LIAM MACKEY: Time to be less ABE and more Lincoln in World Cup

The Anyone-But-England brigade will be up bright and early tomorrow, whistling a merry tune and flexing the brims of their Panama hats.

ABE is a global brand with a reach probably broad enough to eclipse the combined support for Real Madrid, Barca and Man U and, of course, it boasts a particularly fanatical branch in our neck of the woods.

To those on the outside of football who find this bad neighbourliness a touch unseemly, it’s always worth pointing out — as I first did many moons ago — that it has very little to do with 800 years of oppression and a lot more to do with 30 years of Jimmy Hill.

Which is not to lay the blame solely at one man’s door but, while history will recall that the late Mr Hill did many good things for football, there would I think be widespread agreement that, as one of television’s first household name presenter/pundits, he came to personify a strand of hubris about England’s place in the world game that was increasingly at odds with the reality of what the national team could and — more to the point — couldn’t achieve, after the high water mark of 1966.

But, as I say, he was not alone. In 1974, Brian Clough’s infamous mocking of Jan Tomaszewski as “a clown” surely swelled the ranks of international support for Poland who, with the keeper duly playing a blinder at Wembley, proceeded to deny England a place at the World Cup in Germany that year.

And who can ever forget the 1998 Mundial in France, and Kevin Keegan offering up another own goal soundbite for the ages with the ringing declaration that “there’s only one team that’s going to win it now and that’s England”, the inevitable cue for Romania to go and score a 90th minute winner.

It doesn’t help the Three Lions’ cause that there can even be a slapstick element to this kind of thing. Think of unfortunate physio Gary Lewin celebrating their equaliser against Italy in Manaus in 2014 only to step on a water bottle and dislocate his ankle, sending him home early from the World Cup. 

Needless to say, Italy went on to win, and the team were not long in following Lewin back to Blighty, even before, as one long-suffering hack in Brazil memorably put it, the journos had completed their courses of anti-malaria tablets.

And then there was the very apotheosis of spectacularly misplaced confidence at Euro 2016, with Steve McClaren in the Sky Studios happily hailing England’s “perfect response” to Iceland equalising, blithely assuring his audience that there was “no problem” and then, seconds later, losing the power of speech and his face going into slow-motion collapse as he watched Kolbeinn Sigthorsson score Iceland’s winning goal.

Seriously, you’d have to be a stone not to hoot.

Having hit an all-time tournament-low two years ago, England went into this World Cup in Russia with rather more modest expectations, as befits a young side and a relatively inexperienced manager. But, lordy, it didn’t take long for the pundits to revert to type. A nice, bright start and an early Harry Kane goal against Tunisia — Tunisia! — was enough to have Martin Keown salivating on the Beeb: “England are playing some of the best football we’ve seen in this tournament.”

And even after the players too had reverted to type and, right at the death, only managed to snatch victory from the jaws of a draw thanks to Tunisia’s woeful defending and Kane’s admirable composure in the box, Gary Lineker was still somehow able to find it within himself to claim it had been a “pretty exceptional performance”.

Still, I suppose that makes a change from the Lions being hung, drawn and quartered by their own people. Screened earlier this week, the BBC’s documentary about
managing England, entitled The
Impossible Job, was a pretty sobering reminder that it’s no joke at all to be on the receiving end of a media and public backlash.

Good men like Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor and Roy Hodgson were exposed to toxic levels of ridicule in the job while, as Michael Owen told me in a recent interview, he had seen England players on the coach after bad night at the office reduced to something approaching abject terror at the prospect of being vilified and turned into “turnip heads” in the papers the next day.

So after all those oh-my-gods and might-have-beens and what-ifs, after all those red cards, goalkeeping howlers and penalty shoot-out defeats, after Gazza’s tears and Frankie Lampard’s goal that wasn’t, after 52 years of hurt, perhaps it’s time that England copped a break on the big stage. 

There’s a lot to admire about the squad in Russia and a lot to admire too about how Gareth Southgate has conducted himself in the impossible job. (As for that quintessentially English World Cup injury — he dislocated a shoulder while out jogging, as you do — I’m sure another former gaffer, Glenn Hoddle, could explain that in terms of karma for Southgate parlaying his missed penalty at Euro 1996 into a pizza commercial).

So maybe, just maybe, it’s time we all grew up, got over ourselves and — touched, as surely we can be, by the better angels of our nature — tried to be a bit less ABE and a bit more Lincoln when it comes to the footballing fortunes of our near neighbours.

In short, and I know it’s a big, even game-changing, ask perhaps it’s time we got behind dear old Ing-er-land at the World Cup.

What?

Yes?

No?

Oh, all right then.

C’mon Panama!


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