Misadventures in the Euro zone

The business end of the Champions League has been less sweet 16 and more a knockout for England’s elite this week, another chastening trial for the self-styled ‘greatest league in the world’. 

Misadventures in the Euro zone

And, not for the first time in recent years, we were assured ahead of kick-off Manchester City were more experienced and more Euro-wise than before, while Arsenal, theoretically the beneficiaries of the most kindly of draws, were almost unanimously tipped to break on through to the other side after slamming up against the wall at this stage four times on the trot.

The ties aren’t over yet and, as Man United showed in 1999 and Liverpool demonstrated in even more improbable style in 2005, English clubs in Europe, even at the 11th hour, have a wee bit of form in upsetting the odds.

The problem is they repeatedly manage to stack ’em so toweringly against themselves in the first place. Perhaps – whisper it in Blighty – it’s simply they’re nowhere near as good as they think? There’s a small mountain of historical evidence to substantiate the notion England, as the inventors of the game, has never quite managed to shake off its vulnerability to the debilitating effects of hubris.

Jim White, in his addictive book ‘A Matter Of Life And Death – A History Of Football in 101 Quotations’, recalls perhaps the first and certainly one of the most famous examples, in an essay about Hungary’s 6-3 demolition of England at Wembley in 1953.

The quote on which he hangs the piece is from celebrated journalist Geoffrey Green’s description of Hungary’s third goal, when Ferenc Puskas’ outrageous sleight of foot left Billy Wright tackling thin air, the England captain looking “like a fire engine heading to the wrong fire.”

But it’s a comment made by Wright himself, as the teams were making their way onto the pitch, which epitomised a raging superiority complex which the Hungarians would duly to dismantle with almost embarrassing ease.

“I looked down,” he recalled, “and noticed the Hungarians had on these strange, lightweight boots, cut away like slippers under the ankle bone. I turned to big Stan Mortensen and said, ‘We should be alright here, Stan, they haven’t the proper kit’.”

As a footballing version of famous last words, it’s up there with the unfortunate American Civil War general who, dismissing warnings he might be putting himself at risk from enemy fire, is said to have assured a concerned colleague: ‘Don’t be ridiculous, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist- .”

It took a while for England to learn their lesson back then – even a subsequent 7-1 walloping in Budapest barely accelerated the learning curve – but, 13 years later, they finally got to enjoy their summer in the sun on home soil, winning the World Cup for the first time. But, as you may have noticed, also the only time.

Indeed, Jim White makes a persuasive argument another famous football quote – Kenneth Wolstenholme’s “They think it’s all over … it is now” as Geoff Hurst crashed home England’s fourth goal against West Germany – was, though intended to be celebratory, actually gloomily prophetic.

“The triumph of the Ramsey way that summer afternoon in 1966,” he writes, “was to maroon much of English football in the Dark Ages just as the rest of the football world was emerging into the light.”

Of course things are different now, aren’t they? Although not for the England team, mind, as another World Cup horror show in Brazil last summer extended their prolonged trauma to 48 years of hurt.

But, just two years after that World Cup win – and a year after Celtic had made history in Lisbon — Man United did become the first English club to lift the European Cup when a side managed by Matt Busby and starring George Best and Bobby Charlton blew away Eusebio’s Benfica at Wembley.

But that too proved an isolated case: English football had to wait a further nine years before beginning a period of genuine European dominance as Liverpool (four times), Nottingham Forest (twice) and Aston Villa (once) all claimed the ultimate prize between 1977 and 1984, a glorious run of supremacy interrupted only by Hamburg in 1983.

The Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 brought all that to an ugly close, English clubs thrown out of Europe and, after their return, only finally regaining the summit all of 14 years later in 1999 when United confounded even their own manager – “Football, bloody hell,” said Alex Ferguson – by smashing and grabbing the trophy in the final minutes against Bayern Munich.

And, of course, there was even more of the miraculous about Liverpool coming back from the dead to beat Milan on penalties in Istanbul in 2005.

In the 10 years since then, there has been one spasm of English supremacy, with United defeating Chelsea in Moscow in 2008, followed by another win for Chelsea in 2012. But, since then, it’s been more like a reversion to normal European service, with an all-German final in 2013 giving way to an all-Spanish decider in 2014.

The stats don’t lie: for all the revolutionary changes in the English club game since the foundation of the Premier League – from the vastly inflated financial rewards to the huge influx of talent from abroad – the relentless hype surrounding the English top-flight (and to which, I think we in Ireland contribute our bit by a tendency to overstate the quality of our international players) is not reflected in the reality of what their domestic kingpins routinely achieve on the Euro stage.

Chelsea might yet buck the trend again but Barcelona’s successive dismissals of Man City – just as they twice embarrassed their noisy neighbours in the finals of 2009 and 2011 – tell us much more about what is an enduring gulf in class.

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