Friday, 25 January 2008

The Ullevaal Stadium Legacy

As Fabio Capello storms the fixture lists ahead of his opening friendly as England coach against Switzerland in a couple of weeks, we might do well to glance into the history books and perhaps adjust our collective expectation of what he might find, and eventually achieve. For the clamour seems to be to recover not necessarily any lost glory (what glory?) but more importantly our playing identity - widely held as that 'Dunkirk' spirit, the passion, the reliance (if all else fails, and it will) on a team of Terry Butchers, on bulldogs & lions. This misdirected priority of course stems mainly from a prehistoric notion of how we should best address our playing style. Of greater significance however is the very image on which it is based, an image which can be easily exposed as having very little basis in fact at all.

The idea that our national side is somehow rooted in such a staunch, backs-against-the-wall resolve is born of the chief characteristics of a handful of players - and nothing more. Butcher (those shots of him celebrating World Cup qualification in Sweden back in '89 - practically headless - are largely responsible for the delusion on their own), Robson (whose complete refusal to accept the dominance of a legendary Dutch side in Euro '88 - bundling the ball home in a dying gesture of determination when all around him in white shirts had long left the stadium - could still bring a tear to the eye), and Pearce (threatening to bring an entire stanchion down in pursuit of a retaliatory free-kick winner when Basil Boli's headbutt went unpunished in '92).

Of course, Pearce also missed a vital penalty. Beckham might have made this list too for his second half against the Greeks in 2001 if it weren't for his appalling disciplinary record. In fact, if you take away these talismans and just think for a second about those crucial moments for the England team in competition in recent years, what remains of this feted 'resolve'? Increasingly pathetic shoot-outs, petulant dismissals, Gascoigne (oh the passion), and as the Croatia game irrevocably proved, a total disintegration of nerve at key moments - even when all the luck in the world is on our side. These are the things that make up the English footballing character: the exact opposite of the 'spirit' lie so widely accepted by a forgetful nation.

This same nation will of course usually bemoan rough justice when the bulldog's brittle edifice comes crashing down, when the truth is exposed. You don't need to scour the results archive for too long to realise however that we've had much, much more than our fair share of good fortune down the years.

One such example, and a perfect mirror of the Croatia debacle, is the 1-2 World Cup qualifying defeat suffered in Oslo back in 1981. Of course we eventually endured to make it to Spain the following summer, but the original ITV broadcast shows that we were falling into similar traps of complacency even then - and even after the qualification horrors of the 1970's.



Going into the game, England were sat comfortably astride a tedious looking Group 4 table. Manchester's then rivals in management - United's Ron Atkinson a touch glib pitchside with Moore, John Bond of City slightly more forthright in a sci-fi emerald studio next to Rosenthal - both fell into the now all-too familiar trap of assuming that we simply had to turn up to win. Even Kevin Keegan, conspicuous in his gusto and conviction in the eventual game (and possibly only faintly remembered as a totemic lion in battle a la Butcher due to genuine talent and insufficient blood loss on the pitch), sees fit to puff out the chest before combat: "we've no reason to fear anyone if we play like we did in the Nep Stadium". Nothing wrong with confidence Kev, but this is stretching it a bit. And should we come unstuck, there's always the customary convenience of shoddy turf - this time roaming gulls and inset sprinklers outside both penalty areas provide the scapegoat.



It's only the cameo of Peter Barnes which provides any creative vigour - albeit briefly - as England toil to recapture the initiative lost after Robson bundles it home (for the first time in an England shirt - and despite controlling the ball with his upper arm) and a sudden collapse ensues. Interesting to note here that it wasn't Eriksson who pioneered the anxious relinquishing of a one-goal lead, and that Lampard & Gerrard aren't the first top class club midfielders to wane into total uselessness for their country, as Hoddle & McDermott both go through football hell in the greying Oslofjord. But it's the performance of John Bond that lingers in the memory.



The poor man's Malcolm Allison, sallow, puffy yet flash with a Sylvian parting and synth con-man gait, Bond is shifty and distant in his punditry but is as bemused as anyone as to why England have pissed this one away. "I would have pulled him off in Hungary at half-time" says Bond of the hapless Ray Clemence (in whose turmoil Bond continues to revel whenever the opportunity arises), and during the interval in Oslo suggests the players "want their behinds kicking". Despite such sadomasochistically charged analysis, Bond is direct - and moreover rather prescient - in his verdict on the team's performance, a verdict which can be more suitably applied to today's side. Finding fault with Clemence again for both Norwegian goals, he questions the goalkeeper's mental preparedness, suggesting that he's "lost a little bit of heart for the game", and post-match openly criticises the whole team for a lack of enthusiasm and consistency. Such frank words are of course whispered (if offered at all) by ex-players or bosses these days: the suggestion that England internationals just can't be bothered, whilst far nearer the truth now than 27 years ago, is considered an outrage, an affront to the superstar diva footballer and a charge only levelled by those who surely have no understanding of the game.



No such whispering for Bond, though he does seem to whistle through his teeth a little. He's predictably bewildered and frustrated by England's inept approach play ("I don't understand it Jim"), but just as he refuses to mince his words when it comes to his inquest into the game, nor does he entertain the kind of tabloid hysteria we've tragically come to embrace, rightly dismissing out of hand Rosenthal's hastiness in asking whether or not Ron Greenwood would (or should) resign.

So while common sense and plain speaking have long since departed, some things in football never change. As the folklore of England's true grit gathers ever more momentum, the unavoidable reality of our national game remains. When push comes to shove in the big matches, true character comes through, but in England's case, it's only palpable fear that rises to the surface.

One final thought. Capello may now be embarking upon a genuine last chance for England to wrest some semblance of real pride from such all-encompassing fantasy. When Steve McClaren unwittingly announced yet another Year Zero for English football on that filthy night at Wembley two months ago, we could at least still call upon the opinions of a few ex-players still close enough to the game. The experience of a Waddle or Butcher - however it informs their points of view - stems from the last generation to play in mud, the last generation with any awareness at all of how the game used to be and what it truly means at ground level. Possibly the last generation with any opinions at all in fact.

The next crop of English talent will inevitably in some instances fall under the stewardship of the first wave of ex-Premiership celebrity, managers like Gerrard, Ashley Cole, or Ferdinand perhaps. Or Pennant. How I wonder will they maintain a player's "heart for the game" or recognise the kind of utter chaos in which the national team currently flounders? That really is something to fear.

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