the Wales fixture must-win if we are to top the group and secure easier passage to the latter rounds. For Hodgson, it’s time to prove himself adept in one of the key characteristics of successful tournament management: strength through adversity.


Daniel Storey