Alamy Stock Photo England players celebrate.
# New Era
England's 'superiority complex' held them back for decades, so what has changed?
Paul Hayward discusses his new book and how a sense of entitlement has hampered the English game for years.

150 YEARS AGO, England played Scotland in football’s first-ever international match.

While versions of the sport are believed to have existed as early as 2500 BC in ancient Greece and Rome, England are widely considered to have invented the modern incarnation of the sport in 1863, when 12 regional clubs agreed on a set of rules and formed the Football Association.

From those humble origins, football has developed into the global behemoth that it is today, an obsession for millions around the world and comfortably the most popular sport on the planet.

However, despite being the inventors of the modern game, England have not had things all their own way by any means since that fateful day.

In fact, when people think of English football, at least until recently, words like ‘underachievement,’ ‘failure’ and ‘unrealistic expectations’ sprang to mind.

A new book by the sportswriter Paul Hayward, ‘England Football: The Biography, 1872-2022′ provides a comprehensive account of the Three Lions’ decidedly mixed fortunes in the last 150 years. Largely, it is a story of struggle as and “very often bewilderment,” as Hayward puts it.

Initially, the FA’s relationship with Fifa was so strained that England did not even enter the first three World Cups.

Still, at their first tournament appearance in 1950, they were widely touted as favourites. However, in a remarkable event foreshadowing future flops, they were beaten 1-0 by a USA side that famously featured a grave digger, a dishwasher, and a postman among other amateur players of whom little was expected.

It remains one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history and a subsequent 1-0 defeat to Spain ensured England suffered the ignominy of a group stages exit contrary to the misguided pre-tournament optimism.

That shock setback would become part of a wider pattern of England underperforming at major tournaments.

“I think the level of insularity in the English game, and the English mindset was much stronger than I thought,” Hayward tells The42. “It was interesting to trace that all the way back to the 19th century when England felt they owned the world game. And there were only four or five countries playing it internationally. In other words, all the home unions.

“So for the first 30 or 40 years of its life, international football was a very narrow concept. And then when the rest of the world began to develop and pose threats to the self-image that England had, it became very interesting particularly in the 1930s, when Italy and Austria started to emerge as formidable opposition, and then in the 1950s, when the way that England were playing the game, and the way it saw the rest of the world became serious liabilities. The English felt they didn’t need to adapt, modernise and respond to what the new countries were doing.

“They stayed largely stuck in their own ways and stuck in their own superiority complex. And really, they’ve been paying the price for that ever since because it’s taken an awfully long time for England to join the mainstream world of football and by that I mean the mainstream of passing and possession-based play, play based on skills and ball attention rather than pace, power, physicality, and directness. It’s only now that the English failure of logic and reason is being cured.”


This inherent arrogance and sense of entitlement were part of the reason why the founders of the game failed so spectacularly on the international stage time and again.

“When they did join the World Cup, they treated it as like an amateur golf tour, almost. They were hopelessly underprepared. They thought they could just sort of turn up and win it by right. They got a terrible culture shock in 1950 when they saw the way Brazil were playing and realised the game had moved on without them.”

One watershed moment, in particular, was a 6-3 defeat to Hungary in 1953, famously dubbed the ‘Match of the Century’. 

In front of a reported attendance of 105,000 at Wembley, England were dramatically outclassed by the Olympic champions who were ranked number one in the world and full of confidence following a 24-match unbeaten run.

It was another example of the Three Lions falling hopelessly short at the elite level and led to one of many bouts of soul-searching that would occur among English football’s powerbrokers in the ensuing decades.

In their first four World Cups, there were two group-stage exits and two quarter-final losses, as the inventors of the game failed to catch up with several top footballing countries that had seemingly left them behind.

It all changed, however, when a former international by the name of Alf Ramsey took charge of the English team on the back of a successful eight-year spell managing Ipswich Town, guiding the Tractor Boys to the First Division title in 1962.

A student of the game, Ramsey had learned from England’s past failures and was confident he could reverse these unfortunate trends, vowing to win the World Cup in 1966.

“Alf Ramsey had had a real front-row seat in all the worst humiliations of the England team in the 1950s — the defeats to Hungary, to the USA in Belo Horizonte,” says Hayward.

“He was an expert in what England were doing wrong. And he didn’t solve that by trying to turn them into Brazil or anybody else for that matter.

“He actually drew on the native strengths that he saw in a group of players at his disposal and he realised that England would have to come up with a highly functioning system applied by players of great character and strength and purpose. Players who were willing to buy into his formula and principles.

“The players of that era were quite difficult to control and it was hard to get them to buy into any grand design. They weren’t very well paid. They drank too much. A lot of them saw it as not a hobby, but there wasn’t the same professionalism and dedication that we see today.

“Alf Ramsey, very early in his reign, sent a message to those players: ‘If you want to come with me, come with me, if you don’t, get off the bus.’ And enough of them went with him and got the success to suggest that it was worth sticking with him and that he knew what he was doing.

“And then in the tournament itself, England were never a pretty side, they didn’t entertain their way to the World Cup, but it was kind of triumph of Ramsay’s strategising, really, that England won that World Cup with — the rest of the world would say — some favourable refereeing decisions and home advantage.”

Yet the 1966 triumph now looks more like an anomaly than evidence of England’s emergence as a major footballing superpower, as the fact that they have yet to repeat the feat 56 years on highlights.

gr8footy / YouTube

In 1970, they were dumped out of the World Cup in agonising fashion, going 2-0 up against West Germany before losing 3-2 after extra time.

Much worse was to follow. The Three Lions didn’t even qualify for the ’74 and ’78 World Cups, with the former unexpected failure costing Ramsey his job.

The German defeat in particular feels almost symbolic in hindsight — the end of an era and the beginning of a decade of pure misery for the national side.

“Bobby Charlton didn’t play a game again, the team came home kind of shattered because they thought they had a better team than in ‘66,” Hayward explains. “And you can see the start of the unraveling from there really.

“Alf Ramsey went and they didn’t qualify for two consecutive World Cups. And the neurosis and the hysteria around the England team returned pretty quickly. Because ‘66 built up this expectation that it was always going to be like that. Finally, England reached the summit of world football, which they’d been insisting they were going to do at some point in the previous 50 years. But then it all fell away from them.

“And I honestly think in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, the English psyche just couldn’t cope with the idea that 1966 was a one-off. 1966 was meant to be the norm, the dawn of an empire. And it turned out to be anything but.”

Post-1966, England certainly produced gifted individuals. The likes of Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne were especially notable for being atypical in that they were flair players rather than the more stereotypically English hard-running, tough-tackling, physically imposing but technically limited footballers. However, for varying reasons it never quite clicked at international level for a sustained period.

A memorable quote from Tony Adams circa 1996 describes the perception of the English as “all heart, no brains”.

There were moments of encouragement, particularly at Italia ’90 and Euro ’96, both of which saw England reach the semi-finals. In the latter tournament especially, Terry Venables’ side played some brilliant football that defied many of the stereotypes associated with the country’s players.

Yet despite these promising glimpses, the pattern of underachievement generally continued, as too often, the team appeared to be weighed down by the pressure imposed on them by media and fans alike.

This failure to thrive under great expectations was perhaps most apparent amid the so-called ‘golden generation’.

The likes of Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Michael Owen, David Beckham, and Wayne Rooney were continually hyped up.

Yet these world-class players struggled to live up to their reputations when putting on an England shirt and if anything, rather than growing with experience, the group became exponentially worse with each tournament.

For a period, the quarter-finals was their ceiling — exiting major tournaments at that stage in 2002, 2004, and 2006, before the humiliation of not even qualifying for Euro 2008.

2010 was hardly much better as they were dumped out in the round of 16 amid a comprehensive 4-1 loss to Germany. There was another quarter-finals defeat on penalties at Euro 2012, and a group-stage exit in Brazil in 2014, before the nadir of an embarrassing loss against Iceland at Euro 2016.

file-photo-dated-27-06-2016-of-england-manager-roy-hodgson-looking-dejected-during-the-round-of-16-match-against-iceland-at-stade-de-nice-france-issue-date-tuesday-june-1-2021 Alamy Stock Photo England manager Roy Hodgson looking dejected during the Round of 16 match against Iceland. Alamy Stock Photo

In what felt like a wider metaphor, that most recent debacle was the last major tournament appearance of the youngest player considered part of the ‘golden generation,’ as Wayne Rooney’s international career, which began with him lighting up Euro 2004 and gaining comparisons to Pele, effectively ended in excruciating frustration and disappointment.

Hayward agrees with the prevailing notion that this brilliant group of individuals never truly fulfilled their potential as a collective.

“The golden generation would have struck many people around the world as the crop of players that Germany or France would have been proud to produce — really high-level international class footballers, mismanaged into a 4-4-2 system, and who underachieved with three quarter-finals under Sven-Goran Eriksson.

“And I think the fact that England started appointing foreign managers was a distress signal. The rest of the world probably thought: ‘They have given up trying to solve their own problems so they’re now asking for help from abroad.’ Franchising out their problems, if you like, to top European coaches, Eriksson and Capello, didn’t work at all. They went back to the very Englishness of Roy Hodgson, there was some progress, but ultimately, that didn’t work either.”

And after the brief, ill-fated spell of Sam Allardyce, it took another English coach, Gareth Southgate, to make considerable progress in reawakening the sleeping giant of international football.

There are some parallels with Ramsey. Southgate too had a front-row seat to past failures, having been part of squads under Venables, Hoddle, and Eriksson, famously missing the crucial penalty in their Euro ’96 semi-final defeat to Germany.

And consequently, the perception of English football has changed immeasurably under the former Aston Villa defender’s watch. Suddenly, the notion of them being among the favourites for a major tournament does not seem so fanciful, having guided the Three Lions to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2018 and the final of Euro 2020. Moreover, tonight’s encounter with France will go a long way toward determining whether he will ever eclipse those previous two achievements. 

“It was only really Southgate that has been able to make England look like the rest of the world or the rest of the other superpowers,” says Hayward. “You no longer look at an England team and say: ‘Why are they playing that way in the summer heat? Why are they trying to win games with 35% possession? Why are they being outnumbered in midfield? Why are they hitting the ball down channels? Why do they think that 4-4-2 will win them a trophy when it’s not effective at international level?’

“Looking at England now, they look like a proper tournament team. Whether they win or not is another matter, but it’s taken a surprising amount of time for the England culture to realise that it was out of step, out of line, and out of sync with what everybody else was doing. And coming into line with the way football is played in the Premier League as well.”

soccer-football-fifa-world-cup-qatar-2022-round-of-16-england-v-senegal-al-bayt-stadium-al-khor-qatar-december-4-2022-england-manager-gareth-southgate-celebrates-their-first-goal-reuters Alamy Stock Photo Gareth Southgate has helped transform the fortunes of the English team. Alamy Stock Photo

Hayward believes the past failures, which Southgate was a part of in his playing days, have had a considerable influence on his thinking as a coach.

England no longer play a rigid 4-4-2, as they frequently did under Eriksson, while they often revert to three at the back, like they tended to do for some of the best moments under Venables and Hoddle. So despite considerable changes, some of the old characteristics remain. Unlike previous incarnations of the national side, they have been willing to learn from the past without necessarily abandoning it entirely.

“Gareth Southgate has been the most reforming, revolutionary England manager of the last three decades,” says Hayward. “He spotted all the errors and, and the cultural flaws and the neurosis and said: ‘Okay, we need to change, change dramatically.’ And that’s happened.

“Whether they can win a tournament on the back of that is a different matter. But it’s refreshing to see there has been this cultural reset in the England setup.

“I think from Euro ‘96, Southgate was certainly attuned to the flaws, but he also took note of traditional English strengths which he hasn’t thrown away, he hasn’t discarded the things that you would call assets, and even Terry Venables called them assets, he believed in English determination and resolve and building teams from tough characters.

“So, Venables was a sophisticated coach, but he certainly believed in native strengths, and Southgate, I think, has taken that on.

“But from the disasters, Southgate will have taken a lot of major lessons, one of which is that England players have developed this kind of disengagement syndrome. They were so worn down by this cycle of expectation and calamity that a lot of them were disengaged when things started to go wrong.

“And a lot of them didn’t want to go into the camp particularly and saw international duty as a chore rather than an honour. It’s hard to overstate the negativity that developed prior to Southgate taking over. The word I always use is ‘fatalism’. In many cases, there was no great enthusiasm for joining up with England because the players felt they knew how it would end, in just a horrible inquest, and it was a hassle.

“And they were in a safe environment with their Premier League clubs in Champions League football, the top six, and to go to an England camp and get knocked out in a quarter-final on penalties was just a disaster waiting to happen, and that mindset was very strong for a long time and it’s the primary thing that Southgate set out to cure.

“He wanted to make the players want to join up, enjoy the environment, feel it was a positive thing to do, a worthwhile thing to do.

“And I think one of the best attributes of his team is there’s a kind of contentment among the players. That togetherness, the way they are with each other on the field, and the way they get themselves out of trouble when they have to, as they did against Wales with a good performance after a pretty ordinary display against the USA.

“They are happy to be there, they want to be there. And they seem pretty hopeful that they can maybe win something one day, and just that shift in attitude and outlook is really big. It may not look it to other countries, but given where England were, he’s achieved a major transition.”

‘England Football: The Biography, 1872-2022′ by Paul Hayward is published by Simon & Schuster. More info here.

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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