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This was England's darkest hour

By David Miller
Last Updated: 1:59am GMT 23/11/2007

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Bemoaning the inadequacies of Steve McClaren is an empty exercise: a second grade coach without credentials, he should never have been appointed. The anxiety of Wednesday evening was the poverty of the players.

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  • Of the six darkest seasons for the English side since the Second World War, this was the worst. We knew that the standard of English players was declining, and now a Croatia team of relatively unheralded talents exposed the true extent.

    Alf Ramsey
    1973 low: Ramsey's use of subs cost England in World Cup qualifier

    Forget the false bravado of an alleged 'golden age', believed by some players and some of the media. Steven Gerrard and company were seen as no more than pewter when judged alongside mercurial Luka Modric and his colleagues.

    The previous five moments of despair, recognised as turning points and all but one in the World Cup, carried an identifiable, reassuring silver lining: England might have been rubbed out, but players were there who, optimistically, might paint a brighter picture another day.

    Those bleak occasions had been: United States 1-0, World Cup finals 1950; Hungary 6-3 and 7-1, 1953-54; Poland 1-1, World Cup qualifier, 1973; Italy 2-0, World Cup qualifier 1976; Holland 2-0, World Cup qualifier 1993.

    In all of these it was possible to put forward an explanation, if not an acceptable excuse. Rank bad luck in 1950. Tactical naivety, plus technically superior opposition in 1953-54. Freak opposing goalkeeper's performance in 1973. Grossly ill-judged selection in 1976. Confusion in tactics and selection in 1993.

    These last errors were also a severe denunciation of McClaren on Wednesday, but the humiliation was that the manager's lack of wisdom - sentencing an inexperienced goalkeeper to a nightmare Wembley baptism - was compounded by the shortcomings of all the players.

    Consider the past. When Walter Winterbottom took a squad to Brazil devoid of serious preparation, and they squandered 20 chances when losing to a scratch American team on a cows' meadow, England had many wizards, such as Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen and Wilf Mannion, yearning for organisation in the future.

    Fantasy Football Friday
    Fantasy Football

    There was still an absence of serious team cohesion when England met Olympic champions Hungary twice in eight months three years later.

    England had sufficient naturally gifted players to give tolerable, if less than spectacular performances under Winterbottom in the World Cups of 1954, '58 and '62, twice reaching the quarter-finals before going out to glittering opposition from Uruguay and Brazil.

    Enter Alf Ramsey. England's first professional manager realised the essential elements of, firstly, consistent tactics/selection, and, secondly, the crucial ingredient of reliability, personified by Roger Hunt, of Liverpool, as foraging striker.

    The quality of organisation, as much as the inspiration from Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, lifted the trophy in 1966. By the time England were required to qualify for 1974, Ramsey had turned further away from instinctive talent, still present within the England game, towards physical resilience.


    Even so, England's elimination by Poland in a 1-1 draw owed as much to exceptional goalkeeping as to Ramsey's poor use of substitutions, and there was still talent available in the likes of Colin Bell, Martin Peters and Allan Clarke.

    When Don Revie took charge, skills to match central Europeans and South Americans were there in players such as Kevin Keegan, and Trevor Francis. Yet blundering, incessant changes in selection and tactics by Revie never really gave England the chance to find continuity.

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  • If Graham Taylor's comparable fluctuation in the Nineties was an echo of Revie, the raw material was in decline, notwithstanding the presence of Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer. The regime of McClaren has brought descent to its ultimate: no cohesion, endlessly altered tactical systems - 4-5-1 against Croatia for heaven's sake - and the realisation that Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the rest are internationally second division.

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    The fact is that England has been playing the same style of football for as long as I can remember. England has never been able or has never had any quality players to be able to keep possesion. England still can not play a ball out of defence. These are simple tatics of our game & where as all European nations have been able to adapt & change England has not & refuses to. England realy has to pull there heads up & admit that there kick & run football is finished. Only then they may change.
    Posted by rob russo on November 24, 2007 7:55 AM
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    Rob Ostlere, 3:53pm, dream on. The list of
    players you trotted out (Gerrard, Lampard,
    Rooney, etc.) is almost totally bereft of any
    serious international talent (Ferdinand...give me
    a break), and the fact that these people are
    apparently the best England has to offer is
    profoundly depressing.

    And if you "can't give any credit to the idea that
    Croatia or Russia's starting 11 are a better set of
    players than the players behind the success of
    Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool" you must have
    missed the game the other night. The emperor
    has no clothes; England were finally exposed as
    second rate in every department. It is to weep.
    Posted by Martin Nichols on November 23, 2007 5:25 PM
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    I find Mr Miller's arguement that England don't have any "world class" players bizarre. What is his, or anybodys definition of world class. The phrase is used so often but I think very few people could say what it means - does it mean a player who would make a world 11 (if so there are very few world-class players),a world squad of 22 (surely still too small a figure and far too subjective to produce a definitive list) or a player who has been exceptional at both international and club level (again very rare). Everyone has their own definition, but if the arguement is about whether England have enough talented players, and enough talented players for the future then the answer is surely yes. Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Ferdinand, Terry, Gary Neville, and Hargreaves regularly face Brazil's, Italy's, Spain's, Argentina's etc finest players in the champions league and come out on top, often as the driving force behind their club teams success. This list of course doesn't include Micheal Owen, a man with a proven goal scoring record at international level. Surely that is enough evidence to suggest that there is nothing wrong with these player's abilities. Even the less regular players such as Bent, Dafoe, Crouch, Bridge, Barry etc have produced evidence a club level of their abilities.
    As for the future, the U21 team are having lots of success and players such as Micah Richards, Wright-Philips, Ben Foster, Rooney, Aaron Lennon, Lescott etc have hardly peaked. The more established players are not going too retire in the near future so there is no need to panic yet.
    Surely the arguement then is how you turn club form into form for country - something a huge list of quality English players have failed to do over the last 10 years (think of Fowler or Andy Cole or McManaman or most of the current team). If a manager could be found who didn't underestimate decent (but not world-class!) opposition, could motivate their players and find a system similar to the system that they might play at their clubs where they are highly successful then we might have more to cheer in the future. I can't give any credit to the idea that Croatia or Russia's starting 11 are a better set of players than the players behind the success of Man Utd, Chelsea and a champion's league winning Liverpool team.
    Posted by Rob Ostlere on November 23, 2007 3:53 PM
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    I am always surprised at comments on the radio/TV that puzzle over why England fails to produce world class players (the occasional Charltons and Gascoignes excepted). The answer is simply that England does not value the player of high individual skill. Watch school football and Sunday leagues football. What do you see? A lot of shouting and aggression ("English passion"?), calls of 'get rid of it', 'boot it', the ball ricocheting all over the place and a general muddy level of incompetence. Those who attempt to hone individual exciting skills like going round players evoke either jealousy or contempt. They are showing off, not being "team players". This sums up English football, and the attitude is carried silently into the professional domain.

    Hence, those special players, like say Gascoigne and Lineker a few years back, are played for a while, but dropped too early, the moment they hit a lean spell, or in Gascoigne's case when he ate a kebab. Foreign teams often play their top players while they can still jog a bit - Haji of Romania for example.

    It was interesting to see that the best football against Croatia was played by Crouch and Beckham. Crouch, an unlikely looking forward, has been one of the few England players to deliver goals, on the occasions he has played; likewise Beckham, though inconsistent, can still place those long accurate passes, yet has been left out often since McLaren took over. The thuggish Rooney is raved about, but looks unproductive against the less feted Crouch.

    While England bangs on about passion and spirit (aka the louts' approach to football), rather than recognise that international football is about high levels of skill, we will continue to lose matches against even modest opposition. English football needs intelligence; it has none.
    Posted by David on November 23, 2007 11:31 AM
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    I don't remember David Miller's debut for the Telegraph so I can't say whether he should never have been appointed in the first place, but he's certainly in McClaren territory these days. To begin with, he manages to get such a short and definitive list incorrect; the loss to Italy in '76, whilst probably avoidable had Revie not put his players on a selection carousel, was a loss away from home to an elite side and should be replaced with the England team of 1981 managed by Bobby Robson that lost 2-1 to Norway in a far more humiliating defeat. Secondly, he must be the only human being on earth to confuse Kevin Keegan's obvious talents with south american skill. Finally to suggest that no players of international first division class exist within England's ranks neglects that with nothing more than competant guidance they achieved the quarter finals of three tournaments in succession, so it doesn't take much imagination, even in these dark days, to believe that an inspirational coach could take them to the next level.
    Posted by Steve Hewlett on November 23, 2007 11:24 AM
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    This should be a must-read memo for every member of the FA.
    Not one English (or Scottish) player would get into a World 22-man squad.
    Posted by bill on November 23, 2007 7:52 AM
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    Yes, Mr. Miller, and a complete lack of any sort of track record at international level over the years - the culmination of what you are driving at.

    Trouble is, sir, no one listens to the likes of you - they only want to hear from Messrs Fergusson, Wenger and Benitez. Sir Bobby Robson, who took England to the WC S/Fs in 1990 with a team that had a chance of winning it, was berated by the press for his private life in the days and weeks leading up to the tournament, instead of receiving whole hearted support. Why? They didn't like him! Ditto Graham Taylor ("Swedes 2 - Turnips 0 - remember that?) and now ditto Steve McLaren.

    It's always the manager - it's never any of the players who constantly and consistently fail (that's the real England track record at international level, despite 1966. Instead we "idolise" the "big" names who can do no wrong. Now one of them, who scored 30 goals in 67 matches, Alan Shearer, a career performance no way comparable with Nat Lofthouse, who also popped in 30 goal;s but in 33 matches - is being touted as a possible replacement to McLaren.

    Why? Other than a knee-jerk reaction and the fact that he is an average pundit on the box - there are no credentials to take on a key role where apparent managerial failure has been persistent over the last 40 years.

    England players are picked from English people. Therefore shouldn't we be investing in our future (not in the future of clubs who can look after themselves)with a national academy and an infrastructure that leads the elite, the potential stars of the future, to that academy?

    Shouldn't we curtail the clubs power so that England's best players are available, injury notwithstanding, at all times for England? After all, such people were born in England, raised in England, educated in England and learnt their early football in England - none of which has anything to do with the "moneybags manager" that eventually and inevitably comes along and buys the player because the "m.m."has the biggest cheque - and thereafter claims that the chosen club owns the player and that his nation comes second? It is the nation that invested in the player all along and who developed him. Isn't there some form of debt that the player owes to his nation - and to be there when called upon?

    Or do we just listen to Messrs Fergusson, Wenger and Benitez et al? And kow tow to the media?

    There's a lot to do - across the board. The new manager, whoever is unlucky enough to land that poisoned chalice (aside from the money that is!)won't solve the entrenched problems so apparent in the English international game.
    Posted by Michael Grice on November 23, 2007 4:49 AM
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