As the referee blew the final whistle to confirm arguably England’s most ignominious result for a generation, the collective look on the players’ faces wasn’t one of anguish but of sheer stupefied, horrified bewilderment.
Bewilderment that they’d fallen to a foe that had been so written off that one suspects the English players and management had already begun planning for a crunch tie with France; bewilderment that they’d once again failed to perform, even in an expanded European Championship format with old favourites like Italy apparently fielding their weakest teams in living memory; bewilderment that the ghost of 1966 has still yet to be exorcised and, if anything, now looms even larger than ever.
To say that English football has a serious problem may feel like stating the obvious at this point in time, but beyond the clear issues underlined repeatedly in the lacklustre campaign and magnified to microscopic detail in the humiliating 2-1 defeat to Iceland, the spectre of historical expectation is one of the fundamental flaws that must be addressed before England can ever truly expect to see a team break free from their shackles at a major championship and come close to delivering on their potential.
To attack the hopelessly idealistic, horrendously destructive tendency for the supposition of greatness, it’s critical to first understand its roots. The glory of the 1966 World Cup is clearly the nexus of the idea, the fairy-tale triumph over an old enemy, complete with that jolting moment of doubt at the death before Geoff Hurst wrote himself into history with the last kick of the game.
The subsequent countless lyrical reworkings of Three Lions (a song which must have been written in the knowledge that its “… years of hurt” construction would allow for it to be recycled ad nauseum until England won again – if they won again) is demonstrative of the entrenchment of the country’s sole major tournament success as the yardstick against which everything must be measured.
However, it isn’t just 1966 that English football is now facing unfavourable and dispiriting comparisons with. Such has been the joyless way that England have approached the last few tournaments that even episodes that could generously be referred to as glorious failure have been cast in new light.
Italia 90 and Euro 96, both of which ended at the semi-final stage – the team’s furthest excursions other than 1966 and the truncated 1968 European Championships – were both lionised before this year’s Championships. Even moments that, at the time, seemed calamitous and disastrous in equal measure, such as Ronaldinho’s flighted effort dipping over David Seaman in Shizuoka in 2002, have taken on a sepia tinge in comparison to recent efforts.
To defeat the false belief and unrealistic expectation that accompanies England onto the plane to every tournament and undoubtedly eats away at even the most experienced players (Wayne Rooney’s inability to play the sort of pass he’d normally pull off blindfolded as the clock ticked down against Iceland a case in point), the key falsehood must be challenged. World Cup 66, while not a fluke, was the beginning, middle and end of England’s success story on the full international stage.
Reading down the list of players England boasted in the years leading up to the World Cup victory – Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse, Billy Wright and Alf Ramsey – it’s not hard to imagine that success was inevitable, that it was a culmination of years of preparation and build up. However, that team, even filled with those great players, was also prone to spectacular failure.
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Read | Euro 96: when football should have come home
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When England were embarrassed by a team of American part-timers at the 1950 World Cup, the combination of the England cricket team falling for the first time to the West Indies the same day and a general disinterest in the press and across the country to even acknowledge the tournament’s significance meant the first chance for tournament-inspired self-examination was missed.
The perfect example of this indifference to any situation that did not paint the national team in the best possible light can be located in the fact that this was England’s first defeat at a major tournament; they had skipped the first three editions of the World Cup largely as a result of stubbornness and a dismissive attitude towards the very idea that a team could claim to be world champions without having first defeated the country that invented the game and, therefore, must be the best.
This attitude prevailed even after their aborted first attempt at tournament football in 1950 in Brazil as, despite multiple near misses, the press proudly trumpeted the Three Lions’ record of never having lost at home to a continental European side, a rather desperate claim that served as little more than a feeble alibi for the fact that they preferred the familiar comforts of games against the home nations rather than risk facing up to the reality that European football was, by now, light years ahead of the tired and tactically naive WM system that still dominated the English game.
The FA, press and fan deference to the past and tradition finally came back to haunt the country when, in 1953, England were dismantled 6-3 by the great Hungarian team of Ferenc Puskás, the spearhead of the movement away from the old aristocratic approach of England toward the new, free flowing and tactically inventive styles being championed across the rest of Europe.
Similarly harrowing defeats followed – a 7-1 thrashing in Budapest at the hands of the Magnificent Magyars some months later remains England’s worst ever defeat – yet the lack of television coverage, among other things, allowed a mutual denial to develop about just how far behind English football was falling.
It wasn’t until Ramsey, now manager, ignored the collective perceived wisdom of the FA, the press and English football in general, taking repeated and considerable criticism while doing so, that England truly responded to the shocks of the 1950s. Had it not been for this one outstanding individual who was willing to question everything that had come before him, 50 years of hurt may well have been much longer.
The dust had barely settled on England’s remarkable defeat to Iceland before the hopeful cries began that this was to be the tremor that would finally awake the sleeping giant, the kick up the backside that English football needed to return to its rightful place. Unfortunately, the England national team has had bigger in the past, and they’ve certainly not been in short supply of late.
England fans the world over still rightfully burst with pride whenever the triumph of 1966 is mentioned, but it has had an immense distorting effect on expectations and provided an excuse for every generation since to avoid truly examining the reasons for English football falling short, just as the origins of the game were used before Ramsey broke the mould and succeed in spite of almost every other external factor.
It was the exception, not the rule. To expect England, be it players, coaches or the FA, to truly learn lessons from the most recent European Championships is to expect something that has, quite simply, never happened before.
By Matt Clough. Follow @MattJClough