Thursday, 9 June 2011


English football fans look back on 1966 as evidence of the calibre of the national team. The team scored a 4-2 win over Germany in the final. Fans felt amazed and frustrated that the England side didn't repeat their victory at World Cups in the following years.

I disagree.

From 1962 onwards I was amazed to watch the contrast in international football styles. Latin players from Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Uruguay could signal, receive and pass a ball in one fluid movement. The ball seemed attached to the players' legs by a combination of velcro and elastic cord. Pele, Eusebio, Torres, Augusto and Rocha were some of the individuals with this ability.

In contrast, English players seemed to take 5 moves to pass a ball: notice that there was a need to pass and signal availability, receive the ball, struggle to gain control of the ball, look around to see who was available, kick the ball.

Other Europeans sides played as teams with a fluid awareness of how to pass the opposition, gaining and maintaining possession of the ball while continuing an inexorable push towards goal. The German and Dutch sides were able to play to each other's strengths and function as a single organism under Beckenbauer and Cruyff.

In contrast, the England side seemed to comprise individuals who wanted to make their mark but couldn't match the fluid units that faced them. England seemed ragged, bitty and weak at the front or back or side or middle. You'd never know this from watching Youtube clips, where fans have lovingly posted the best examples of the England squad in action, omitting those that show the struggles.

Commentators say that the English game is fast and that many overseas players struggle to maintain their original style and strength in the Premier League.

I think things began to change when Terry Venables became England manager in 1994 and money available from broadcasting rights and advertising led to increased import/export of talent. Venables introduced a tighter team approach in the squad with better passing. Many star players had served time abroad and were also used to playing alongside foreign players bought in by Premier League clubs. Other styles of playing and ball skills rubbed off on English players. Players acknowledged his leadership, such as Alan Shearer: 'The best England team I played in was the one under Terry Venables before Euro 96. Terry's knowledge and tactical know-how were spot-on and he knew how to get the best out of us too. We responded to him, believed in him and played some outstanding football in that tournament.'

Venables made another significant contribution in contrast to one of his predecessors, Bobby Robson. Before an international match Robson would talk the team up and predict a walk over for England in interviews with the media. He would work himself into a frenzy of conviction, which would lead to major disappointment when England lost. Venables would manage expectations of the press and fans with a more cautious approach on the lines of: 'We're facing a tough match against Outer Mongolia. They showed great strength last week when they slaughtered the Lithuanian squad. Our side have a lot of work to do tonight to win this match......'

In retrospect, maybe his weakness was to spend too little time preparing for sudden death by penalty shoot outs and psyching up his players to deal with the psychological pressure. Terry displayed a high level of emotional intelligence in managing himself and others. Perhaps he didn't spend enough time developing self management in his squad for this exhausting ordeal at the end of World Cup and Euro matches.

Here's his world cup song. It features some great shots of Ian Wright and Harry Redknapp:

Until Premier League clubs restart comprehensive systems to train youngsters so that they have a pool of talent to draw on from their youth sides, I doubt if the national squad will improve, whoever they pick as manager. As one Arsenal fan said when commenting on Manchester United (in contrast to Chelsea under Abramovich): 'At least they build it instead of buying it.' For all his millions poured into Chelsea, Abramovich has yet to bring home the promised silverware for his investment. He is the king or Chief Executive who doesn't allow his Prime Minister or Operations Manager to get on with the job without interference. Import/export of talent is great, but it does little for the national squad and nurturing young players. Too much pressure is put on the few individuals who come through, such as Theo Walcott.

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