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July 02, 2010

Bemoaning England (Again!) - Lincoln Allison argues that England will only start winning at football if we start fielding middle class players

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison, Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of Sport and Leisure at the University of Brighton, argues that England keeps losing at football because the team is exclusively made up of uneducated, working class oiks - and uneducated, working class oiks cannot win the modern game.

For many years my paradigm example of the follies and fantasies of trying to explain human behaviour has been a football match played on 17 October 1973. England 1 Poland 1 and England champions in 1966, favourites in 1970 out of the 1974 World Cup. A simple account of the game might have it that England were jolly unlucky because they attacked for most of the game, made a lot of chances, hit the post and the bar and found the Polish goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, in the form of his life. Another dimension of bad luck was that this turned out to be the finest team in the history of Polish football; it went on to beat Brazil and to finish third in the competition.

But the simple account apparently satisfied nobody. So far as all pundits and commentators were concerned England's defeat had to symbolise a broader phenomenon of national decline. It was an example of the general stifling of talent and initiative. Or its roots were in the demise of community and therefore the congested street football which had created the skilled players of the past. It was a consequence of the mass passive culture created by television. Or it was the fault of years of inadequate educational policy. And so on.

Meanwhile, of course, if Mr Tomaszewski had had the decency to make one simple error the need for competing explanations would have been obviated and the inquests would have been replaced by enthusiastic prognostications of our chances in the forthcoming tournament. The fundamental thing to understand about explanations of human behaviour is that they are only required when our expectations are confounded. And it is equally crucial to understand that what we are normally offered are not explanations at all in any logical sense, but opportunistic expressions of ideology and vested interest.

So now, here we go again. England's "golden generation" of footballers crash out of the 2010 World Cup to Germany in the round of sixteen ( a whole round earlier than usual) and they are corrupted by money, the victims of globalisation, symptoms of social collapse or a culture which (still) discourages flair and initiative. Etc! Whatever! My greatest contempt is reserved for Boris Johnson and Dave Whelan.

The Mayor of London, who I think is a likeable fellow and with whom I often agree, trotted out the old nonsense in the Daily Telegraph about the lack of competitive sport in schools because of leftist ideology. I can assure him (and I'm quoting my own research, not anybody else's) that the impact of this was fairly minimal compared with that of the Thatcher government's stipulation of hours of work for teachers and its encouragement of the sale of playing fields.

Also, it is important to note that the sport which has suffered a near-terminal decline in state schools is cricket, yet England have arguably the most successful cricket squad in the world which currently holds, inter alia, the world 20 over championship and the Ashes. The simple fact is that most state schools do play football, but they don't play cricket. So if success in elite international sport had much to do with what went on in state schools it really ought to be the other way round.

But Dave Whelan, interviewed on Radio 5, reached an even higher level of illogicality. The problem was the Football Association, he said, and it would all be much better if the Premier League ran the England team. The first part sounds plausible, the second is ludicrous.

The FA may not actually be up to much, but surely football must be run by some organisation which looks like the FA and which acknowledges that there are 45,000 football clubs in the country, not twenty. It must not under any circumstances be run by a set of institutions whose purpose is the aggrandisement of their owners, most of whom come from abroad, which are not much interested in many cases even in the employment of English players.

Whelan himself is a purveyor of tat, the founder of JJB Sports and the owner of Wigan Athletic. One could argue that his comments are part of a considerable history of class war within the middle classes: yet again the "down to earth" businessman, who knows how the "real world" works, condemning the gentlemanly, amateurish, out-of-touch, haven't-got-a-clue chaps in blazers. They thus have a certain historical curiosity, but neither the logic of the argument nor the historical record of tat-sellers in important positions can be taken seriously.

The England team weren't very good. As an old geezer who has been watching professional football since 1953 I can assure more recent arrivals that only two or three of the current squad would have got into Alf Ramsey's winning team (which wasn't outstandingly talented) and that many of the 1966 reserves - such as Ron Springett, Brian Labone, Jimmy Greaves and John Connelly - would have walked into the current team. The USA had at least four goalkeepers whom England would have picked if they were eligible.

Of course, you don't have to have the best players to win. It can be done with tactics, application and team spirit and my favourite football fact is that when Greece won the European football championship in 2004 one of those who picked up a winners' medal was a Burnley reserve, Dimi Papadopoulos. But if you're not massively talented and not particularly well organised then you can't really expect very much. One might even argue that England did quite well under the circumstances since they outlasted the greater talents of France and Italy who were, admittedly, to differing degrees fractious and decrepit.

So what does need some explanation is the mass delusion that England were serious prospects. The fact is that English football is the object of slavish, massive hype. When I say English football here I mean the Premier League and the England team and though they are logically separate they are conflated. Journalists and pundits in sport are - unlike those in any other field - uncritical purveyors of the faith until they are let down when they squeal with pain and anguish. If you wanted a single example of this the best would be the BBC pundits covering the England-Slovenia game. The reality was that we were watching a poor and timid team struggling to a 1-0 win over an even poorer and more timid team, but suddenly it was time for protestations that the corner had been turned, brilliance was on show, the real England had finally turned up and so on. Emperor's clothes or what?

If the answer is that they were not very good it is as well to specify what they were not very good at: tactics, strategy, the ability to understand the opposition, the capacity to adapt to new situations and environments and unfamiliar problems. At this point we must bring up the obvious and important - though highly embarrassing - fact about English footballers which is that they are uneducated men of largely lower class origin whom one would not expect to be very good at these things. They have the virtues of the poor bloody infantry which are courage, stamina, hard work and physical fitness, all of which are of diminishing value.

England rugby and cricket teams have a fair smattering of members educated to think, which is why they have been able to adapt to changing problems and win world championships. So do most international football teams. But English football is best symbolised by Wayne Rooney. I suppose Rooney must be a very good footballer; his achievements are considerable. But he isn't when I've watched him. I saw him at Burnley last year achieving absolutely nothing even though he was playing against a team whose combined wages did not equal his own (and we won 1-0 which was enough to prevent Manchester United from winning the championship). And his face in the World Cup told the whole story: baffled, frustrated and angry, he never looked like a man who understood what was going on.

Before the World Cup started my youngest son, a keen footballer, announced that he was no longer supporting the England team because, "they are a bunch of arseholes". He pursued his argument by saying that there wasn't a single member of the England football squad with whom he would choose to spend an evening in preference to even the most boring member of the cricket squad. ("Yes, but they're our arseholes", protested his eldest brother.) It is not just that they are boring, dim and inarticulate; the majority of them have been involved in at least one incident which suggests that they have a sense of self-importance way above the justifiable level. They believe the hype, which is their greatest weakness. It follows that the only route to success and the ending of what will soon be fifty years of pain is the shifting of the social basis of English football. Since this is nigh on impossible I can only suggest to disgruntled England fans that they lower their expectations and take more interest in other sports.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of Sport and Leisure at the University of Brighton. His two most recent books are The Global Politics of Sport and The Disrespect Agenda: How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy. He is also the author of Amateurism in Sport.


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English soccer is useless because the players are working class, the same class that wrecked British manufacturing industry and in the 1970s nearly the entire economy. The players are as stupid as the supporters with their inane cross of St George flags on their clunky cars. Our country should rejoice when the English soccer team loses for it is a defeat for the enemy within. It is no accident that England's most dreadful lower class city should produce its most famous team - Liverpool, the team of the town of the wingeing dole-bludgers. Ninety six, not enough.

Posted by: Ernest at July 18, 2010 04:53 PM
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