This is England: Optimism, expectation and the search for identity

Posted on June 27, 2014

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By the time June 12th 2014 came around and the World Cup was finally underway, like most Englishman, I had grown quietly confident about England’s chances of doing well in Brazil. Roy Hodgson had picked a young squad filled with fresh and talented players, most of whom were in good form at club level. There was less expectation placed on the team as a whole and it seemed that “England Expects” was becoming an attitude of the past, an antiquated ideology that was dying out as the twilight years of the Golden Generation came to a close.

Maybe, I was holding onto some misguided hope that England would play without fear, adopting the free-flowing attacking football that captivated fans and came to define Liverpool’s Premier League campaign. Or maybe, my patriotic duty to support my nation took over and I reverted to the mentality of old, a mentality which had lead us all to disappointment in 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2012.

In the end, it may have been a mix of the two which roused my initial optimism for Brazil 2014 but the outcome was much the same as it has been for the past decade and a half. England went out of the tournament with little more than a whimper. Securing a solitary point against Costa Rica in the final group game was the very least the team could do to save face but the tournament as a whole was pretty forgettable for England.

For as long as I’ve been a fan of football, England as a nation has produced some very good individual players. These players dominated the field for years at some of Europe’s best and most feared club sides (Lampard, Gerrard, Terry, Scholes, Ferdinand, Cole, Beckham et al) but when it came to the national team, there never seemed to be a ‘team’ in the literal sense of the word.

Identity crisis

For the almost two decades England have struggled to truly discover an identity. In modern football one would look at the stereotypical idiosyncrasies of other major footballing nations, the Spanish pioneering tika-taka, the efficiency and ruthlessness of the German’s, the defensive solidarity and discipline of the Italians and the flair of the Brazilians to name a few. As football teams, all of the above have pretty well defined identities even if they’ve gone through a few tweaks and refinements over the years.

On the other hand, somewhere around 1996, England embarked on a never ending search for an identity. A quest for a style of football that defines the nation, if you will, and it’s a search which continues to the present day. As a team, England are not technically good enough to pass the poorer sides to death like the Spanish do. England are not physically or mentally fast enough to counter teams with quick and penetrating counter-attacks nor are England strong enough to physically overpower and press the technically better sides into submission.

At the moment, England occupy a middle ground of mediocrity where the team play nice and simple passing in safe areas. When England are pressed by the opposition, the ball will often be passed backwards and sideways around the defence and the deep lying midfielder before one player finally decides to try and hit the Hollywood pass into the channels for the wide players to chase.

One would’ve thought that after over twenty years of the Premier League, the England team could take some sort of identity and style from it since that’s where the entire team plays their club football? It seems that’s not the case, which fuels the argument that the ‘greatest league in the world’ is actually harming the national side.

Hope for the future

Raheem Sterling in action against Italy in England's Group D opener

Raheem Sterling in action against Italy in England’s Group D opener

Brazil 2014 has shown that there are some positive signs which indicate the search for an identity and style is coming to end. The emergence of players like Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley has given hope that the nation is still capable of producing exciting, young footballers. Both of the aforementioned have that creative flair to produce something out of the ordinary and most importantly, they appear free from the shadow of expectation which has hung over so many England players.  A shadow akin to smog that bellows from an industrial factory, engulfing a vibrant and bustling city and obscuring it’s angelic characteristics.

They need to be allowed the freedom to showcase their abilities and develop into the best players they can be. And without the burden of expectation, they will no doubt flourish as they become older and more experienced.

It seems that Lampard and Gerrard have played their last games in an England shirt and this could be the metaphorical passing of the baton from the old guard to the new generation. There is hope that the national team can now free itself from the over-hyped Golden Generation, in whom so much faith was placed but so little was delivered and finally discover an identity of its own.

Whilst the failings of the national team cannot be completely levelled at the players’ feet, they were, and still are part of a Neolithic football culture that has endured for years in England. A culture which has been ignored for too long and has slowly destroyed our game from the ground-up, disguised by the veil of the highly profitable English Premier League.

Such an ingrained culture is hard to dislodge but perhaps the decades of hurt are finally beginning to awaken England fans and the Football Association to the reality of the current situation. The FA’s England Commission is the first step on a journey which should have begun at least ten years ago but perhaps if the new generation of players, the Sterling’s, Barkley’s and Luke Shaw’s of this world are freed from the shackles of expectation and given the license to enjoy playing football with Three Lions on their chest, then hopefully I won’t be telling the same story in 4 or 8 years time.

By Jamie Allen

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Posted in: Football