The hopes of a nation of football crazy fans, what actually went wrong with England's (so called) "Golden Generation"...
What do the Hungarian side of the 1950’s, the Brazilian side of the 1960’s and the German side of the 70’s all have in common? They are golden generations of footballers. A collection of players, all from the same national team who fit together so perfectly, dominating club and international football. Puskas and Kocsis, Pele and Garrincha , Beckenbauer and Muller, some of the greatest names in footballing history. But what happened to England’s golden generation?
Since 1966 the closest England have come to winning a World Cup was in 1990, under Bobby Robinson, when Gazza and ‘the boys’ played football in a very ‘un-English’, cultured way. They had the stirring tune of World in Motion ringing in their ears, and Barnes’ rap inspiring them to a semi-final. But in about 1998 football fans could see something special was happening, the West Ham youth academy was producing some great talent, Ferguson was generating real passers of the ball and a little Liverpool striker was running rings around defenders. And what was more they were all English (accept Ryan Giggs).
The group of players that should have ended those 40 years of hurt. A midfield of Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes. Michael Owen upfront with ‘big’ Emile. Sol Cambell, Ashley Cole, JT and Rio at the back. Dream team, you would think. So where did it all go wrong?
The arrival of ‘playboy’ manager Sven. He came to the team with a number of titles under his belt. He won almost all there is to be won in Portugal with Benfica and then moved to Italy where he picked up Coppa Itlaia’s with Roma, Sampdoria and Lazio. At Lazio he proved his worth even more by winning a Serie A and the Cup Winners Cup. But when he joined England in 2001 what went wrong? His lack of discipline and relaxed attitude created an easy, ‘player power’ feel about the England team. Of course, it didn’t start badly, a 5-1 win against Germany where even Heskey scored was a great support booster for Sven. But the 2002 World Cup showed up major faults with the team, the inability for Gerrad and Lampard to play together, the lack of creativity within the midfield and a reliance on Owen to score the goals. Perhaps some of these problems have plagued managers since Sven, but his lack of backup plan when things started to turn against his team was abused in Japan and Korea. His management set a precedent for a failing England team.
The dedication to the ‘English way.’ Despite Sven being a foreign manager he still persisted with quite a rigid formation, playing Heskey upfront as a target man. Maybe Sven though that this formation and style was what the players were used to. But even at their clubs most of the top teams played in free flowing 4-5-1’s or 4-3-3’s. And it was becoming clear that a simple formation and basic tactics would get ripped apart by more creative teams who find the space between the defence and the midfield. Even now England play in a stagnant way that can’t quite be explained. For example in the pre-World Cup friendly against Mexico in 2010 England were technically outplayed and were fortunate that Mexico didn’t have a clinical finisher. Also proved emphatically by the performances in the recent U21’s European Championship when the defenders couldn’t seem to pass a ball to a midfielder. By no means am I suggesting that long ball doesn’t work but Bob Paisley once said, “It’s not about the long ball or the short ball, it’s about the right ball”, and that ‘right ball’ is something England have always failed to find. Even when the formation had been changed, by Sven or the other managers, England have looked boring and uninspired. Maybe it’s time to get Barnes back in the studio.
Gerrard and Lampard will not play together. Despite any attempt to force the two players together, it never works. Gareth Barry, Owen Hargreaves even Scott Parker were all failed attempts at bringing two of the best attacking players in the English game together. What is so infuriating is that Gerrard and Lampard are both proven good players, amassing countless honours between them. It may be a case of the two of them not producing there best for England, but it is more like to be the fact that neither are ‘clean-up’ players. Both have more rugged tacklers around them at their clubs; such as Ballack and Mascherano. England has never seemed to have that player available, apart from maybe Owen Hargreaves. What is even more staggering is the insistence still to play them both in the same team, either putting Gerrard out on the left or making either of them take more reserved role in the midfield. Even Capello cannot stop himself from picking them both, and this has clearly held back the ‘Golden Generation’.
Michael Owen goes crazy. The biggest woe for England fans has to be the demise of Michael Owen, a player who promised so much at club level and England. An amazing goal against Argentina, a beautiful finish against Brazil and a great hat trick against Germany, a real English goal scorer had arrived. With electrifying pace Owen would dodge and duck around defenders and use his eye for goal to tuck the ball into the net. Then, in 2004, he went to Real Madrid. The perfect match, the biggest club in the world, with England’s best young talent, how did it go wrong? It lasted a year, accompanied by a hamstring injury and a clear sense of not fitting in Owen couldn’t hack Spain and moved to Newcastle in 2005. His injuries were his major problem, which slowed his pace, probably the most dangerous part of his game. The fall from grace was a huge battering to England’s 2006 chances, just imagine a Rooney-Owen strike partnership, without Rooney being injured obviously.
Are we that good after all? Between David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry they have won 3 Champions League titles and 14 Premier League titles. They are good players, really good players. Perhaps some have weak spots (John Terry more than the rest) but they have performed regularly to an extremely high standard at club level but can’t replicate this at England. So if it is not the player’s fault it must be the manager, surely? But how much higher can you go than Fabio Capello? Lippi, maybe Mourinho? Capello has a proven record at winning, and has shown his tactical ingenuity. McClaren has shown his critics by winning a Dutch title with FC Twente and well Sven’s has been turned into a bit of a joke.
So that leaves no one to blame, but the phillisophy of English football and a jumble of mistakes and mishaps along the way, which is very hard for a football fan to comprehend. There is no scapegoat.
Images attributed to Nigel Wilson