In the first part of our 18 articles looking back at football in 2018, GARY THACKER examines the rekindled love affair between England fans and the national team sparked by its run to the World Cup semi-finals under the fresh managerial approach of Gareth Southgate.
On 30 July 1966, England beat West Germany to win the Jules Rimet Trophy and were crowned Champions of the World. Alf Ramsey had delivered on the pledge he made when appointed to the position of manager of the national team three years before that tumultuous day. The names of the red-shirted heroes who graced the Wembley turf on that day are etched into the memories of all England football fans. All are lauded. All are loved and, as the intervening years and an increasing number of them succumbed to the inevitable battle against mortality, so many have been mourned. In 1966, fans of the game across the country were in love with the team that represented them and bestowed such joy upon their followers. It was a deep love, and such things last for ever. Don’t they?
Well, perhaps not. The following year, it was reasonable to expect that the honeymoon period still carried that warm glow of affection, but already warning signs, harbingers of doom if they had only been recognised as such, began to manifest themselves. Another hero of the day, Pickles the lovable little mutt who became an overnight canine celebrity after he reportedly found the World Cup hidden in a bush, wrapped up in newspaper after some ne’er-do-well had ‘had it away on his toes’ was found dead. He was hanged by his own collar when it snagged on a tree as he chased a cat. The same year, Scotland travelled down to Wembley and joyously inflicted defeat on Ramsey’s men. All was not so rosy after all and the reality that the England team still had the dubious capacity to disappoint was brought into sharp focus.
From then, with a few honourable exceptions along the way, the next 50 years or so have seen a steady erosion of the doomed love affair between England teams and the fans who follow the national side. Like star-crossed lovers, affection has oft-turned to mutual contempt and even loathing on the way to almost a divorce wherein neither partners would speak to, or of, the other.
Then, like some relationship councillor, a new fresh-faced England manager arrived on the scene. Unabashed, unassuming and armed with a new broom, he may have swept away a trough of ill feelings, and perhaps, just perhaps, have rekindled a love that may not have died, but merely lay dormant under a deluge of disappointment, disillusionment and dismay. Donned not in a cape, but a waistcoat, Gareth Southgate may have performed the oracle beyond the powers of many a superhero. He may just have made England fans like their team again. Not perhaps love yet, but it may well grow into that. The very enormity of his task can only be judged when one considers the downward spiral that began after 1966.
So, what are the factors that lead to a relationship breakdown. Certainly, for England, results are a big factor, especially when they lead to consistently disappointing tournament outcomes. There are other issues to consider. Staleness can be the bane of any love affair, and if it’s a case of same old, same old, with regard to players and approaches, the slippery slope gets greased a little more. Beyond that, the continual hyping up and then slagging off in the press only adds to the depressing reality of failures and the FA’s stewardship of all England fans’ hopes and dreams hardly inspires confidence especially with the appointing and dismissing of managers. Finally, there’s the geographic element to consider.
It’s often said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. For so many fans located any distance away from the south east, the opposite is surely true. Keep people apart geographically, and inevitably they grow apart emotionally. So, let’s look at how all things ‘England’ and their fans have grown apart over the fifty years or so since 1966 and then consider how this potentially new look England and their bright young thing of a manager may be closing that eternal, infernal and much less than fraternal gap.
International teams will always primarily be judged by their success or otherwise in international tournaments and, in the eyes of their fans at least, England are no different. With regard to this particular criterion, things began to slip away pretty quickly after 1966, with an equivalent erosion of faith in the team by the fans.
European Championships have never been the happiest of hunting grounds for the England team. Dismal displays have brought some embarrassing setbacks. Losing every game in a group and finishing bottom of the pack is something that the team has presented to the fans for their consideration, but perhaps the greatest disaster came in the latest episode of the tournament, scraping through the group was almost par for the course, but then to lose to Iceland after going a goal up was an embarrassing elimination and as the team returned home with its tails between its legs, another national manager left the role shaking his head and not seeming to know what went wrong.
Strange to say though, but the World Cup, logically a more difficult competition to prosper in, has offered an occasional glimmer of hope, but so many were quickly snuffed out. Going to Mexico as champions and losing to West Germany in the quarter-finals as the South American sun drained players of energy, was no disgrace and we looked forward to 1974 back in Europe being a time to reclaim the throne. It was a cold bucket of water over the head though when a ridiculously underestimated Polish team and a cruelly and inappropriately lambasted goalkeeper saw us fail to qualify for the first time since England returned to the fold after the Second World War.
An aberration that would surely be just that four years later? Not really. Don Revie’s desertion to the desert and another missed qualification rammed home the point and England fans had their noses pressed against the window as the world played its favourite game in Argentina without us. Back for 1982 and a bright opening against France actually wasn’t the scene setting. It was the height of the squad’s achievements as each succeeding game dipped lower and lower into another disappointment. England fans were beginning to realise that the trumpet call of 1966 had been a forlorn solo effort, not the prelude to an entire orchestral ensemble.
In 1986, Bobby Robson flipped his squad around after Bryan Robson discovered that he couldn’t shoulder the burden of the team and landed on the duo of Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley. Goals flowed, and hopes arose only to be extinguished at the hand of a tainted genius. It had been an honourable exit though, albeit inflicted by unscrupulous means, but Robson had another swing at it in 1990 and took the team all the way to the semi-finals before being introduced to the recurring ghoulish apparition of the penalty shootout. To cap off the disappointment, Robson, who had taken England the nearest of any manager to reprising 1966, was eased out by the door by some foot in the mouth oratory by the FA’s head honcho displaying both the lack of decency and football knowledge that would be the organisation’s hallmark over the coming years. But more of the FA and their decisions later.
The new man was the eminently decent Graham Taylor, an exceptional manager at club football, but who would be shown to be a little short of the required level on the international stage. Another qualification missed, but by now, disappointment was becoming the England fans’ default emotion.
Glenn Hoddle, another in the very short line of English football management’s ‘bright young things’ came to the fore in ‘98. Hello Beckham. Goodnight Gazza, Personnel changed, results didn’t. Red card, heroic defending, penalties. Goodnight nurse. Hoddle was gone thanks to some more less than fully enlightened chat. Goodnight Glenn.
Let’s get all foreign said a new man at the FA. Crozier swept away some cobwebs and swept in Sven-Göran Eriksson after a tearful Kevin Keegan coughed up his inadequacies. Five goals in Munich and the sort of drubbing of a Germany team that simply doesn’t happen. A stumble against Greece but Beckham redeemed himself. Off we went to the Far East with flags fluttering. Hopes were raised by a rabid media to heights that merely heaped unreasonable pressure on the team and blew fan expectation through the roof before the whole edifice came crashing down and then the pundits and journos seemed to delight in swirling their fingers around in the bloody entrails of disillusion, such being all that remained of England supporters’ hopes. Again, more of the media later. Penalties. This was becoming habitual now. England fans expected to lose when it came to the twelve-yard lottery, and they did, almost without exception.
While the press was indulging in a little Swede-bashing, England players rallied around their manager and he was given another poke at the World Cup. Germany in 2006 saw England top their group, and then beat Ecuador in a knockout game. It was an achievement that would stand unparalleled for a dozen years. Then Portugal. Then penalties. England expected, England got precisely what they expected. Fans still followed the national team around the globe, but it now was more out of duty rather than joy. It was like visiting that old uncle who you didn’t really like but you knew that you should still go and visit. And England fans didn’t even get any of those Werthers Originals that the uncle used to at least give you as a reward for turning up.
Were we fed up with the Johnny Foreigner approach as Sven was accused of the sort of revelries that his nation was once famed for? Not a bit of it. Fabio Capello promised to deliver the outstanding success he had made his name with at club level. Qualifying was encouraging. Tournament was same old, same old. “Loyal fans!” mouthed one player into an inconveniently placed TV camera as England were booed from the field after an embarrassing performance against Algeria, by fans who had blown enormous amounts of their hard-earned to turn up and be disappointed again. The same comment without the sarcasm would have been far more appropriate.
Back to good old Blighty and the man who so few England fans wanted to get the job. Roy Hodgson, a thoroughly decent manager. Cavorted through qualifying espousing the value of youth. Arrived in Brazil and lost twice in the group ensuring elimination before offering almost everyone who hadn’t played a chance in the last game, a gut wrenchingly poor performance against a Costa Rica side who thrilled their fans while England only disappointed yet again. It was like an end of term Karaoke when everyone gets to sing their favourite song, no matter how out of tune they are, and there were some pretty rough ‘bum’ notes. Iceland froze out Hodgson and Sam Allardyce visited so briefly before pints of wine and yet more careless whispers saw him back out of the swivel doors at Soho Square.
Results are important of course, but it’s not only the disappointment of England not living up to hype and hubris. So many other countries, or indeed club teams, fall down in the results stakes without destroying fan affections, if not quite totally their allegiances. It’s not the defeats, it’s not even the disappointments. There’s that oft-quoted maxim about being a football fan that goes along the lines of, “You can stand the disappointment, it’s the hope that kills you.” There’s undoubtedly some merit in that, but for England fans, it goes much deeper. It’s like an illness that has become a cripplingly painful emotion. Not disappointment, it’s more of a dull sensation of near apathy engendered by a sad and all-pervading realisation that, whatever happens, however bad things get, nothing will change, and that leads us onto another reason for the disenchantment of England fans.
Even between 1966 and the tournament four years later in Mexico, the team had changed, if not perhaps the tactics. Comparing the eleven who played against West Germany in 1966 and those that lost out to the same team in Mexico is interesting. Of course, Gordon Banks was taken ill and would surely have played otherwise, but even if he had, it would only have brought the number retaining their spots to a round half-dozen. As time has gone on though, to many fans, it seems to have been the case that it’s was far easier to get into England squads than out of them. Of course, certain international managers have had favourite players, but when results went badly, again especially in tournaments, any temptation to bring in younger players, if there was any temptation in the first place, was apparently knocked back by a cautious approach of the managers afraid of gambling on youth, thinking along the lines of what would happen if the kids don’t work out. The problem with such a thought process is that the manager and a squad largely retained after failure becomes locked into the ethos of defeat and worn down by the cement waistcoat of pressure and knowing that the press will hardly be displaying much compassion come the day of reckoning.
So much has changed for the international footballer in the fifty years or so since 1966, and certainly the comparative wealth of players and fans is one of those. This will also have increased the feeling of discontent among fans. When England players collected the Jules Rimet Trophy, they also trousered the edifying sum of £100 in bonuses as well. Now, whilst that was still a decent amount given the ONS average figures of disposable income per head being £5,414.00 per annum at the time, equating to just a dab more than that bonus figure per week. Compare the same organisation’s Weekly Gross Income for 2016 (the latest data available) though and the amount of £539.00 is dwarfed by the money even an irregular England international could command as recompense for his labours.
Now, I’m not one to rail about how much players earn. The major clubs, from where most England internationals are drawn, pay what they pay, and still earn profits. And fair to say that such profits are largely achieved on the back of the players’ output, so more power to them. It does, however, create a massive disconnect between the lifestyles enjoyed by the multimillionaires in the England squad, and the fans forking out ever increasing proportions of their incomes to go and support the team. No-one, and certainly not I, surely harks back to the days when players caught buses, alongside fans, to go to the ground, but such disparity hardly inspires a sense of endearment.
None of this is helped by particular elements of the media, and it would certainly be helpful if there was a more modest approach taken with regards to England’s prospects when going into tournaments. Ahead of these things, and it happens with sad regularity for example, some bright spark in a news conference will chirp up with the question to the manager of “Do you think England can win the upcoming World Cup (or Euros, delete as applicable)?” It is one of those ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ questions. Answer in the negative and the manager will be slaughtered, at least metaphorically, for saying England have no chance and sending players out after telling them they weren’t good enough to compete and, naturally, being blamed when defeat and elimination follows. Offer a positive response though and its hyperdrive optimism. Newspapers are full of ‘England will win the World Cup says manager’ or similar. Pressure is heaped onto players and defeat brings massive recriminations. Here’s a question that I’d like to ask any member of the media who has dealt that double-bladed card to an England manager. “Is there any truly journalistic merit whatsoever in asking such a dumbass question?” I’ll leave each reader to consider that one for a while and draw your own conclusions.
The problem is that those sorts of things will continue and the hype will flow upwards before the crap flows down upon the manager and players’ heads and the fans become more and more disillusioned as the old maxim of ‘you never know how dark the night is, until you see the brightness of the sunlight’ plays out again and again. Big hopes, bigger disappointments and more disenchantment is the inevitable outcome.
None of this is helped by the FA. Even with regard to managers who are locked into the turmoil referred to above, their appointment and dismissals, things seem so haphazardly conducted. A few examples will illustrate the point. Back in the late seventies, a straw poll of the man most favoured by England fans to take over as national manager would surely have produced the name of Brian Clough. It’s questionable if Ron Greenwood would have been in the top four or five. The FA went with the safe pair of hands though, and England fans were left thinking that their opinions mattered little, as surely was the case. Now, Greenwood was no major failure, pretty much par for the course in tournaments to be fair, but that’s the problem.
A not too dissimilar thing happened with the appointment of Roy Hodgson when so many fans would have gone for Harry Redknapp. Safe pair of hands, par for the course, if not slightly worse than par, to be fair, was the result. Even when the popular choices are made, the FA still find a reason to dump the man in the electric chair. But for a bit of handball skulduggery in 1986 and the sticky end of a penalty shootout in a semi-final four years later, who knows where Sir Bobby Robson could have taken England. Oratory of the lowest order by Sir Bert Millichip had all but cast Robson into the abyss before a ball was kicked in Italia ’90 though. So, he went on a trophy-laden tour of European clubs, with every success casting a fully deserved slight on the manner of his passing.
Terry Venables took England so far in Euro ’96. It was an appointment that horrified the stuffed shirts complete with the correct ties at the FA, but having been anointed by their selected recruiter, the estimable Jimmy Armfield, they were hamstrung into accepting the candidature. Apparently, Sir Noel White was looking for an exit door for him before the ink was dry on Venables contract. A request for an extension unlocked the door and Venables was ushered on his way.
Similarly, non-footballing reasons were apparently behind the removals of Hoddle and Eriksson too. Football fans care little for the finer points of etiquette in such matters and all they want is a team that can win things, or at least put up a decent enough show in the big tournaments. The likes and dislikes of the FA, when weighing up the credentials of managers against the self-appointed mores of the organisation, are not the checks and balances of fans. No-one expects the FA to take a vote on who should manage England. No-one expects it, but would it be such a terrible proposition, especially given the failures of so many of the FA’s appointees over the years? Having so little regard for fans’ opinions, over what is after all the team that represents the country, not in fact the FA, only increases the distance between the team and its fans. And, while we’re talking distance and the FA, let’s look at that issue to round things off.
Some time ago, before ‘new Wembley’ was commissioned, there was apparently a study carried out to look at various alternatives. One was to build a national stadium in the Midlands, near Birmingham by the National Exhibition Centre. Not only does the site have excellent rail, road and air services, it is also conveniently placed broadly in the middle of the country, which would have made international games more accessible to the great number of fans who are effectively exiled from games at Wembley with its abhorrent access issues. A few years down the road, and the construction of St. George’s Park a mere 40 minutes distance by road from the proposed site would only have added to its advantages. Taking all of that into account, it was of course of little surprise that the decision was taken to redevelop Wembley instead. The fact that the location is in London, close to the metropolitan elite who make such decisions was clearly not a factor, he says with tongue firmly in cheek. The FA again offered precious little regard to the conveniences, or otherwise, of England fans, once more displaying an apparent disregard for them, and no-one, especially the fans in question, were surprised.
Strange as it may seem however, the rebuilding of Wembley actually cast what should have been an illuminating light on the matter. With Wembley out of action, England were compelled to take an odyssey around the country, even playing games – whisper it so softly – in the north of the country offering fans an opportunity to watch their national team, without a costly and time-consuming trek to the capital. And, let’s be honest about this, taking national games around a country isn’t that unusual. Spain, Italy and Germany to name but three massively successful national teams, do this as a matter of course, and strangely enough, it helps to bring the national team and the fans closer together both geographically and emotionally. It carries a somewhat basic logic really, albeit one that seems to confound the people running the game in England if they were minded to consider such things, that is.
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, before listing the different ways, she asks, then answers. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” This examination has led us into the counting the ways in which the love for the national team has been dying for so many fans of England. It’s an increasingly sad and pitiful tale of opportunities wantonly squandered and circumstance unchallenged as they gnawed relentlessly away at the affections. So, let’s try and see what chance there is for redemption. Has the road run too far or can a man in a waistcoat rekindle our hopes and aspirations. Ahead of Southgate and his new broom’s arrival, things seemed locked, so now, any dream will do please Gareth.
Let’s start with results. At the time of writing, things aren’t looking that bright with regard to UEFA’s misunderstood and less than cherished child, the Nation’s League. However, there are few England fans who rate that alongside the World Cup or European Championships. And speaking of the World Cup, let’s take a look at that. Getting there initially was accomplished without too much of a fanfare, but so many managers have done that before. The point is that once there, things took on a slightly different hue.
Getting out of the group was par, and finishing second behind Belgium wasn’t great for the rankings, but did Southgate put out a weakened team as the runners-up spot offered what looked like a better run into the tournament? If so, it was a hugely courageous and enlightened decision. Had things not gone well, certain elements of the media would undoubtedly have feasted on his carcass. But this wasn’t a manager afraid of failure, nor afraid of success for that matter. He did what he thought was best to progress his team. A last sixteen game against the dangerous Colombia wasn’t easy, but England were winning until a last gasp equaliser brought extra-time and the dreaded penalties.
As mentioned earlier, England had only won one penalty shootout in a big tournament, when Terry Venables, before he was compelled to resign his post after a little FA pushing, inspired sufficient confidence in his Euro 96 squad to account for Spain, although the twelve-yard experts of Germany still eliminated England eventually. Southgate’s team were not bereft of both inspiration and practise though, both on the field and mentally. A thoroughly modern manager, he had covered many angles in his preparation, emotional strength being a key element as his players conquered their monsters of the Id. England prevailed and Southgate laid a ghost to rest. It was more than a little surprising and a lot more encouraging. Then Sweden were accounted for in the last eight. A two-goal victory and after going so many years without winning a game in the knockout stage of a major tournament, England had strung two together in less than a week. This was getting a bit unreal.
A delicious free-kick by Kieran Tripper in the semi-final even had England fans dreaming of a reprise of 1966 and all that. It wasn’t to be though. Harry Kane, who would take the Golden Boot, a feat not accomplished by an England player at a World Cup since Gary Lineker in 1986, had a golden chance to double the lead, but a deflection and an upright thwarted him. Later, an equaliser and extra-time winner by Croatia would do the same to England’s dreams.
Fourth place after again falling to the Belgians was so much more than history had conditioned England fans to expect and after each game Southgate went out onto the pitch to celebrate with the fans. An exit at the quarter-final stage had been widely expected. This time, for the first time in such a long time, England had surpassed expectations. “Hello, darling. I’ve missed you so much!” It all helped to close the gap in affections. Not completely, but at least the parties were talking again and being happy in each other’s company, and that hadn’t happened for a while.
There was also a freshness about the squad. Southgate decided on a different tactical set up, playing three at the back as was quite the vogue when he first got the job, and he picked the players he wanted, many of whom had come through the under 21 ranks when that group was in his charge. Selecting players who weren’t necessarily first choices for their club, and even looking at players outside the top flight didn’t deter him, and suddenly there was now a bright and breezy look about England. It was a squad that looked ambitious and eager to progress, and the manager’s natty waistcoat replaced the cement one worn so many times in the past, as the image that dictated the squad’s outlook.
Players also had a new-found confidence about them off the field. Danny Rose was encouraged to talk about his emotional difficulties, and the squad wrapped its arms around him to offer support. It was a rare and vastly encouraging development and, moving forwards, Southgate is displaying a determination to continue promoting young talent. Jadon Sancho who has been performing so well in the Bundesliga was called up, as was Chelsea loanee Mason Mount, despite him playing in the Championship with Derby County at the time. The news is out. If you’re talented enough, the manager will look at you. Lack of international experience is no longer a precluding issue. The squad and an increasing number of the fans seem invigorated by the approach. With so many players at the start of their careers as well, there’s less inclination for the money issue to be loaded onto them. Perhaps results in the international breaks and Nations League may not turn out ideal, but with tournaments appearing every two years, Southgate’s squad will be ready and willing for Euro 2020.
There’s also evidence that this new breed of management may have started to win fans back to the cause in other areas. Whereas in the past, media reaction during and after tournaments has bred a febrile discontent, unwarranted attacks on certain players in the media of late have brought scorn rather than a nodding acceptance and agreement from fans. The despicable way in which Raheem Sterling was targeted by certain newspapers is a good example. In other times, when England had flopped in a tournament, such vilification may have been tolerated, if not exactly enthusiastically accepted. Of late though, things have changed and such ‘reports’ have brought more scorn to the purveyors of such distasteful articles than to the targeted players. This may have been a long time in coming, but it’s entirely good to welcome the change of attitude. It seems that England fans are no longer content to tolerate these things without comment.
Perhaps credit should go to the FA in no small measure for appointing Southgate, although his path to the manager’s chair at first seemed stymied by Sam Allardyce, and then a period as the Caretaker whilst he proved himself. One wonders if there was some element of persuasion from Sir Trevor Brooking involved in the appointment when it was finally confirmed. It’s to be hoped so, as when Brooking joined the FA, there was a feeling that there was now a true ‘football man’ involved in the running of the game.
If there is such a movement at Soho Square, one can only hope that it continues to have a growing influence, and the outcome of the potential sale of Wembley may just give an indication of that. Whilst then price offered is considerably lower than the stated cost of the stadium’s development, its sale could have significant advantages. Firstly, it could bring in much needed funds to be invested in the grassroots of the game. Secondly, if the FA were bold enough to cut the strings to the stadium completely, they could return to being the itinerant team that travelled the country when the redevelopment was underway. Go back to the situation where they took the game to the fans, rather than demanding it be the other way around.
Sad to say, if the sale does go ahead, talk is that there would still be a provision in the deal that would allow, or perhaps compel, England to play home fixtures there. It seems an expensive folly. There are enough stadiums in London to satisfy metropolitan demands for some England games to be played there even if the adherence to Wembley was broken. Leave the FA Cup final there if you want, but let the fans have the England team back. After Southgate’s initial success at rekindling the fans’ affection it makes absolute and, to many minds, an unarguable logic.
The tale told of Joseph and his coat of many colours relates how the eponymous hero took his people from servitude into freedom, despite the best effort of Pharaoh. The task facing Gareth Southgate is much less daunting, but despite a massively encouraging start, there remains so much to do. England fans’ affection for their team is far from dead but is still buried under a pile of stupor accumulated over the years. If Southgate can be the man to bring the team and fans back together again it will be a vital victory in the history of the game in this country. We’re waiting to be enthralled again. We’re waiting to have realistic hopes of success. We’re waiting for a dream and, given the years of disappointment endured, at the moment, Gareth, any dream will do.