BY MARK GODFREY
Just how long have we – the English general public that is – been complaining that the footballers chosen to represent our country just don’t give a damn? Is it five years? No, surely more. Ten? Twenty maybe. It’s impossible to pinpoint an exact time or date when one or two nay-saying dissenters snowballed into an accepted consensus of opinion. Perhaps it was around the time John Barnes suffered dog’s abuse for being unable to replicate his scintillating club form when wearing the Three Lions on his chest, I don’t know.
I’m old enough to remember never feeling this way – whatever the level of ability each individual possessed, it always seemed that once that coveted England jersey was on their back, the burden of expectation and responsibility compelled them to do their duty with every last ounce of energy and will they could muster.
Now, the era I speak of was when I was a youth; perhaps I viewed the whole situation with a naivety and innocence one would expect of a boy. One’s own childhood dream of stepping out for England at Wembley, or anywhere else for that matter, should be applicable to all – a simple black and white scenario.
The vast majority of players back then lucky enough to be handed the famous navy-velveteen caps at least gave the impression that they wanted to be there. You could see it abundant in the joyful face of Gary Lineker, the determined fist-pumps of Bryan Robson, the tears rolling down Paul Gascoigne’s cheeks or the blood-soaked headband of Terry Butcher. They cared. They were like us. They were doing it – for us.
In reality however, it may not have been that way. Nostalgia is an effective medium through which the truth can be viewed on a slant. For example, for every Stuart Pearce – who may well have been perfectly willing to put a two-footed lunge in on his own granny in the name of Queen and country – there must have been a counterbalance; a work-shy fop who saw international get-togethers as an unwelcome inconvenience to their club career, or worse, their social engagements.
Evidence suggests that very little to do with England’s overall performance has changed dramatically in decades, regardless of the perceived recent lackadaisical attitude; take 1966 out of the equation and our tournament history, FIFA ranking and standing in the game have been relatively constant since the abolition of the maximum wage for professional footballers back in the early 60’s. Those all-too-rare spikes of achievement – Italia ’90, Euro ’96 – seemed to coincide with the application of desire to a considerable amount of talent that pooled at those specific moments in history.
The blatantly obvious jumping-off point would be the creation of the Premier League, and although the staggeringly vulgar sums of money sloshing about in football these days took some time to elevate its beneficiaries into a warped, hedonistic world of supercars and supermodels, that disconnect from the real world of the average supporter – and almost certainly the lives the players themselves were once part of growing up – has helped accelerate the marginalisation of international football for the ‘modern-day’ top English pro.
I’d like to advance another, perhaps less trotted-out, thumbed-through theory. A more societal reason for the apparent apathy of these mega-rich man-children toward representing their country.
Although born in the mid 1970’s, I would absolutely describe myself as a child of the 80’s; the decade renowned, revered, reviled for its excess. I’m no student of history, politics or sociology but the 1980’s were quite possibly the decade when old-world values – whose rapid erosion began in the 1960’s – were laid on the funeral pyre.
What are these values I speak so fondly of? National and civic pride (real pride, not this tub-thumping racist, xenophobic imposter we see on the front cover of the tabloids or hear coming from the mouths of misguided UKIP converts) and a sense of community and morality; working together for the greater good.
Ah, yes. The greater good. That once precious of concepts smashed into oblivion by Margaret Thatcher and her Tory henchmen. Under her 11-year premiership, the cult of money was encouraged, nay publically force-fed to our collective conscience. Society and community could go fuck themselves – the age of wealth and the individual had arrived. We only have to look back at the scenes of legalised looting from Black Friday’s discounted sales – when ‘hood rats, middle-aged professionals and mild-mannered family men and women fought hand-to-hand combat in the name of consumerism – to see that order and consideration are a thing of the past. It’s all about me, me, me. Mine, mine, mine.
As players’ wages have spiralled out of all proportion (it would be interesting to see the average rise in Premier League wage packets versus the rate of inflation over the past ten years) during what’s been the most difficult economic situation in living memory, on the whole, they themselves have become so far removed from the common man in their march toward becoming a brand or corporation. We’ve got our food banks, they’ve got their Ferraris.
For the elite who are lucky enough to be called up to the England squad, the vast majority of their considerable revenue streams come courtesy of their Premier League paymasters for domestic and European club duties so, of course, earning the weekly wage to keep a mansion-sized roof over their heads is bound to take priority. Don’t forget those goal bonuses and image rights too, lads. The bling doesn’t pay for itself. Playing for England won’t quite sustain these boys in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed (the £1,500 for a win, £1,000 for a draw and £750 for a defeat is reportedly donated to various nominated charities).
There will be many of you reading this thinking that I’m just another tired, cynical old crank treading a well-worn path with this article – and you’d probably be right. But the prestige of the international game – for England anyway – appears to have been steadily diminished, primarily because of how far down the list of priorities it has slipped for our football ‘heroes’ – a victim of the Premier League’s all-consuming vulgarity.
There will also be those of you that are screaming at your laptop, smartphone or tablet that international football is not solely about national pride (remember Brazil’s over-effusive singing of the national anthem at the World Cup) or kicking lumps out of the opposition – hence Scotland have yet to win single thing – but neither is being blessed with sublime technique handed down from whichever deity you happen to follow. Ability is nothing without application.
And it’s that application, or the apparent lack thereof, that has left an increasing amount of us feeling cold, unmoved and even hostile towards Team England and their exploits. Adding this to the stratospheric cost of following football at club level combined with the FA’s straightjacketed approach to the hosting of home internationals, is it any wonder that increasing numbers of empty red seats are evident at Wembley?
So while these young athletes continue to pursue the finest clothes and cars our Sky subscription or season ticket money can procure, we’re left wondering if there’s a wind of change to be felt; a solution to waken them, and us, from the malaise surrounding the England team.
I hate to use the term, but the last of the ‘Golden Generation’ – that highly celebrated and undoubtedly gifted group of players whose simultaneous rise to the top fooled many of us into believing England could crest the peak of international football – has shuffled off the scene, and with it, perhaps Roy Hodgson and his successors have the opportunity to forge a squad fully committed to their manager, team mates and country whilst supressing the considerable superstar egos bouncing off the dressing room walls; a feat that largely escaped consecutive England bosses going back probably as far as Terry Venables.
That will take some doing; the modern manager knows full well he lacks the authority and respect that his predecessors brought to bear and many of the current crop – with its oversized headphones, gelled quiffs and ridiculous, over-rehearsed breakdancing celebrations – live in a cash-filled bubble, seemingly impervious to the real world about them.
They’re not all like this of course. Just this week, West Ham midfielder Mark Noble put the footballer’s ‘plight’ of having to play continuously over the festive period into some perspective, comparing it to the real hardship of front line soldiers being absent from their families and putting themselves into the path of mortal danger in service of their country. But the precious nature of our pampered players leaves little room for anything outside of their blinkered view of the world. Noble’s words were…well…noble – it would be nice to think that there were more English players like him.
Time will tell if the new breed, and those to come in the future (brought through the FA’s national academy at St. George’s Park), can reconcile their club ambitions – and bloated contracts – with a burning desire to represent England, and give equal emphasis to that as they do every weekend in London, Manchester or Merseyside. But for that to happen, the players will have to visibly buck society’s trend of greed and self and become an example. Whether they like it or not, footballers are – and always have been – role models. If they can do this, and restore faith in the England set-up, maybe then we can view them as the heroes their PR would have you believe.