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.

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Rickie Lambert – Yeoman of the Beetroot

Lambert

For Rickie Lambert, the month of August was a real emotional trampoline. The former factory worker celebrated the joy of the birth of his third child, his first England call-up and a goal on his debut against Scotland, only to be brought abruptly back to earth by being patronised within an inch of his life by an overzealous media. Lambert fought his way out of intensive care to make it for the start of the season, where he scored a last-minute winner against West Brom on the opening day. What can we expect next from this Yeoman of the Beetroot?

Roy Hodgson was quick to quell the mild excitement generated by the journeyman striker’s unlikely rise to prominence, offering an endorsement that was less ringing, more whispered in hushed tones from behind a bush. “Obviously there might be more competition next time,” he said, “But Rickie won’t be struck off my list lightly”. As we all know, this is most likely absolute guff. Lambert hasn’t been compared to David Nugent, Kevin Davies and Jay Bothroyd simply because they all love root vegetables. A goal doesn’t necessarily change the fact that he shall be preserved as a one-cap-wonder, with memories of his goal mothballed along with his shirt (signed by all the lads, of course). Should that prove to be the case, then Lambert’s story will still remain a treasured tale of triumph against the odds, something to keep us all warm and restore our faith the next time we hear of a footballer selling his nan’s kidney for gambling money, or using a child with leukaemia as a napkin.

But could it mean something more? We all know that he was called up in the first place because of a paucity of available options, partly due to injury, partly because England simply isn’t well stocked in quality players as they once were. His limitations have been noted by all; the very fact that he plied his trade for so long at places like Macclesfield and Rochdale are what make his story great, but also serve as testament to his perceived lack of quality. How can someone who was playing at Bristol Rovers just four years ago possess the same street smarts as someone such as Wayne Rooney, who has been ensconced in the Premier League bubble since he was a child? Boasting cult hero status on the South coast is one thing, possessing international quality is quite another.

This betrays the fact that he may yet be able to offer something that nobody else can. The root cause of many of England’s failures of the past has been a mental one. The feted Golden Generation had the talent, but lacked the psychological resilience of hardened winners. Lambert can play free of those shackles. He is unencumbered by expectation, thrilled just to be invited to the party. He is old enough to maintain some valuable perspective, the better to dismiss the pressure of expectation that fast-tracked youngsters of the past have been indoctrinated in to. Let’s not forget either that he showed last season that he can score goals for a (relatively) average side, so the cover letter meets this particular job spec; the reality is that (should England qualify) Hodgson will not be picking a squad to win the World Cup. For all that sceptics will maintain the fact that Lambert isn’t a player that will win a team a World Cup, all that means is that he’ll surely fit in with the rest of his colleagues. Hodgson knows at this stage that he won’t stumble upon any fresh world-class talent. He will be looking for a striker to supply competition from the bench for a side hoping to progress to the quarter-finals and most likely no further. The question should be whether Lambert is good enough for that level.

Lambert still has much to prove, with the ominous risk of second-season syndrome the most likely threat to his dreams of Brazil. He will be assured by his manager Mauricio Pochettino’s confident business in the transfer window, meaning he will surely have the freedom to build on last season’s haul of 15 goals and 9 assists. If he can repeat himself at the highest level and score freely for Southampton in this campaign, there is no reason not to involve him in the England squad more often, especially when you consider the circumstances surrounding some of England’s other options up front. Rooney is mired in personal crisis; Andy Carroll’s injury record remains a concern; Jermain Defoe can expect fewer starts for Tottenham; Darren Bent needs to remind himself how to play football after a wasted season.

Not for the first time in his career, Lambert finds that the odds are stacked against him. The World Cup in Brazil might be one brass ring too far, but if Hodgson should face a similar dearth of options next summer, then we’ve seen in the past that you don’t necessarily need to be an established world beater to be capable of making an impact. Take Toto Schillaci in 1990, Stephane Guivarc’h in 1998, or Luca Toni in 2006.

When Lambert scored against Scotland, his team-mates rushed to celebrate with beaming faces, eager to vicariously share his moment of glory. When was the last time you remember seeing an England goal being celebrated with such unbridled joy? Perhaps Lambert can bring some positive energy to a team addled by psychological scars. Sometimes you just need someone to be in the right place at the right time. Given some good fortune, that might just be enough.

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…