Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Failure is Golden

Frank Lampard has dismissed claims
that his relegation to the bench during
a recent Chelsea Pensioners swimming
gala could have knock-on effects for
his England career

Gold, in Athletics, is reserved for the winners. Quite rightly. While it’s true that expectation is unfairly lumped on to runners, vaulters, jumpers and other athletes prior to competition, the determination, guile, strength and tenacity required to triumph on the track or field is rewarded with a solid gold medal, along the equally important recognition of success.

Only in football is it the other way round. Completely unjustifiably, almost a decade ago the media (and therefore the public) crowned a bunch of relatively unproven young men with the title of the ‘Golden Generation’, largely due to England’s 5-1 demolition of Germany in the run up to the 2002 World Cup. This same shining crop crashed out to ten-man Brazil in the quarter-finals of that particular tournament. It was also this gleaming group that disappointed in 2006 in Germany, as well as two years later when Steve Mclaren’s umbrella led the stalwart army of prodigious brilliance all the way to the qualifying stages of Euro 2008, before mercifully sparing them the humiliation of having to actually compete in the tournament.

You know the rest. It’s hardly a revelation that Messrs Gerrard, Lamps, Cole and the rest of the golden boys failed to achieve anything remotely resembling a successful stint during their tenure at the pinnacle of football’s rocky peaks. It’s also no great shock to anyone (except the FA, strangely) that there is a glut of extremely talented young players emerging in this country that should be given their shot at being mildly competitive for England on the world stage. My only gripe is that it’s taken so damn long.

It’s worth dwelling on the ‘Golden’ label that has followed this group through their careers like a heavy application of David Beckham signature aftershave. Was it a hindrance? Did the semiotic significance of ‘Golden’ place an unattainable level of expectation on their young shoulders that proved impossible to live up to? If so, then it was hardly their fault. Anything less than a sustained period of success would have been deemed a failure. As it happens, it has been deemed a failure, and no, they are not entirely to blame for this. The criticism for their lack of success should be viewed mainly in terms of a warped sense of entitlement. In the same bizarre way that Britain still holds the belief that it should remain a world beating military force, each England set-up going into any major tournament is lauded as a genuine contender for the silverware. Is this reasonable? Given the track record of the national team, you’d have to say it isn’t. The almost biblical hype that surrounds the team’s palm-leaf donkey parade into every World Cup renders their actual performance an inevitable failure, with the hearts and minds of supporters existing in a parallel universe where it is either still 1966 or late in the reign of Queen Victoria, the only two times when England really were that dominant (with the latter being more down to imperial exclusivity than actual talent).

It is also the fault of the FA, which I am convinced is also partially responsible for world poverty, international conflict and large scale destructive weather phenomena, such is the ineptitude of its governance. Not since the Conservative party of the 1990s have we seen a group of such misguided, confused old men squabbling and head scratching over the direction of their policies and forward momentum. Just look at England’s recent World Cup bid. It begins with appointing the wrong manager, every time, purely with the belief that success can be bought. In Capello’s case, guaranteed success was secured to the tune of £6m a year. Look where that got us. I’m not opposed to the idea of a foreign manager, not at all, but one that speaks English is a good start.

With the overhyped, big-name manager securely in place, all that is left for him to do is select the same eleven players utilised by the previous, overhyped, big-name incumbent. Cue 2-3 years of confusion, platitudinous interviews and excuses by the bucket load. Next, repeat this process ad infinitum, and ladies and gentlemen, there you have the mastermind organisation that is the English Football Association. Ask any businessman stepping in to rescue an ailing company or brand. What to do when faced with forty years of similar disappointments and hallmark mistakes? Shake it up, change it around, root and branch. This is exactly what the Germans did after that night in Munch (even Heskey scored for goodness sake). Taking a step back, they oversaw a back–to-the-drawing-board approach that led to an experimental, young side that have gelled fantastically, culminating in the last laugh for the vibrant Germans, who destroyed a lack-lustre England set-up at last year’s World Cup in South Africa.

So what now for Capello? Well, with his contract secured until after Euro 2012 (and no longer), anything he likes. Oddly, with this finishing post in sight, only now has he adopted the common-sense view of trialling a comparatively fresh line up. In came Smalling, terrific for Manchester United so far this season, and perhaps vitally, Lampard was dropped to the bench. Happily, you could tell how much that pissed him off, but it is the first real moment of resolve from a manager with an otherwise predictable selection policy.

For me however, Capello didn’t go far enough. With Terry in perhaps his last full season as a first choice centre back (he certainly won’t see the next World Cup), why not now opt for the hugely impressive Phil Jones, recently bought by Alex Ferguson as a long- term first choice replacement for Rio Ferdinand. If one thing is certain in football management, it’s that you should trust the judgement of the most decorated manager in the country’s history. Plus, John Terry is a horrible man as we all know. The same goes for Frank Lampard (although not necessarily the horrible bit). Annoyingly, Capello has rowed back on his apparent statement of intent by sheepishly holding a press conference to iterate Lampard’s continued importance to the national team; presumably this kind of ego-massaging is in his contract.

Though Jack Wilshere would almost certainly have started had he been fit, Tom Cleverly and Jordan Henderson must surely remain contenders in an England midfield that is crying out for youthful exuberance and creative options for the newly thatched and resurgent Wayne Rooney. One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t like to be in Steven Gerrard’s increasingly rickety boots when he makes his overdue comeback after injury. It may have only been less than a year, but it really does seem like the footballing scenery has totally changed since he began his lay-off. And that can only be a good thing.

Things are looking a little difficult as far as a second striker goes. Bent is Lineker in disguise, but only half as good, and Defoe is so frustratingly inconsistent that I applaud any manager who has worked with him for an entire season without wanting to sacrifice him on a plate to feed up Peter Crouch. Wellbeck is shaping up to be a genuine contender, but a couple of clever back heels in a team surrounded by genuine stars does not a prolific England striker make. Give him a season I say; after all, he did fail to lift a hopeless average England under 21 side this summer.

Whilst Qualification for next year’s Euro tournament has not yet been secured, it seems likely that England will be present, unlike the shambles of two years ago. A good start. But Capello’s strategy at this tournament will be vital to the development of the team in the long run. Hypothetically (and hopefully), off the back of excellent domestic seasons for their respective clubs, the likes of Cleverly, Smalling, Jones and Henderson could really step up on the international stage come the start of Euro 2012. I doubt they’ll win it, but a strong showing at a major tournament would cement them as a regular, cohesive unit, and would supply the much needed experience at the top level to propel them forward to the World Cup two years later, by which time the youngsters will be at the peak of their careers. Far fetched? Perhaps, but as far as I see it, the only way forward.

What then of the Golden Generation? Here’s a suggestion: let the emerging, bright young things embark on a European Championship crusade to eastern Europe, and in the meantime, Fat Frank, Stevey G, Becks and JT can remain at home and apply their gilded boots to the more leisurely path towards Olympic Games glory. You never know, they might even get bronze.