t is hard not to draw some sort of connection between the dire state of the England national side and Crystal Palace preparing to spend £31 million on a player, however talented he is.
Alan Pardew’s pursuit of Marseille’s Michy Batshuayi was described as “incroyable” in yesterday’s edition of L’Equipe. Coincidentally, the same word appeared in a headline above a report on England’s last-16 defeat by Iceland.
It did not require a mastery of the French language to understand that in neither case was it being used to convey awe. Rather, disbelief. Within a few pages of a French sports daily newspaper the great paradox at the heart of English football was laid bare: a consistently underperforming national team and a domestic league in which the top tier is awash with money.
The man who put the Roy into the L’incroyable fiasco Anglais headline in L’Equipe yesterday attempted to explain away a defeat he “hadn’t seen coming”.
But it seemed noteworthy that a team which finished in 15th place were continuing negotiations with Batshuayi’s representatives in France yesterday – Tottenham Hotspur are also aiming to hijack the deal – while a reluctant Hodgson conducted a press conference outside Paris.
As long as the Premier League continues to eat itself – and it is much the same story in the Championship as well these days – then whichever of the underwhelming candidates being touted to replace Hodgson will need to tackle the same problem: a lack of opportunity for young players to feel their way at top sides in England.
Few clubs are going to take the time and effort to blood youngsters if they can afford to purchase a readymade international star from abroad. Even teams that finished just outside the relegation zone in the Premier League can now afford the best players on the continent. Stoke City have been demonstrating how money talks for a while now.
The England Under-21 side won the Toulon tournament recently for the first time since 1994. But how many of these young hopefuls will go on to become established internationals? Or even established first-team players at their own club? If it is under-21 coach Gareth Southgate who succeeds Hodgson, then it is far from guaranteed that the good work being done with younger age groups will translate into success at the elite level.
There was clemency extended to Hodgson himself two years ago after a dismal World Cup. The players were even applauded at the end of the dead rubber clash with Costa Rica because it was felt that he was in the process of building a young team that might put the experience to good use.
Like, say, at Euro 2016, where it was hoped that still admittedly tender aged talents such as Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley might shine. But they are just two more victims of over-hype. Barkley didn’t even feature in any game while Sterling, pictured, has become a convenient scapegoat. Unfortunately for him, he is now also a symbol, perhaps the most potent one, of Premier League excess.
England seemed to be the beneficiaries of such good fortune, too. Not only in terms of a thoroughly moderate qualifying group they were able to sail through but also in the finals itself, when they only had to beat Slovakia to top Group B. They didn’t, meaning they were on course to face a tricky set of opponents in Ronaldo’s Portugal until fortune favoured them again, with Iceland’s late winner against Austria ensuring it was Lars Lagerback’s unfancied side who faced them in Nice.
Reaching the last eight was the bare minimum for Hodgson. To achieve this all he needed to do was find a way of overcoming a country whose domestic structure exists – on the face of it – in stark contrast to England’s. While their league might be part-time it seems to stand as a productive breeding ground for footballers, 14 of whom embarrassed England so roundly on Monday.
So where now? Barring two games against Scotland, there is little in their World Cup qualifying group to whip up interest among fans who, in contrast to what happened in Belo Horizonte two years ago, understandably howled out their frustration at the players and Hodgson on the Cote d’Azur.
If it is to become another procession in terms of qualifying, then England will likely head to Russia for the 2018 World Cup burdened by the same old hopes, the same weight of expectation. The historic nature of the defeat to Iceland – described by one paper yesterday as the most humiliating of England’s 959 matches – of course means it will not easily be forgotten.
But come opening weekend of the shiny new Barclays Premier League season in August nothing else will matter except which team full of mostly expensive foreign stars prevails. The new England manager will be in a stand somewhere quietly despairing.
As another French newspaper Liberation recently put it in the context of a Boris Johnson-led UK having abandoned Europe: Good luck.