Dead Rubber: England’s Ground Zero

 

The lads

The lads

England have failed once more. In a novel variation on a theme, they’ve done it as quickly as they possibly could this time. Costa Rica provided a merciful bolt to the head, putting them down completely by beating Italy, meaning the English have nothing to play for against Costa Ricans who have nothing left to do. England will contest a pointless match, nothing more than a perfunctory act of clerical necessity. The ignominy of ignominies. The stark rubble of ground zero. They will try to win. We must accept with pained grace that they try. Some things just need to fail.

What team will Roy Hodgson play? There is clamour to unleash youth, a desperate torrent of subdued promise to flush away the filth. Offer opportunity, such as it is, to Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A sweetly-fragranced unguent to apply gingerly to the gaping exit wound. Players will need to make way for the cause, and one of them may well be Steven Gerrard, likely to retire from international football after the tournament, leaving him on 113 England appearances. Frank Lampard, so far an unused substitute, has made 105. The owners of a combined 218 caps could end up sitting on the bench together as their international careers come to an end. it would make for a sad end if it wouldn’t be so devastatingly appropriate.

Behold, two international careers that have dovetailed with such pointless synchronicity, petering out with trademark frustration. The final vestiges of a Golden Generation for which no amount of inverted commas will ever contain the requisite irony. While so many peers to have won 100+ caps for their countries have been around long enough to grasp triumph – Thuram, Buffon, Cafu, Xavi, Pirlo – England’s raft of recent centurions have departed only with regrets. David Beckham, Ashley Cole, now Gerrard and Lampard – all will remain tainted by the cumbersome label that earmarked them for greatness, but only weighed them down.

Let them die as they lived. Sit Gerrard and Lampard together on the same bench, competing over the same space for one last time, a tragic final encore of their greatest hit. If it sounds harsh, it’s because it needs to be, for the perverse benefit of the generation to follow.

Let the youngsters witness what it’s like to flounder completely, make them see what failure truly looks like. Two indisputably fine players reduced to ash. Monoliths of their domestic game: an internecine duopoly on the world stage. Then, only then, might a generation of England players emerge, blinking in the harshness that only fresh light can bring, and realise what it means to be a part of this team. Only then might they seek not to play for England, and everything that has now come to mean, but to play for playing’s sake. To play for the lost and pure pursuit of fun. Because no matter what Frankie and Stevie will insist, the first dozen memories of England they will ever have on any given day won’t be ones of fun. They will carry this burden, and this will be their true legacy.

218 wasted caps. Don’t let that be you, boys. Don’t let that be you.

Advertisements

England Euro 2012 Bingo – Italy

Introduction

England Euro 2012 Bingo – France

England Euro 2012 Bingo – Sweden

England Euro 2012 Bingo – Ukraine

England have left the party as they so often have in the past, arriving with favour-currying bottles of Grey Goose, only for revellers to gradually discover that they’ve merely decanted Glen’s Vodka into some brand-name empties before leaving, shamefaced and friendless. And so, too, draws to a close England Euro 2012 Bingo. What began as a flippant attempt at cataloguing clichés eventually incorporated a growing sense of subversion, as certain tropes were put to rest by a savvy manager who leaves with his reputation bolstered amongst fans, media and possibly even players who were slow to accept him. Some hardy perennials – the self-destruct button, the futile defiance against the odds, simply not being good enough – can always be relied on to thrive, but the sense of entitlement, of clinging to a fading past, means that the ubiquitous, smothering presence of 1966 and arrogant claims to the game’s heritage have been waylaid. Perhaps not forever, but for the time being at least, they promise hope of something less worthy of jaded cynicism in future times.

False hope was tantalisingly proffered by Riccardo Montolivo’s penalty miss, but it didn’t matter, because once again England were simply not good enough: There were plenty of examples of this, but none more damning than Ashley Cole’s penalty miss. No-one has ever, or will ever, say of a penalty: “He’s caught it well, but the run-up just wasn’t right.” His stuttering run-up was a dismal exercise in studied nonchalance, and it sapped his shot of power and accuracy. Trying to psyche out Gigi Buffon with a tricksy run-up to the ball was simply never, ever going to work given the goalkeeper’s experience. This is something Cole can match him for, and yet the arrogant preamble to his tame kick was something you might expect from someone much younger and greener than a man who, while much-maligned, has quite possibly been England’s most consistent top-level performer since Gary Lineker.

Futile defiance against the odds: Defeat in these circumstances was a lot easier to take than failures of yore given the simple fact that Italy deserved it. England fans and players have bemoaned the lottery of the shoot-out, and the fickle nature of fate, but these traits would never have been more apparent than if Italy had lost on this occasion. There are some positives to take from the tournament though, chiefly the fact that Roy Hodgson has taught his team how to defend again. This was the faint tactical promise that shone not so much like a beacon, but like the functional high-vis coat of a paramedic: serviceable, reliable, dependable, utilitarian. For all the talk of Andrea Pirlo running the show, he still couldn’t quite engineer a goal for his team, which speaks of something positive for England’s obduracy. The odds were already stacked against England before the tournament began, due to a litany of injuries, Wayne Rooney’s suspension, John Terry’s court case, the Rio Ferdinand fiasco, and the overarching fact that Roy Hodgson had to juggle them all in a matter of weeks. The fact that England took Italy as far as they could’ve in spite of the obstacles heralds a restoration of a fighting spirit that had been lamely submissive in South Africa two years ago.

Bad luck! – If it could be said that footballers are responsible for making their own luck, then Ashley Young paid a fair price for a poor tournament by hitting his penalty against the bar. The fact is, pre-tournament brouhaha’s aside, nothing had gone against England on the pitch. There can be no recriminations, no vengeful, skyward fists – England got what they deserved and can blame no-one or nothing for their elimination. Indeed, there is some slither of good fortune to be found in the fact that it was Young that missed a penalty, rather than someone who had acquitted themselves fairly well, such as Andy Carroll. The man whose headed goal against Sweden marks a subtle reinvention from joke-butt to burgeoning Crouch-like cult figure could well have been destroyed by such a high-profile failure. Young, whose four-game disappearance was a source of huge frustration, is more worthy of some guilty introspection, as he seeks to right wrongs in the future.

Grown men crying – Well, obviously. ’Twas ever thus. ‘Twas ever fat men smearing face paint with their own salty emotions. ‘Twas ever retired stalwarts choking back the tears of vicarious adrenaline. ‘Twas ever England, England, England…

The Joy of Sect – Arsenal, Arsene Wenger and The Simpsons

Arsenal fans can look at a seventh season without a trophy, as well as their burgeoning status as a selling club to the glitterati, as hard evidence that things ain’t what they used to be. The question has now changed: no longer do supporters ask ‘Is this is a club in decline?’, but ‘What is a reasonable response to this decline?’.

I’ve often asked myself the same questions regarding The Simpsons, formerly the best television show of all time, whose goodness has been sadly diluted by years of contrived celebrity cameos, vapid pop culture references, and inconsistent characterisation. The Simpsons and Arsenal have both seen better days, leaving fans to pine for past glories that seem fainter with the passing of time. While the quality of both the show’s animation and the club’s stadium have improved, neither have masked the decline of the products they represent, illuminating their shortcomings. Now both institutions can only look back on their peak periods as glorious relics, as they desperately retrace their steps through the intervening years, in order to reclaim mislaid heritage.

One particular episode can be stretched like an allegorical balaclava and clumsily pulled over Arsenal’s symbolic head, in a suitably ham-fisted way of explaining the club’s malaise. The Joy Of Sect saw the residents of Springfield indoctrinated into the cult of Movementarianism (think Scientology meets Raëlism), based on promises of a journey to a planet named Blisstonia, which they would reach via a spaceship being assembled in the ‘secret barn’. Eventually, they discover that they have been hoodwinked all along by an oddly charismatic charlatan known only as ‘The Leader’.

The beginning of the episode is highly appropriate given the state of Arsenal, England’s crisis club du jour. Homer takes Bart to the airport in order to “welcome the team home”. The team in question returns to a big crowd, to their surprise since they just lost the big game. It then becomes clear that everyone is there to heckle them, throw garbage at them, and to upturn the plane in rage. Increasingly, Arsenal supporters are making like Moe Syzslak, and throwing rocks at their own by booing their own players (Emmanuel Eboue, now playing for Galatassaray, in 2008, and most recently Andrey Arshavin, now on loan at Zenit St. Petersburg.) This uprising amongst the support could well be the tipping point for the club. Whether it results in immediate change or not, either in the form of Wenger’s dismissal or, more feasibly, extra investment in the playing squad, the dissent has wrought its effects already. The parameters of success have been assessed and redrawn. Wenger has recently remarked that finishing fourth in the table should be considered “a trophy“, despite it’s lack of cup-like form, and lacking as it does any requirement for silver polish.

Marge, with her staggeringly tall blue hair, has often been said to bear a physical resemblance to Ashley Cole. But the two bear further comparison: when Cole left the club for Chelsea, it was famously due to Arsenal’s reluctance to pay him more money (as Barney Ronay notes, he may have been right to do so, as his departure from the club signposted a withering of the club’s financial muscle which still stymies them). Much like Marge, he saw the writing on the wall, and realised that the promises that were made were not as they seemed, and wouldn’t bring the bliss he craved. When Marge makes good her escape from the Movementarian compound, she has to dodge such obstacles as crocodiles, wolves and landmines. She is also chased by a sinister orb (a reference to ‘Rover’, the guard balloon from 1960’s TV show The Prisoner). Cole was escaping an orb of his own as he ran away from the club – an orb representing dwindling standards, transfer market atrophy and seven trophyless seasons. In the end, the orb crushes Hans Moleman, who Wenger would resemble more closely but for his Lego-like helmet of hair.

Marge convinces Bart and Lisa to forget life with the Movementarians by presenting the kids with ‘hoverbikes’- in reality just bikes suspended with wires, with Ned Flanders blowing a comb-and-paper to give them a mystical aura. Eventually Homer too is convinced that not is all as it seems and appeals to his fellow Movementarians to see the evidence for themselves. He opens the door to the secret barn, and everyone is stunned to see the spaceship present. Homer was expecting nothing, only to be presented with the apparent sum of all the promises made by the Leader. Such false dawns are not unfamiliar to Arsenal fans, with hopes raised in the past few years by such events as last season’s 2-1 defeat of Barcelona, reaching the Carling Cup Final, and Robin Van Persie’s recent goalscoring, injury-free hot streak. These dawns were the equivalent of Homer exposing “one hell of a spaceship” – a momentary, but illusory, promise of glory.

The leader flies away on a hoverbike of his own, absconding with the sacks of money extracted from the gullible saps that believed him. Wenger has been blowing through a comb-and-paper of his own throughout these barren years, by giving voice to promises never fulfilled, exalting a bright new tomorrow that never breaks through the carapace of recurrent false dawns. Wenger, like Flanders and the Leader, keeps making these mystical noises in an effort to disguise the depressing reality; that the promises are just as misleading as the kids’ hoverbikes, fanciful dreams suspended by wire, always destined to fall.

Ultimately the Leader crashes into the home of feckless hick Cletus Spuckler, who produces a shotgun with which to extract the bags of money that fell with him. In this scene, I cast Roberto Mancini as Cletus, using his position of power (substitute Cletus’ shotgun for Sheikh Mansour’s Monty Burns-like riches) to strip Wenger of his assets (not money, but players – Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, possibly Robin Van Persie in the summer). The Leader, once at the helm of an all-powerful cult, is by the episode’s end stripped of the relevance that had previously defined him. Where Wenger used to feud with Alex Ferguson and fight for titles, he is now managing a club that sees fourth place as it’s ultimate goal, and for whom a 2-0 FA Cup defeat to Sunderland doesn’t even register for the opposition as a ‘famous win’. Nowadays, such a result comes as no real surprise at all, just as it’s no shock when one watches a new episode of The Simpsons, with all the jokes and humour replaced by masturbatory, zeitgeist-pandering references to Apple or Facebook.

For Arsenal, recent victories against Tottenham and Liverpool (and a heroic near-miracle against AC Milan) have invigorated players and fans alike, but I suspect it may be yet another false dawn. As for The Simpsons, it’s trying to trade on happy memories of the old days by reintroducing former writer Al Jean, who has deployed the tactic of referring back to classic jokes and characters, to foster a sense of nostalgia amongst fans.

Jean remains with The Simpsons, now in it’s twenty-third season, while Arsenal’s own returning legend, Thierry Henry, returned to the club at a time of crisis and left all too soon. The fundamental difference is in the fact that The Simpsons acknowledged its state of decline and hired Jean to try and arrest the slump. Arsenal may soon be considering a change of personnel, whether it’s on the pitch or in the dugout.