As England prepare for a World Cup Qualifier double-header Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reviews the decline and fall of a Football Nation
Never mind the debate over the dodgy third goal in ’66, was it or wasn’t it over the line. The most famous piece of commentary in English footballing history, “some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over, it is now,” proves definitively England’s fourth goal against Germany should have been disallowed. A goal scored with a pitch invasion underway, absolutely against the rules of the game.
And thus England’s 47 years of hurt began. Up to 1966 we’d been World Cup quarter-finalists at best, and no European Cup had been lifted by an English club side either. Spurs had been the first English team to win a European Trophy, the Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, followed by Bobby Moore captaining West Ham to winning the same trophy in 1965.
Immediately after ’66 English club sides did begin to dominate European competitions. In quick succession Leeds, Newcastle and Arsenal won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, while Manchester United lifted the European Cup in 1968, following north of the border Celtic’s success the previous year. Into the 1970s, apart from the European Cup English club sides continued to do well in the other two European competitions. Chelsea, Manchester CIty, Liverpool, Spurs all won these tournaments, while any Leeds fan of a certain age will tell you that their club, not Bayern Munich, were the ‘true’ winners of the 1975 European Cup with disallowed goals robbing them of victory.
It was the late 1970s to mid 1980s however when English domination of Europe really established itself. Liverpool winning the European Cup in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984. Nottingham Forest’s back-to-back wins in 1979 and 1980. Aston Villa in 1982. This was a remarkable run of success. But after the 1985-1990 ban of English club sides from European club competitions following the Heysel final involving Liverpool and Juventus which led to 39 deaths from a combination of rioting and poor stadium facilities, nothing like this kind of domination.
Since the English clubs were re-admitted, they have won just four Champions Leagues in 21 years. Spanish clubs can boast 6 wins, Italian 5. As for the UEFA Cup and the Europa League, just one win since 1992, Liverpool’s in 2001.
This season’s failure of a single English club side to make it through to the Champions League quarter-finals has been widely commented on as the worst English performance since 1996. But actually the decline and fall of English club sides’ dominance of Europe goes considerably deeper than this. In ’66 the fans and the clubs might well have thought it was ‘all over’, a golden period of club football about to begin. But despite all the Premier League-driven hype it has never recovered anything like the heights of 30 years ago. The sweet irony of the centrepiece of the FA’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations being a Champions League Final in the season of English clubs’ worst performance in the competition not to be missed.
If the situation for English club sides in Europe doesn’t look too good, this is nothing compared to the England team. After Euro ’96 and reaching the semi-final, the bare minimum surely for a major football nation in a home tournament, there’s been no progress beyond the quarter-finals at a Euro or World Cup since. Never mind the nearly five decades of hurt, these past 17 years have been bad enough. In European terms Croatia and Russia can claim to have done better, with a semi-final each since ’96 and not at home either. Turkey has managed two semi-final appearances. The Czech Republic reached the final in ’96 and the semi again in 2004. Apart from that little lot England can’t claim to come anywhere close to matching the records of Holland, Portugal, Italy, Germany, France and Spain in European Championship and World Cups since ’96. And then there’s Greece, who we squeezed past in 2001 to make sure of qualifying for the following year’s World Cup, and then they had the cheek to go and win Euro 2004, a feat that still remains beyond the reach of England.
What might be the reasons for this spectacular failure? In their excellent book Why England Lose, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski offer a number of reasons, the principle one being that given the size of England’s population and number of professional footballers, being regular quarter-finalists but not much better is the kind of position we should expect in world football. This sits uneasily with our martial and imperial history and the fact we like to think we invented the game; but in reality it’s a theory not too far wide of the mark. It is the expectation that somehow 1966 wasn’t the blip it has proved to be and being a world power in football is our natural position in sporting life that distorts the magnitude of our failure . To that extent the 4-1 defeat to Germany at World Cup 2010 may prove a more important benchmark for the next 47 years than 1966 has proved to be for the past 47 years. It is unlikely ever again, certainly not in 2014 for anybody in their right mind, that England will go to a major tournament expecting to win it. And so when we make it to the quarters and not much further, we can be pleased with ourselves rather than agonising over the latest in the game of what-might-have-beens but weren’t.
I would add some other factors too. Firstly the psychological. In an England tournament squad the players know the expectations are unreasonably high. At club level they are mostly idolised — many have win a cabinet full of winners’ medals already — and they play their international football every season in the Champions League. Yet with England, unless they defy history and get past the quarters they are losers at best, vilified at worst. They can’t win. Secondly, our style of play. And as fans we’re culpable in this too. The English love a fast-moving physical game, ‘get stuck in’ with loads of commitment. Good enough to get England to the quarter-finals, but not many tournaments are won playing like this. Thirdly the narrow base of team recruitment. Despite all the changes in our society, professional footballers still come overwhelmingly from a narrow, and numerically declining, social base. And entire communities are entirely under-represented: Asian, Chinese, East European and other sizeable immigrant communities hardly feature in the professional game. No this isn’t the much touted “political correctness gone mad,” it’s ensuring we draw on all the talents that might be available. England doesn’t.
Fourthly we fail to learn from others. Yes there are foreign players, managers and coaches in English football. But the changes they bring with them still hardly impact on club football, and on the national team scarcely at all. It’s all a bit foreign, and what do we have to learn from the Germans, the Spanish and the Italians anyway? This inward-looking cocksureness largely insulates football from other far more successful sports too. How many of those who’ve excelled in establishing regimes that produce winners in other sports are headhunted to contribute something to football? Finally, our lack of experience of tournament football. Age-group competitions at a European and World Cup level are consistently undervalued, with the best players often not even sent there to represent England. And apart from the 2012 exception no England team competes in the Olympic football tournament, for many young players an essential experience towards a future World Cup. One simple solution: introduce what would be a hugely popular and highly competitive football tournament in the Commonwealth Games.
Five ideas; there will be plenty more. Just the kind of thing the FA should be debating as part of its 150th anniversary. Instead, England appear to be quaking in their boots at the prospect of the must-win game against Montenegro next Tuesday. This is a country with a population roughly comparable to the numbers living in the London Borough of Hammersmith. OK we seem to be as safe as houses facing San Marino in the first of the World Cup double headers, but plucky Montenegro have us worried. Looking back at our accumulated decline and fall, club and country, since 1966 with good reason.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football