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Why England 'forgot how to play football' after winning the World Cup in '66

Henry Winter chats to The42 about the Three Lions’ 50 years of hurt and the many ignominies in this time including the Sam Allardyce debacle.

Iceland players celebrate after beating England at Euro 2016.
Iceland players celebrate after beating England at Euro 2016.
Image: Jonathan Brady

DESPITE MORE THAN a few false dawns ever since, it is now over 50 years since England won the World Cup for the first and only time.

Since then, there has been perennial frustration at various World Cups and European Championships.

Two semi-final appearances in 1990 and 1996 aside, the English team generally tend to disappoint their followers at major tournaments.

And this summer in France was no exception to the trend, as the team appeared further away than ever from emulating the fabled feats of Alf Ramsey and co.

Roy Hodgson’s hapless collection of multi-millionaire Premier League stars exited Euro 2016 following a humiliating second-round defeat to a highly unfancied Iceland side that had a fraction of the Three Lions’ population and resources.

The country that invented, codified and briefly mastered the beautiful game ultimately “forgot” how to play it, in the words of a new book: 50 Years of Hurt: The Story of England Football and Why We Never Stop Believing.

The book is written by Henry Winter, the chief football writer of The Times and a five-time winner at the Sports Journalists’ Association awards.

For this project, Winter takes a comprehensive look at the multiple complex issues preventing the English football team from realising its potential over the years from a perceived ‘fear of flair’ to the intensive pressure that comes with managing the team and the ‘too-much-too-young’ culture that many feel is hampering many of the country’s brightest academy prospects.

As he examines these issues, Winter interviews some of the most influential past and present figures in the English game from Jack Charlton to Steven Gerrrard, as he bids to discover potential solutions to persistent problems.

The42 recently caught up with Winter to discuss all these issues and more…

What made you want to write the book?

I’ve covered England for the last 250 or 260 matches. As a fan and as a reporter I’ve been perennially frustrated with England’s travails. I had a few months free so for four or five months, I travelled round.

I went over to America to talk to (Frank) Lampard and(Steven) Gerrard — (to find out) what are the problems with England, (such as) the art of penalty-taking. Why players who are so good with their clubs — Lampard and Gerrard in particular — just fade when they put on the England shirt.

I went to see Michael Owen, and I talked to someone from every tournament, from Jack Charlton onwards, just to get their take on why England keep failing.

Initially, it was quite a pessimistic book, but the more people I talked to, the more I became encouraged because everyone kept saying ‘England still matter’. Lampard kept saying ‘I would love to play for England again’ — just to put that shirt on one more time.

So England matter and there were practical solutions like practising penalties more, instilling more belief, psychologists, winter breaks, things like that. I did start off with hundreds of black clouds over my head, but there were a few shafts of sunlight by the end.

What surprised you over the course of your research?

England v Malta - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group F - Wembley Stadium Dele Alli is one of the most gifted youngsters to emerge from the English system in recent times. Source: Mike Egerton

The amount of money that’s given to young players when they really should be given trust funds or performance-related pay. They’re given these huge sums and they just don’t know how to deal with it.

For some of them, it just distracts them — because they go for the cars, they have their entourage, they take their eye off the ball. Just talking to agents and players and managers and people at the FA — that was a huge concern.

These kids are set up for life at 17, so do they have the hunger? The good ones like Dele Alli and Harry Kane do, but unfortunately, some talent falls by the wayside.

Has the increasing lack of physicality in football in recent years had a detrimental effect on the English side, given the traditional values with which their style of play was renowned?

England - UEFA Euro 2016 - Media Activity - June 14th Adam Lallana is considered one of England's most technically gifted footballers. Source: Owen Humphreys

Some of the teams that England have lost to over the years, like Iceland, are more physical teams. England have some technical players like Adam Lallana — there is talent in that team.

The issue is in the head. They’re just scared, they freeze, they think of what the headlines are going to be. Are they going to end up doing pizza ads if they miss a penalty? Are their kids going to get teased at school because they’re being battered in headlines? What ratings are they going to get?

The ratings in newspapers plays a huge part. It annoys me a little bit because I think ‘I hope you read the piece rather than reading the ratings first’. Although it’s a huge thing for them, because it’s a numerical evaluation of their ability — it’s quite brutal.

Do the England players care enough, or do they perhaps care too much?

Soccer WCup 2018 England Malta Wayne Rooney often receives criticism for his England displays. Source: Tim Ireland

They definitely care. Rooney could retire and have a quieter life with Manchester United, but he always reports for England duty even with a niggle and despite criticism of his form, and so do many of them.

We live in an age where some club managers say ‘take the international break off,’ say if the player has a little niggle or hamstring. No one will know, and that does happen with players. But some of them want to report, which is great, so they definitely care.

Your book talks about a ‘fear of flair’ in English football, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. Would there be a greater appreciation for a Glenn Hoddle-type player nowadays?

Soccer - Home International Championship - Wales v England Glenn Hoddle pictured during his England playing days. Source: EMPICS Sport

I hope so, because this fear of flair didn’t exactly help us in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s an individual in Ross Barkley — no one would compare him to Glenn Hoddle, not even Evertonians, they play in different positions and (there is) a different level of talent (between the two).

But Ross Barkley does have ability and we shouldn’t be scared of promoting that talent. There are good technical players in the squad — I would like to see more in defence. John Stones coming into defence is really important because he’ll give England an extra element.

Do we need two holding midfielders in every game? No, I’d like to see a more creative individual alongside Eric Dier. So I think they are gradually entering the age of enlightenment, but it’s taken a while.

Name the best team England have had since 1966 in your opinion. 

Soccer - World Cup Italia 90 - Semi Final - West Germany v England West Germany's Lothar Matthaus (left) consoles England's Chris Waddle after he missed a penalty. Source: EMPICS Sport

’90 and ’96 were both terrific teams. They both got semi finals — obviously penalties were the frailties. There were leaders in those groups. There were strong individuals – Stuart Pearce, Terry Butcher, Alan Shearer. There were real characters in there and I think England do miss that at the moment.

And there were two good coaches in there — coaches who went into the tournaments on the back of horrendous abuse from us lot in the press.

Bobby Robson, who was one of the world’s greatest men and is much missed, he got terrible stick when it became clear that he was leaving. But then the FA weren’t going to offer him a new contract.

The same with (Terry) Venables. Glenn Hoddle was in place and Venables got a lot of criticism. The backpage of The Daily Mirror had mocked up his head in a noose before the warm-up friendly against Norway in the lead up to the Euros. They went out almost as heroes, Robson and Venables, so two good English coaches, and it’s frustrating.

What’s key to England getting to the level of a Spain or a Germany?

Arsenal Training - London Colney World Cup-winning defender Per Mertesacker is perceived as a very grounded footballer. Source: Adam Davy

A winter break. Look at the other countries and their players tend to be fresher over the summer. Obviously, some of them are playing over here but it can exhaust players playing in the Premier League.

A lot of (English players) get injured, get metatarsals. You’re four times more likely to suffer a stress fracture in English football than you are in a league that has a winter break. So if I was saying one thing that clearly needs to be done, it would be a winter break.

I would definitely have trust funds for kids, make them hungrier, make them performance-related. I would also encourage players to see the outside world. They’re in their bubble. They have everything done for them. There’s almost a concierge service for them.

Anything on England or club duty, there’s always someone there to sort it out for them. If you don’t take responsibility off the pitch, can you necessarily take responsibility on the pitch? I don’t think so.

But I look at the teams that have done well and I think that the Spanish team are a pretty grounded lot. The Germans, on the whole, are a pretty grounded lot.

You talk to (German defender) Per Mertesacker – he’s a really interesting character who did the German equivalent of A levels and he’s a bright individual.

It’s partly the press, partly the agents, partly the clubs, we just mollycoddle the players. They’re nice kids on the whole. It’d be good to just get them out of the bubble and (let them) see a little bit of the real world.

One minor but interesting part of the book from an Irish perspective in particular is the reference to the time when Martin O’Neill was interviewed for the England job in 2006, with Steve McClaren ultimately taking over instead. How would he have done as England manager? Would he have been a good fit, do you think?

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France v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Lyon Ireland manager Martin O'Neill celebrates a goal. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

I personally think it should be our best against your best and if there aren’t enough English managers of the top quality, which there aren’t, then we have to work with the next level down – the Allardyces, the Southgates, Eddie Howe potentially. And then work at St George’s Park on improving our native coaching talent.

I’m one of Martin O’Neill’s biggest fans. When he was at Leicester, one of the great joys was going into his office and talking about JFK, talking about (James) Hanratty and just talking about life — as well as the footballing issues of the day with Leicester City.

Speaking as a humble layman, a journalist, he has an effect on me. I look forward to the time I see Martin whether it’s for a chat, or a drink or a meal or just a press conference. He’s an incredibly uplifting individual and he’s one of those managers, like a Klopp or a Guardiola, who I would imagine players just love playing for because of his charisma.

He’s got something special about him and he loves the game with a passion. He was obviously a terrific player, he learnt under people like Brian Clough. He’s an incredibly intelligent, inquisitive individual. I think he’d be a brilliant lawyer or politician, if he wanted to, if football hadn’t shaped his life.

He’s a special person, Martin.

Was Big Sam losing his job essentially a case of history repeating itself in a way, with an England manager stepping down for non-footballing reasons á la previous coaches such as Glenn Hoddle and Sven-Göran Eriksson, and do you think he had to go? 

Sam Allardyce - Bolton Sam Allardyce recently left the England job after just one game in charge. Source: Dave Howarth

Definitely. It would be a very easy book to update. You’d just change it to 52 years of hurt and then just tack Sam Allardyce on to the chapter about ‘what happens when the managers get the job and their judgement goes’.

Absolutely he had to go. We can’t get too parse on moralising about it. But the England manager’s job does come with certain ambassadorial qualities, and you can’t say that about your employer.

He was guilty of folly, naivety, stupidity and in his defence, loyalty, to a friend he’d known for years who he wanted to help out. He should have been cannier. He should have realised that there are people out there to trap him. You talk to players and they go ‘we trust so few people’. Wayne Rooney invites someone into his house and the next minute, the punch with (Phil) Bardsley in the kitchen is on the internet.

So you have to be very suspicious.

You’re on record as saying Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe would be a good choice to replace Allardyce. What makes him stand out from the other possible candidates?

Watford v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League - Vicarage Road Eddie Howe is one of the names that has been linked with the vacant England job. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

I just think he has a certain self-belief. If you’re in his company, you think here’s a man of substance. It’s a slight reflection on the fact that England don’t have a huge pool of managers to draw from.

But Eddie Howe’s got a promotion and kept Bournemouth up (in the Premier League). You’re not exactly getting one of the greats in to manage, but he can grow into it. I think the issue would be whether he could deal with the scrutiny off the pitch with young children, which is always an issue.

International management, it’s often said, is an old man’s game — there’s definitely some truth in that. Younger managers like to be on the training ground the whole day, they always want to be involved, whereas when you’re England manager, you get the players for a few days each month. You send them back to their clubs and hope they don’t get injured.

On a topic that’s also of particular interest from an Irish perspective, what can be done to maximise the potential of young kids and make them learn to love the ball?

I think the government has a responsibility here, particularly when it comes to the health of kids if you look at the provision of sport, or lack of it, in state schools.

The government should be getting skills coaches, getting players when they come to the end of their careers and pay them to go into schools and teach left foot, right foot and just work on it.

(Enable them to) acquire the basics and improve them technically. So then when they do step into the professional world, they do have certain skills. It would help the government long term with the obesity time bomb and it would improve the national team’s fortunes.

Finally, do you think you’ll see England win a World Cup or a European Championships in your lifetime?

I’m 53 and I want to live into my 90s. Another 40 years? No… I just can’t see it. The opposition are incredibly good and England have faded.

50 Years of Hurt: The Story of England Football and Why We Never Stop Believing by Henry Winter is published by Bantam Press. More info here.

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