YOU could call it the New Realism. England’s cheerleaders have finally accepted their country’s limitations as a football power and are no longer making plans beyond the quarter-finals.
Victory parades, national holidays, the minting of new coins – these kind of plans. And already the New Realism is producing some bold ideas. If England have no chance of reaching the World Cup final, goes one of them, then let’s not take Frank Lampard and, while we’re at it, leave Steven Gerrard at home as well.
I heard this pre-draw, a couple of weeks ago, on that always-instructive hack-pack chatterama, Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement. It shocked the other guys on the panel and, while I usually relish any display of wailing and gnashing of wallies concerning the whiteshirts, it shocked even me. The reasoning went like this: If there’s no chance of actually winning the thing, jettison the seniors, give the kids big-tournament experience, build for the future.
Now we know the draw, the idea would seem to make even more sense. England in Brazil are going up country (“I’ve never been to the north before,” said Roy Hodgson, plaintively), up the Amazon, into the river’s basin, sauna-like conditions, 99-degree humidity – the horror, the horror. The allusions to Apocalypse Now, below, arrived within minutes of Group D being formulated. Me, I love the smell of Ralgex in the morning. Ralgex combined with sweat on stout yeoman thighs. The hurdies of, for example, Gareth Barry, pumping furiously in South Africa three years ago, but all in vain, while Germany’s Mesut Ozil hared up the wing to lay on the last goal for Thomas Mueller. But it doesn’t have to be like that (again).
Lamps will struggle in such conditions after a long domestic campaign, maybe Stevie G, too. And, as for John Terry, don’t even think about a recall – he’s being beaten for pace almost every week. England should go with the young guns, the 22-year-old Andros Townsend for sure, and Ross Barkley, just 20. They’ve got to hope, too, that Theo Walcott, 24, doesn’t do his cruciate tripping over a lollypop stick, or better still that he gets injured now and is removed from the fray so he’s raring to go by 14 June, England’s first game.
At Man U, Danny Wellbeck, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have struggled recently as their club have struggled under the new management but Hodgson should have faith in them. Then there’s Daniel Sturridge, scoring with a swagger, and. . . OK, the youthful talent dwindles after that but all these guys have great energy and some of them have tremendous pace. Italy’s Andrea Pirlo is a fantastic footballer but he’ll be 35 by the summer, there’s a knee injury to be overcome – and is he really going to be allowed to kill England again with his passing? Uruguay have Edinson Cavani and, of course, Luis Suarez but elsewhere in their team, the tag of faded aristocrats has never been more relevant. Again, youthful exuberance could cause damage. Those England players making their big-tournament debuts should have nothing to fear in Brazil, whereas the older guys have cocked up before. I’m sorry but, mixed with the Ralgex and the sweat, there’s the unmistakable smell of failure about them.
If I was English I’d view Brazil as a great experiment, but that’ll have to be the last bit of encouragement this Scotsman offers Hodgson’s boys for the time being because watching the draw unfold was tough. Sky began their coverage with the sleek and sexy electronica of the Glasgow band Chvrches, which was great, but is this what we’ve become, mere World Cup fluffers? I fear it is.
There were resonances with some of our glorious failures, such as the casual way “group of death” was bandied about. I’m pretty sure the phrase came into existence in 1986 when we drew West Germany, Uruguay and Denmark. England also got Costa Rica for a historic first encounter. We played them (and got beat) back in 1990.
Thankfully, the eminent Clydebank wit Kevin Bridges was suffering with us, and tweeting: “All of Scotland glued to the draw, eager to see what 3 strips we’ll be buying next summer.” Then, when being left on the outside looking in got too much he quipped: “You can keep your shitey World Cup – we’re a tennis nation now.”