Paul ParishComment


Paul ParishComment

By now we should be accustomed to English failure. By now we should have learned the lessons from a decade of disappointment. Alas, nothing changes.

It is no easier to forgive England's disaster in the European Championships this year than it was back in 1974, for example, after the failure to reach the World Cup Finals.

Even more perplexing is that so little has been done to revive a nation's team which was once feared around the globe.

Now, it seems, fear is derived only from the moronic slobs who purport to be English soccer supporters. At least the French will be spared the violence and mayhem suffered in little Luxembourg the night England finally knew their European Championship fate. A million words have spilled from a thousand vitriolic pens since that day. So perhaps it is time to be a little more rational  about England's continued lack of achievement on the international stage.

Or is it?

I would like to believe that finally the English footballer and the  English coaches would be prepared to accept that at the moment, under the present system, we are not good enough. The record books cannot all be wrong.

But I paled just a little when reading Bobby Robson's own words, exclusively in the Sunday Mirror. Wrote the England manager:

"I'm still bitterly disappointed about missing out in Europe. I don't intend us to miss out in the World Cup Finals because, for all this week's disappointment, I know that I have a team and a squad which is not really inferior to any other in Europe."

Then why, I ask, are England not going to France next summer?

It is easy to cite Italy's total failure since winning the World Cup. Or single out West Germany's defeat at the hands of Northern Ireland. They are examples of other great nations finding life difficult. But discovering fault with your neighbour's paintwork doesn't stop the paint peeling off your own windowsills. Unless, of course, you apply the right treatment.

Now Robson might just be a cock-eyed optimist. He might be attempting to lift the morale of a nation which had expected something better from its footballers. He is probably defending his men from the flak, like any good commander defeated in battle.

Or he might just believe it.

Only twice in the last 10 years have England qualified for any tournament of consequence. That was the 1980 European Championship where England cantered through the qualifying group ... and a little soccer nation called Denmark finished last. Was that really the same country that this time inflicted a humiliating defeat at Wembley-a victory which opened the door for their Championship qualification?

They've come a long way in four years from being no-hopers to a side built up as Europe's new super-power. But more of that later.

Then England qualified for the 1982 World Cup Finals. Admittedly FIFA helped by enlarging the final tournament to 24 nations and giving the opportunity to two sides from each of the European qualifying groups. England finished second, behind Hungary, by courtesy of the inexplicable Rumanian collapse as much as our own efforts.

Those two occasions apart it's been one calamity after another. It is traced not so much to England's away record but to an inability to perform their best at Wembley.

For example:

World Cup 1974: The 1-1 Wembley draw with Poland lives forever in the mind, but what about a 1-1 draw with Wales earlier in the same qualifying group?

European Championship 1976: Czechoslovakia edged England out this time. England beat them at Wembley and lost in Czechoslovakia. There was also a frustrating evening at Wembley in a goalless match with Portugal.

World Cup 1978: Italy this time sneaked home on goal difference. Remember those dizzy scenes at Wembley when England beat Italy soon after Ron Greenwood had taken over as manager. But England had lost in Italy earlier and significantly had also struggled to beat Finland 2-1 at Wembley. The Italians had beaten the Finns 6-1 at home-and that was ultimately the difference between qualification or not.

European Championship 1984: It was a relatively simple group. England drew in Denmark 2-2. Later, however, came the horror of that home defeat and just as important an abysmal 0-0 draw with Greece. In the end not even Denmark's failure in Hungary could save England.

That match, however, did partially explode the myth created about the Danes. Don't get me wrong, they are a good side; they have improved beyond all recognition in four years, but under no circumstances are they the supermen everyone was warned about before their victory at Wembley.

England's lack of consistency in key home matches was also highlighted by Robson in his article for the Sunday Mirror:

"It's the stadium where English soccer internationals have always been played and should always be played," he says. "The problem with the place is that it acts as an inspiration to every side who comes to London. Everyone - Brazil, West Germany, Argentina, Denmark, Scotland - wants to win at Wembley.

"It acts as a motivation to every foreigner who knows he might only play there once in his life, so wants to play for life that night." It has been called the Wembley jinx but could it, alternatively, be a signal that opponents come to Wembley with a belief that they can at least hold England.”

Performances against the packed defences employed by some of the lesser European nations point to the fact that technically England still lag behind in the world game.

A strong league competition is but a league of pace and power. A league where that dreadful word commitment seems to be more important than skill. Surely any player who represents his league side, let alone an international side, is committed to his side. Or does commitment mean that players are being told that to chase and work is of paramount importance?

It may seem that I have been scathing towards Bobby Robson. Like a million other punters I have not always agreed with his selections but he is doing the job as well as anyone can under the present difficult circumstances.

No man can be expected to build a successful side given the amount of time Robson has with his players. The system in England is geared to domestic competition and not the international game. It is the domestic game that pays the bills and puts the jam on the bread. It has become the priority.

The record of British clubs in Europe during the last decade is at complete odds with the performances of the national side. At club level, where coaches can work with their players every day of the week, England have a fine record.

Robson and his predecessors, Sir Alf Ramsey, Don Revie and Ron Greenwood, were not given the sort of opportunity. There is a reluctance, or that's how it looks, from some clubs to release players for international duty. The club before country argument has been going on for years.

There have been two instances in recent years where league matches have been postponed on the weekends before international fixtures. It may be coincidence that on both occasions England have won the resultant fixture.

At least it is a start. At least it does give Bobby Robson a chance to work and get to know his players.

And what of the players? How far should Robson now go in his quest to find a side which will not only qualify for the 1986 World Cup but also acquit themselves well in Mexico?

The backbone of the side must be the developing midfield combination of Bryan Robson and Glenn Hoddle. Robson's absence from the key match with Denmark was an important factor. It was a match which cried out for his inspirational qualities as a captain as much as a player.

Hoddle, too, did not play against Denmark. At the time manager Robson felt that Hoddle had not sufficiently recovered from injury to play a part in such an important game. Subsequently Hoddle has played against both Hungary and Luxembourg and could now face the extended run in the international side his supporters have long requested.

Now that England has a free period between European and World Championships the time is ripe to introduce other new faces. The summer tour of 1984, for example, will become a key factor as Bobby Robson evaluates the talent at his disposal.

Goalkeepers Nigel Spink and Gary Bailey must be ready to assume the mantle of Peter Shilton - even though Shilton, himself, seems to be performing better than ever.

At full back, Manchester United's Mike Duxbury could be the logical successor to long serving Phil Neal. At the heart of the defence Luton's Paul Elliott might by the young man to challenge the Terry Butcher/Alvin Martin partnership.

Luton may also provide two young men to boost England's attack with Paul Walsh and Brian Stein both impressive in this season's under-21 squad.

There are others. But the secret will be for Robson to extract the club form of his players at international level. Too often that does not happen, but by putting greater emphasis on the national side and giving Robson more chance to work with his players it can be done.

Robson commented after the European disappointments: "As one door closes so another opens." Experience, one hopes, will ensure that this door will not be slammed in England's faces.

This article was originally published in the January 1984 edition of World Soccer magazine, although, to be honest, it could have been knocked out at any point in the last forty years.  Plus ça change...