A victory for England before they even step on the pitch

We’ll start, given the week that’s in it, with a nod to the Leaving Cert.

A victory for England before they even step on the pitch

“England’s football team has suffered a succession of calamitous exits from major tournaments in the last 50 years — and in the 16 prior to their World Cup win in 1966. Pinpoint the year when the ‘Three Lions’ scraped the bottom of the barrel and support your answer with examples.”

Golly, where to start? You could say the low point had to be the loss to the USA in Belo Horizonte in 1950. Or back in 1974. Or ’78. Or ’94. You know, any of the World Cup finals that didn’t even bear the stamp of an England team?

Pretty strong grounds for an ‘A’ grade right there but, hey, where’s the fun in that?

It’s still hard to top 2006 when Sven-Goran Eriksson’s ‘Golden Generation’ (I know, right?) made the tournament on the back of a seamless qualifying campaign before stuttering mundanely through to a quarter-final which they lost — eye roll alert — to Portugal on penalties.

Oh, how we sniggered and the UK’s tabs wailed.

England made a lot of mistakes that year and playing Owen Hargreaves in midfield was far from the worst of them. Somehow, someone somewhere thought it a good idea to okay the decision that the wives and girlfriends — Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole and Coleen Rooney among them — could stay down the road from their boys in the spa resort of Baden Baden.

Belle of the players’ partners had to be Frank Lampard’s then girlfriend Elen Rives who was reportedly prevented from boarding her flight with umpteen pieces of hand luggage and then channelled what may have been a sense of righteous indignation by belting out a rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ on a bar table once in Germany. The kicker to it all was the revelation that the WAGS — a term officially embraced a year later by all good dictionaries — had been billeted in the same hotel as the majority of the English press pack, thus proving yet again that there is no smoke that the yahoos in the English FA cannot whip into a blazing inferno.

The media’s role in sports can, and often is, overblown but the fourth estate has been a supporting actor — a snarling hitman, more often than not — in this particular drama for a long time now. If 2006 showed the FA anything, it was the need to repurpose the national team’s relationship with the press pack.

Instead, years passed, the relationship soured and festered ever more and the obvious was ignored. Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard are just some of the ex-players to have spoken about the pressures they felt while wearing the national strip and the boil that everyone could see on the end of their nose was never lanced.

When Iceland evicted Roy Hodgson’s England from Euro 2016 with a 2-1 win at the round of 16, the FA’s outgoing chairman Greg Dyke suggested players had been “scared” and scratched his head at why they could invariably sail through the qualifiers and then find the rocks so assuredly come the finals.

“The British press, like it or not, are probably the most intensely passionate about the game in the world and that has a spillover effect,” said the FA’s CEO Martin Glenn in the aftermath of the same result. “The consequence of which is people probably play not to make a mistake, as opposed to play to win.”

Finally, it seems as if the lesson has been learned.

On Tuesday, all 23 of England’s squad were present and available for media duties at the team HQ of St George’s Park. No questions were off limits. A format observed by manager Gareth Southgate at the Super Bowl earlier this year and used in the past by the All Blacks, it was greeted as revolutionary by both sides.

Danny Rose opened up on an extraordinary tale of personal woe that involved his depression, an uncle’s suicide, racism and a shooting incident at the family home. And Raheem Sterling, hounded disgracefully by some papers over his gun tattoo, disarmed everyone with his demeanour and reason.

It may be that England will fall short again. It may be that sections of their own media will again bear their claws at the first hiccup as they attempt passage through Group G. Nothing we have seen from them on the field of play suggests they are destined for great things but it may be that they have finally figured out how to not lose it in the papers. It’s a start.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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