Earlier this month, the chairman of the FA, Greg Dyke, admitted that “I don’t think anyone realistically thinks we are going to win the World Cup in Brazil.” After watching the recent international double-header against Moldova and Ukraine, one wonders why he even bothered holding the press conference in the first place.
It was about as necessary as the manager of Hartlepool United assembling the press to grudgingly concede that the Pool’s chances of winning the Champions League next year are looking pretty slim at present, or as surprising as Arsene Wenger admitting that he ‘failed to see ze incident’.
England were pretty hapless during the 0-0 draw in Ukraine, and even a fan with the highest prescription rose-tinted glasses Specsavers have to offer has to admit that our chances of winning the World Cup are about as thin as Wayne Rooney’s hairline.
The Ukraine game nevertheless posed many important questions. Such as: why is Kyle Walker capped at international level as a defender when, problematically, he can’t actually defend very well? Why does Wilshere so often disappear in England games, looking like a frightened schoolgirl with a few tattoos and a Joey Barton haircut, when he is far more effective at club level? And why didn’t I watch the Great British Bake Off on BBC2 instead of this snorefest?
England suffered for creativity and drive in a scrappy, congested game. The Ukrainians posed a danger on the counter-break and any fleeting flashes of finesse emerged through their ranks; Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka troubled the English defence as much as they troubled the English commentators. There was no width in attack, with Walcott, full of running yet short of brains, often forced to fight for half-chances carved out by the sheer awkwardness of Rickie Lambert, a man who looks as much as an international footballer as I look an Armani model.
Beating a country like Moldova is a bit like beating your little sister on FIFA: fun, but not really that rewarding
Still, Lambert performed like Pele and Maradona’s love-child compared to James Milner, who seems desperate to prove that there is a player more average than Phil Neville to be capped for his nation.
Average is the byword of this England era. Even the television coverage is average. Adrian Chiles continues to prove himself as almost unnervingly appropriate for fronting such occasions. Just like the English team, he’s exhaustingly boring, suffers from having no chemistry with his peers, and is far from easy on the eye. Roy Keane and Lee Dixon are little better although, to be fair to the three, creating interesting punditry on an England game is a pretty thankless task. They’d probably have more luck condensing the day’s edition of the Financial Times into fifteen minutes of engrossing analysis. Fortunately, however, they only have to drone on for about a third of the half-time interval, before ITV get to the more important business of showing those god-awful Ladbrokes adverts.
There was some cause for happiness earlier in the week when England smacked Moldova 4-0 at Wembley but, let’s be honest, beating a country like Moldova is a bit like beating your little sister on FIFA. Fun, but not really that rewarding. On their rare forays into the English half, the Moldovans looked like hungover freshers attempting to navigate campus for the first time, confused and disorientated.
Playing a formation that can only be described as 9-1-0 didn’t really help. They didn’t so much as park the bus as park the team aeroplane, all of their luggage, and the cabin crew to boot. And anyway, even that result came with a side helping of despair and disappointment; double goal scorer Danny Welbeck was harshly shown a yellow card (and so missed the Ukranian clash) for kicking the ball away a millisecond after the referee blew his whistle.
As a result of those two performances, England find themselves sat atop of Group H. I say ‘sat atop’, what I really mean to say is ‘balancing precariously on a tightrope of limited expectation’. Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland all find themselves within three points’ reach of England, with Roy Hodgson’s men yet to beat any other team in the group apart from Moldova or, bless ’em, San Marino (international football’s answer to the ‘novelty contestant’ in the X Factor, usually mentored by Louis Walsh. Useless, but you’ve got to love them).
Rather then set such aspirational, pie in the sky targets, Dyke would be better lobbying the Premier League to implement rules that better protect the education and development of young players
This means, realistically, England have to beat both Poland and Montenegro to qualify for the finals in Brazil next year. The finals, remember, that Dyke has admitted we have no chance of winning. So would you like your dollop of footballing misery served this year or next?
It’s all very much doom and gloom at the present, and Hodgson certainly doesn’t radiate confidence. With the looks of a weather-beaten owl he despairingly sinks back into his seat at matches as Gary Neville shouts advice, eyes manically bulging. However, according to the paragon of foresight that is Greg Dyke, bountiful times are on the horizon. At his press conference, he announced two long-term targets for the English football team: ‘One, to at least reach the semi-finals of Euro 2020. Two, win the World Cup in 2022’.
No, I don’t know what he’s been smoking either. Although, with Dyke predicting our fortunes at a tournament nine years in the future, with a squad of players yet to emerge, I think it’s fair to say his predictions will turn out to be more Mystic Meg than Nostradamus.
And, other than criticize the lack of homegrown footballers in the English Premier League, Dyke didn’t really enlighten anyone as to how this delusion of grandeur will turn into tangible reality. Rather then set such aspirational, pie in the sky targets, Dyke would be better lobbying the Premier League to implement rules that better protect the education and development of young players, increasing and strengthening the pool of talent available to play for England at future tournaments.
With such structural changes difficult to implement, and with the Premier League proving resistant to change, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope 2022 will be the year of English football as, going from the Ukraine game, 2014 certainly won’t be. You never know, maybe Greg Dyke’s crystal (foot)ball wasn’t faulty and he’s actually something slightly more than the FA’s answer to Sybill Trelawney after all. Maybe England will buck the trend of dissatisfaction and a geriatric Steven Gerrard will captain us to glory in the heat of Qatar. And maybe, just maybe, Hartlepool will cause a ‘cupset’ or two on their way to that long-awaited Champions League glory.
But then again, maybe we’ll fail to beat both Montenegro and Poland and be miserable all summer. Ho-hum.