England, rather predictably, failed to qualify for Euro 2008, when the rest of the world tried their hardest to get them there. A week earlier they seemed all but out, and then Croatia lost to Macedonia and Israel got a last minute winner against Russia, all of which meant that England now just needed a draw, at home, with Croatia to qualify. They had been given another chance. Another chance for redemption for Steve Mclaren, a chance to save his job, a chance for the declining reputations of Englands super stars to shine again, to walk the walk. And they blew it.
England talked of the need to get through, of how important it was for a major tournament to have England in it, of how they realized that they owed it to the country, to the fans, who they have let down, to get the job done. They talked of the respect that they had for Croatia, and how they would not take the draw they needed for granted. If you asked most of the England team to jot down the expected Croatian starting line up most would have Niko Krankjaer and Edwardo de Silva at the top of their page – and very few names after that. That’s the type of respect they had for a team that have now beaten them twice and topped the group.
Success has to be earned and is not a given right and that is where this England team fell short. Much has been made of the short comings of Steve Mclaren and many will feel that his firing has come a year to late, but these are international players called up from the top league in the world. They are training at Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs everyday. They are working under the best coaches and best conditions in the world. There’s not to much an international manager under these conditions can do but to pick the team. He may be able to inspire passion and enthusiasm in his team talks, but if you can’t generate those yourself for representing your country, you have no place in international football. And maybe that’s the clue.
Too many of this England team have under performed when they have played for England. The excuses have flown thick and fast as to what the problem is with England, from the over talked about and little substance feeling that there are too many foreign players in the league, to the wrong man, in Mclaren, being in charge, to the lack of young players coming through. The buck starts and ends with the players. Any team that has John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney in it, not to mention David Beckham when fit and available, should be competing to win a title and not failing to qualify. Yet, as Real Madrid found out during their Galactico’s phase, big names don’t win you anything if there is no desire and spirit there.
Much has been made of the inability of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard to play together. Two of the leagues best players should, on paper, make up a dream central pairing in midfield. Yet match after match they failed to deliver. Lampard has received much of the criticism at international level yet Gerrard should not escape this consternation either. Gerrard inspires and drives Liverpool yet fails to do the same for England. When he has been needed most, when England need to dig deep and look for someone to drive them forward, Gerrard has been anonymous. England have needed him to take games by the scruff of the neck and immerse himself in the battle, but he has failed them here. Lampard, the free scoring midfielder at club level may have been exposed at international level. He has been brilliant at Chelsea, when playing next to Essien and Makalele. If he were to move to Juventus or Barcelona he may be effective because of the quality around him, but when he needs to be as big as his reputation he has fallen short. His rise in the England set up coincided with Beckhams best period, and with the likes of Scholes around, he doesn’t deliver alone.
Wayne Bridge, Wright Phillips, Crouch, Bent, Defoe and Johnson have all been exposed at international level. Although this may have a lot to do with the fact that , apart from Johnson, they spend most weekends on the bench waiting for a 15 minutes or less of play each match day. All the high class training in the world can’t match actual game time. If these players harbour any ambition of being good players, and not just rich players, they owe it to themselves and the English fans, to move to clubs that will allow them to play week in and week out. If this stops them from sitting on the bench and collecting medals as squad players then so be it. Gareth Barry has been Englands best midfielder of the qualifying campaign. Barry isn’t the most talent midfielder in the squad, but is a hard working, disciplined player, who, at Aston Villa, plays every minute of every game. That is what the England squad needs. To pick players that are first choice at club level, and to widen their pool of selection. The best players should be found in the entire Premiership and not on the benches of Chelsea and Liverpool.
While Phil Neville may not be seen as a good footballer outside of Manchester and Everton, he should have started at left back against Croatia. Not only does he play every week, unlike Bridge, but with a rookie keeper in Carson, an inexperienced Lescot at centre back, a player of the experience and big match temperament of Neville was needed. He may not be the most flashy player, but he would have done the job, and brought a calmness that England lacked at the back.
Another player that should have started was David Beckham. He may not have played much in the last few months but in a one off match, that this game was, he should have been allowed to play as long as possible to influence the game in a way that none of the chosen midfield were able to. Beckham may not be the most intelligent of people but he has a very good footballing brain. The little time he had on the pitch showed that. Until Crouch scored the equalizing goal he had been starved of service. It took Beckham to deliver the cross that was needed. His range of passing and ability to pick out a target should have been utilized from the beginning. Yet ego’s seem to play a big part in this England set up. Why was Barry withdrawn for Beckham and not Lampard who was the unnoticed during the game, or the equally ineffectual Gerrard?
While the international careers of James, the Nevilles, Beckham and Campbell may be now be over, although Beckham may be allowed to gain the one cap he needs to go to 100, others should be considering their futures. Lampard, Gerrard, Cole and Robinson should all be asking themselves if they have the desire and hunger to play for their country or if they are doing more harm than good for their international team. Hard working, as well as talented, skillful, players are needed ahead of the ego’s and inflated reputations. A fresh approach is needed, an injection of players who want to represent their country and not players that have to. Players like David Bentley and Kevin Nolan, both playing for hard working, unglamourous, clubs like Blackburn and Bolton are needed. Players who will give all for the shirt.
Euro 2008 will not have England competing this summer, and as much as the big international teams are needed in this tournaments, only the teams deserving a place will be there. England aren’t one of those deserving teams.