Fans continue to chant ‘football’s coming home’ at every available opportunity but, by the time of next summer’s European Championships, it will be 54 years since English football’s greatest ever victory.
When the Jules Rimet trophy was held aloft at Wembley by Bobby Moore, England was an altogether different place. It was one that bears no resemblance to the country which we find today, both in societal and sporting terms.
Back then, for a brief period at least, English football could still lay claim to being amongst the best in the world. There was little indication then that England would break our hearts so many times.
Ron Greenwood at West Ham, the coach who provided the three players who it’s often said won the World Cup (Moore, Peters, Hurst), and Alf Ramsey, gave the country real belief.
Fast forward to the present day and Gareth Southgate, probably more than any coach since Terry Venables in 1996, has given the English football-going public similar reason to feel good about the Three Lions chances.
For once, an England coach isn’t just paying lip service to the ‘we will only pick players in form’ edict and then going ahead and selecting players from the bigger Premier League clubs anyway.
Southgate has made England’s senior side a little less exclusive and, in doing so, ramped up the competitive edge amongst the players.
A true empathy with his staff, because of his own history which includes that awful penalty against Germany under Venables’ stewardship, has given the squad a feeling of togetherness that it probably hasn’t had since 1996 and 1966. In each of those tournaments Wembley played a key role and ‘football’s coming home’ took root in the national consciousness there during Euro 1996.
Euro 2020 will see England play at Wembley again for their first two games and, should they progress to the latter stages, the semi-final and final as well. Cue supporters around the country already excitedly exclaiming that England have the tournament sewn up because of ‘home advantage.’
Their exuberance is a little misguided, frankly. As good as English supporters believe their team are, there is better in the tournament. Much better.
Man for man, England can certainly hold their own. Raheem Sterling, for example, is one of the world’s best players in his position at the moment. In Spurs’ Harry Kane and Dele Alli, Southgate also has two high-quality exponents who offer goals and creativity to match that of their contemporaries.
As a team, however, England can’t match up to the likes of Holland, Belgium or France. The work Southgate is putting in has shown a progression, certainly, but this is just about the best it’s going to get for England and it still isn’t good enough.
Witness the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Nations League showings. Just like 1996, England remain the ‘nearly but not quite’ men.
They’re often there or thereabouts at the business end of tournaments, but they just don’t have the edge and that special ingredient to get them over the line. Yes, English football is getting better but so is everyone else. The way things are done remain too reactionary. Where are the visionaries?
Look at the French for example. France’s players had the confines of Clairefontaine to work within back in the 80s. St. George’s Park wasn’t even open until 2012!
At club level, teams like Ajax, Barcelona and their ilk have had academies honing youth talent since the 70s. Howard Wilkinson’s academy system in England wasn’t operational until 1997.
Initially derided by the football family in England, it was a quantum leap forward for the country’s youth players, but the only problem is it came decades too late.
Whatever English football tries to do, whomever they try to model themselves on, it’s always the same story. The game moves on apace and, try as they might to keep up, English football gets left behind.
The academy system of today is worse than it ever was too. To the point where Premier League clubs are poaching youth players from abroad to pack out their teams from U9 level upwards. That’s really going to help the senior side isn’t it?
Every other summer, without fail, the country gets wrapped up in patriotism for a few weeks, genuinely believing the national team has what it takes to become champions. Fans can continue to chant that football’s coming home but it won’t be any time soon.