Yes, the Iceland performance was very poor, but English football isn’t in need of major surgery, I’m tired of hearing it is, fed-up of the national self-loathing. England is producing good young players, players with the natural ability to potentially go on and compete at major tournaments. Chelsea recently retained the UEFA Youth League with a starting XI all qualified to play for England. England won the 2016 Toulon tournament and are top of their qualification group for next summer’s U21 Euros. The raw materials are there for England to be competitive at all levels – not necessarily win, but be consistently competitive.
A winter break would help, more overseas exposure would too, but the overriding problem with England players when they reach major international tournaments is psychological. So many freeze, so many can’t handle the pressure. It’s not a new thing, it’s been happening for almost 20 years, yet nothing changes – in fact the same mistakes are repeated over and over again. Fear of failure, passed down through the England generations continues to limit fine young footballers – so what needs to change?
The FA must finally appoint and empower a head coach with a strong personality who’ll pick a team, not a collection of the 11 ‘best’ players – a coach who won’t feel pressurised to shoe-horn in star-names, or to pick a formation to accommodate certain individuals. Players who are part of a cohesive team frame-work, players in no doubt about their role/responsibilities have far less to fear and much more to believe in – just look at Conte’s Italy, Coleman’s Wales.
The latter spoke so eloquently after his side beat Belgium about not being afraid to fail. A mindset he’s clearly transmitted to his players. The perception is England have been ‘failing’ for 20 years at major tournaments, so why couldn’t a head coach with good leadership qualities convince his team they’ve actually got little to live up to, and everything to gain by bucking that trend?
Hype, unrealistic expectations and a bizarre sense of entitlement have always been a big barrier to that. When it comes to the England team there are still so many people with precious little sense of perspective. It is a national side judged seemingly game by game – they go from world-beaters to chumps and there’s little in between. This is a part of this puzzle where fans and the media have a big role to play. Building them up to knock them down has to end. But those in charge can also do things to halt the hype too – something obvious to me would be to hugely tone down the significance of the role of England captain. Put simply it’s eaten itself, attracts attention and carries way too much kudos and commercial significance for the individual concerned. It also limits the coach and potentially affects the team dynamic because that individual becomes almost ‘undroppable’. Do what many other nations do and give the armband to the player with the most caps in that particular starting XI.
The current England captain, Wayne Rooney never played a single game for the England U21s – he made one appearance for the U19s. I also wonder whether the cream of the crop are promoted to the senior side far too quickly. Surely it can only help a player’s mental development to experience international/tournament football in a less pressurised environment. Again, it all comes back to the coach. It requires a strong personality and good communicator to hold a young player back for their own good – especially in the face of public/media pressure to pick them.
The English rugby and cricket teams are evidence right now that much can change relatively quickly. But the FA, like the RFU and the ECB, need to get their coaching appointment right, and just as importantly create the environment for that person to empower England’s footballers. The players are already there to do much better, but when it comes to major tournaments it requires someone special to turn the light on in what’s currently a darkened room.