The English malaise

John Barnes, has come out in defence of beleaguered England coach Steve McClaren, declaring that a revolution is required in the development of young English footballers.

John Barnes, one time England hero and one of the most gifted players that country has paraded, has come out in defence of his beleaguered national coach, Steve McClaren, following England's drab performances against Israel and Andorra.

A revolution is required in the development of young English footballers, Barnes argued, not the persecution of a manager forced to work with players unsuitable for international football.

He argued, incidentally, not me. I make this point in order to head off at the pass the galloping cavalry of abuse I am bound to get for again being anti-English, a Pom-basher and a racist rodent.

But then it has always been that way. It’s fine for Barnes and an army of respected English columnists and commentators to slag off at the way England plays and at the technical limitations of its players, but if I do it I am a bigot. Oh well, I guess they’ll get over it.

But back to John Barnes, who went on: "England players are not accustomed to being in tight areas, playing one-twos to get through teams with ten men behind the ball. England don’t have the technical ability."

And this: "We have to go back to schoolboy football, and develop players who can play in tight areas – not big areas for athletes."

Barnes, of course, is bang on the money and he should know. He was one who did know how to play in tight areas, how to squeeze a neat pass through the eye of a needle and how to take fullbacks on and beat them. People today rave about Thierry Henry for this stuff, but on his day Barnes was every bit as good as the Frenchman.

But Barnes is wrong on exonerating McClaren, or at least the people who appointed him. Poor Steve, who, in the words of one English columnist came into the job through being Sven’s bib and cone man, was and remains a bumbling infant in an international coaching world marshalled by men.

Guus Hiddink and Luiz Felipe Scolari were being eyed by the English FA to take over from Sven Goran Eriksson. After both told the FA to go fly a kite they opted for McClaren.

One wonders why. One look at how McClaren’s Middlesbrough were outplayed and outsmarted by Sevilla in the UEFA Cup final would have put McClaren down to option Z. But I guess the DVD player in Soho Square, if they have one, was faulty that day.

So in came smiling Steve, his appointment fuelled by a gathering media mood of silly xenophobia: Sven the Swede flopped in two World Cups so the solution is obvious, no more foreigners, we have to have an Englishman.

The problem with such a notion is that Englishmen tend not to spot inherently English problems (unless they are Englishmen with rich experience abroad). They are simply too close to it.

Both Hiddink and Scolari would have been splendid choices given their track record in transcending football cultures. Hiddink in particular is a master at this stuff, gauged by how he read and overcame what was to him an exotic cultural hurdle in Korea and then went on turn Australian players, splendid triers till that time, into a tactically sophisticated collective.

He could maybe have done similar things for England, given the chance. But the FA blew it.

Had he got the job, Hiddink’s greatest service to English football would have been not just to make the team perform better, but to show up the deep-rooted malaise from which that country suffers, and which, if left uncorrected, will ensure that England will never ever win a sausage in international football.

It’s the culture, stupid, not McClaren, and certainly not the players.

What Hiddink showed us in his brief flirtation with Australia was that Australia’s cultural bent for perspiration and willingly dying for a win needs to be coupled with some tactical sophistication, collective smartness and cunning before there can be survival in the international world.

England plods, as we used to plod, because its best players – and most of them are actually very good – are not conditioned and have not been brought up to solve problems once they face a resolute and organised defence, which is what they always face given their overblown reputation as princes of the financially bloated Premier League.

Israel could and should have beaten England. What saved England was only Israel’s insipid readiness to stay on the back foot, suffering from stage fright and being in awe of its so-called big name opposition.

England is not a big name, simply because its players, once taken out of the comfort zone provided by the tutelage of Ferguson, Mourinho, Wenger and Benitez, go walkabout.

Creatively they just don’t know what to do. The back four and the midfield, against an Israel which manned its back third, knocked the ball around with sweetly caressing passes as they explored the empty spaces. But once they hit the wall, all that came to mind was to lump it over the top.

There was, in John Barnes’ words, no capacity for 'playing one-twos to get through [a defence] with ten men behind the ball’.

The root of this malady is in the culture, the way English kids are brought up, the way they are selected on size, strength and speed rather than technical ability and game-brain, and the way they are asked to pray at the shrines of commitment, passion and getting stuck in.

English kids – and I know this for I have lived in that country – don’t need to be told about commitment, passion and getting stuck in. They are born with it, it’s in the culture, it’s in their blood.

What they need is to be educated and told, at a young age, that the winning formula also requires the sense to create, to express, to think, to hammer out Mozart on the keys better than the next prodigy, not just sit there and read the charts like some robot.

Even here in little Australia there is an inquiry underway into what has stuffed up junior development, and the findings will show that the need for an emphasis on individual skill and expression has been badly neglected over decades.

Is there such an inquiry in England? No. Should there be one? Just ask Trevor Brooking, the FA’s frustrated and angry chief of technical development. The English, lost and doped in the belief that as the parents of football they know best, carry on heading for the cul-de-sac.

In the meantime the FA, and to some extent the public, driven by the mindless tabloids, hang the national coach every time England plays less effectively than Brazil, Italy or Argentina, while their nine-year-olds play on full sized pitches, each kid getting a touch of the ball about once every half hour, and are being taught lots of stuff about aggression and the like.

Jack Charlton famously said after the 1970 World Cup: "We have nothing to learn from Brazil." Nothing much in England has changed since.

As a footnote, you might be asking why is this columnist giving so much space to the football ills of England. This is Australia. Why isn’t he lamenting the football problems of Denmark, Poland or Chile? Why should we care about England?

Well it seems that we do, as a lot of the world does. Not so much because England was once our colonial master, but because it is the motherland of organised football and, as such, there is a global instinct to look up to it and treat it with respect.

So it does matter how England plays, or how the English play, given their capacity to act as role models for other lands, including Australia.

That is why so many non-English care about England and want it to change, want it to improve and be, for once, a deserved source of inspiration.

Including me.