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Launching The England Retrospective
Ok, so I’ve been working on this for a while. And I want to stress that if you don’t like England much, you should still find plenty to enjoy here. After all, it’s the story of the team’s continued failures, so you might find a twisted sense of amusement there.
It always feels strange that I’m emotionally invested in the England national team. My own left-wing politics while supporting Liverpool don’t exactly make the Three Lions the most natural fit. And I’m half-Scottish, so it’s not as though I don’t have another option. But the truth is, as hard as I’ve tried to switch it off, I just can’t.
For the first ten years of my life, football didn’t interest me too much. I have clear memories of playing outside while everyone watched England get knocked out of the 1998 World Cup and truly, truly having no interest. Who cared about some people kicking a ball around?
It was the 2002 World Cup when things changed for me. I was, to put it charitably, kind of a weird kid who struggled to make friends and fit in. With hindsight, I was obviously struggling with gender dysphoria and couldn’t fit the masculine mould everyone expected me to fill. So when everyone else at school watched the World Cup, I started following it in the hope that it would offer a cheat code to masculinity.
That obviously didn’t happen, but here I am. Football stuck. Watching and supporting England at major tournaments stuck.
What you’re going to read is the tactical story of the England team from just before the 2002 World Cup onwards. Beckham-dependence, Gerrard/Lampard conundrums, Rooney’s ever-changing positions, the lot. The real story, not the one we’ve all remembered.
With that out of the way, let’s get started.
The revolution came to European football, and England missed it.
When Liverpool supporters charged towards primarily Juventus fans at Heysel Stadium in 1985, causing 39 deaths, the response was understandably outrage. Liverpool immediately withdrew from European competition. Under political pressure from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, keen to distance the country’s image from violence and hooliganism associated with their football fans, all clubs from England were banned for the next several years. By the time an English team returned to European competition in 1991, football in the country would have hit rock bottom again with the Hillsborough disaster, before the Premier League would usher in a cleaner and safer image of the English game.
Having won seven of the last nine European Cup titles, English teams suddenly weren’t even allowed to compete. That of course led to the best talent choosing to play elsewhere, but in the days when you could only field three foreigners, this wasn’t the disaster it would be today. The bigger issue was tactical. With no internet and no TV coverage of sides beyond British shores, English football had little idea how the game was evolving on the continent.
The defining team of the late 1980s was, without question, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan. He was a radical figure off the pitch – a manager of one of Italy’s top clubs who never played the game at professional level – and a revolutionary one in the way his side played. The irony is, in so many ways, this was exactly the kind of football English fans loved. “[Sacchi] took a lot of his ideas from England”, explained Roy Hodgson, who certainly did not miss the Sacchi revolution as his career took him across Europe (more on him later). “The way Milan played was much more akin to a top British side than a typical Italian side.”
Sacchi’s innovation was to take the Dutch style of Total Football, with its universalism and relentless high pressing, and add some of those innovations to a more aggressive English-style 4-4-2. The crux of it was to stay compact at all times and limit the spaces between the lines, the shape’s classic downside. This limited the individual imagination of some star players, but the collective was prized at all times. The result was a thrilling blend of Italian organisation, Dutch fluidity and, crucially English aggression. It was the perfect modern update to the classic English style that was growing stale.
So of course no one across the English Channel saw it.
English football had always been in a certain mode. Here’s a way to think about it. Imagine you’re on a night out with a group of mates and you’re all very drunk at this point (if you don’t drink, let’s say you’re with some friends who do, work with me here). One of the lads, maybe Scottie or Smithy or Johnno, has a very stupid idea: he’s going to down a row of pints, or he’s going to jump into a river, or some other ridiculous stunt. It’s obviously a daft idea, and there’s absolutely no good reason to do it. But on that night, you’re egging him on. He’s going to do it, and when he does, he’ll be a legend.
English football lives for its legends. It was always about the “Roy of the Rovers” player who could pick up a game by the scruff of the neck and win it himself. Midfielders would “cover every blade of grass”, bursting into the box to score goals but still tracking back to make sliding tackles. Tactics don’t matter, just as the logistics of how Deano is going to do his stupid stunt on a drunk night out don’t matter. Big gaps between the lines weren’t a primary concern.
It was something the influx of big foreign stars during the 1990s would take advantage of. “English defences always played a back four, with one line, which meant they had to defend the space behind”, explained Dennis Bergkamp1. “The English had two central defenders against two strikers, so they couldn’t really cover each other. As an attacker I liked that because it meant you could play in between the lines.” Europe’s brighter thinkers were quickly finding ways to exploit the backwards model of English football.
If things were behind at club level then they were a whole lot worse for the national side. The English FA’s (known simply as “The FA”, in as casual an act of English arrogance you’ll find) coaching director Charles Hughes was a strong advocate of the long ball game, hitting it quickly towards the “position of maximum opportunity” (POMO). These ideas, based on now-discredited statistics by Charles Reep 40 years earlier, formed the backbone of how England played. It was about hitting it long, roughing up opponents, and dinosaur methods.
England reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, but if we’re honest it wasn’t exactly a vintage performance. Sir Bobby Robson’s team generally scraped through games, relying on late winners against Belgium and Cameroon before falling to Germany on penalties. If England had found a way to win that semi, would anyone really fancy their chances over Argentina in the final? Against Diego Maradona, who so famously vanquished their neanderthal approach four years earlier? It’s hard to imagine things working out.
Graham Taylor, every bit in line with the Hughes approach, managed to make 1990 look like a golden age. England long ball’d their way out of Euro ‘92 at the group stages and didn’t even manage to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Things did become more tactically complex under Terry Venables and especially Glenn Hoddle, but there was never a sense of a post-Sacchi update of what England were supposed to be doing. “We’ve not had a coaching philosophy, and we’ve needed one to eradicate all the damage done through the eighties by the Hughes approach to football”, says Gary Neville2. “With the European ban after Heysel, we lost our way altogether. We became obsessed with power and direct football.” English football had been kicked out of Europe’s top table, and 15 years later, it was still failing to claw its way back in.
When Kevin Keegan resigned from the England manager’s chair after Euro 2000 disaster and a very poor start to World Cup qualification, things were way off course. We were more than a decade removed from the Sacchi revolution and England still hadn’t caught up. The truth no one wanted to admit was that the answers weren’t to be found on these shores. The time had come for the so-called inventors of the game to do the unthinkable and appoint a foreigner. Of course, knowing you need one is a far cry from finding the right foreigner to hire, adopting the right style of football and picking the right players. All you’ve done is admit the problem, which is the first step but a million miles from the last one.
It’s something, though. And it’s where this story begins.
Cox, Michael (2017). The Mixer. London: HarperCollins.
Neville, Gary (2011). Red: My Autobiography. Great Britain: Bantam Press.