Craig Fowler takes exception to the narrative surrounding the English squad at the 2018 World Cup
Scottish football fans are always given a hard time for their dislike of the English national team side.
To call someone racist or xenophobic for such feelings misses the point regarding football. It’s an emotional sport and rivalry is a massive part of it.
Sometimes it becomes unhealthy or even dangerous, but for the most part it makes football what it is. I can scream and shout and boo and call opposing fans horrendous names, but I’m more than happy to meet them in the pub a couple of hours later, once the dust has settled, for a post-match discussion.
This year we’ve been told that it’s even more distasteful than usual to want the English team to fail at every opportunity because the players, and manager Gareth Southgate, are just so “loveable”.
But I just don’t get it.
I’m not saying this group of players deserve to be disliked. But to call them “loveable” is a quite a stretch.
To label an individual or group “loveable” there typically has to be a certain charm or charisma, or something out of the ordinary, in order to encourage such a description.
The current crop of England players seem to have been created in a lab by the PR masters of the English Premier League. There’s no controversy to court, but there doesn’t seem to be much personality to judge either. There are no dashing rogues or endearing scamps.
Remembering that this tag was applied before the tournament, there’s no real success to speak of either. They will certainly deserve to be loved if they go on and do the unthinkable, but there’s still a long way to go before that dystopian nightmare becomes a reality.
On the contrary, a team that came so close to losing to a Scotland squad led by Gordon Strachan should be treated with healthy suspicion until it actually beats an opponent worth beating. A James Rodriguez-less Colombia, hell-bent on kicking and not playing football, I will not count, especially when it required a penalty in normal time and then ten more of them after 120 minutes in which to do so.
This England squad is a collective blank canvas for the support to project their desires on to. After things toured sour with the last group of players they’re so desperate for a likeable bunch that they’ve created a fantasy. In turn, the players are giving nothing to distort that projection.
With the previous generation, the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard weren’t so bad, but the goodwill towards them quickly turned into burning resentment when they didn’t live up to their billing, meekly exiting tournament after tournament.
Then there was the likes of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole, whose respective infidelities attracted criticism from outwith the world of football.
Comparing the two groups, there’s also a difference in the make-up of the team, and why this one has attracted an almost underdog tag, despite their collective value being over one billion pounds.
Where Ferdinand, Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney (and David Beckham if we’re going back further) were undoubted megastars of the Premier League, it’s hard to say similar about many from the current crop. Sure, 18 of the 23 players ply their trade in the top six - the clubs that get worldwide recognition - but if you had to pick the best five players at each of those clubs, there aren’t many in the England squad. Spurs attackers Harry Kane and Dele Alli are notable exceptions, but as Sir Alex Ferguson was once purported to have said: “lads, it’s only Tottenham.” They are the least offensive of the top six from a neutral’s perspective, mainly because they don’t win anything.
On the whole they seem like a decent, inoffensive group. Perhaps that’s the charm I’m missing. Maybe in a world full of Pepes and Neymars the fans are just delighted to have an unassuming bunch. Then I have a look on Twitter and I see English football fans celebrating “sh*thousing” at this year’s tournament. How many different ways do you want it?
Or maybe I’m just angry because I’m forced to watch them with Clive Tyldesley’s cheerleading ringing in my ears. For a Scotsman it is not a pleasant experience.