Breaking the curse of 1966

As a player, Gareth Southgate missed the final penalty that saw England crash out of the 1996 European Championships in the semi-finals – a kick that started the latest 22 years of hurt for England. As England manager at Russia 2018 he might just have begun a quiet revolution that could end the curse of 1966.

England did not win or reach the final of this year’s football World Cup, crashing out to Croatia in the semis. But perhaps manager Southgate, the Football Association and the players have sown the seeds for future success.

England’s performances at Russia 2018 certainly seem to promise more in the future, as the most inexperienced team in the tournament were only beaten by a strong and experienced Croatian team after extra time in the semi-finals.

From fright to might
Going into a football World Cup is always a rollercoaster ride for England fans. But due to England’s poor tournament form in recent tournaments, expectations were at something of an all-time low.

England’s tournament had started with the usual fright of a last-minute goal that gave the team three valuable and well-deserved points against Tunisia in the opening match.

But as the tournament progressed, Gareth Southgate’s England played with an increasing sense of mental and tactical astuteness, winning the nation’s first ever World Cup penalty shoot-out against Colombia and playing with composure in an easy 2-0 quarter final win against Sweden.

And had England’s attack taken their chances in an excellent first half against Croatia, and added to their 1-0 lead, England’s young team might have emerged from the shadows of 1966.

The shadow of 66
Being an England players and fan has had its ups and (many) downs, since England’s only World Cup win at Wembley in 1966. A win that perhaps falsely reinforced an English sense of football superiority that had in reality all but vanished in the fifties.

Since 1966, Germany and Brazil have both won three World Cups and Italy two. England, on the other hand, had only reached the semi-final once in 1990 and have failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1974, 1978 and 1994. English clubs won six consecutive Champions League finals with three different teams between 1977 and 1982 with over two-thirds of the players in the starting line-ups in these finals being English.

And when England have qualified, they have mostly not lived up to the perhaps inflated expectations of the team, the press and the fans.

The big why
The big question is why England have so often seemingly underperformed and played nervously and rigidly in recent World Cups, having often cruised through the qualifiers.

Is it a case of too high expectations from the fans and the press, who quickly turn on the England players if they do not perform and, and who, as reported in the English tabloid press, have an unhealthy obsession with the private lives of players and managers?

Something that Peter Shilton says in his autobiography that he first noticed in the early eighties, where the English tabloids had become “manipulative” and generally “changed in the way they covered football.” By 1998, Paul Gascoigne said in his autobiography that “it seemed the media were determined to crucify me.”

Is it a case of “if we win a game we will win the World Cup, if we lose we are useless and might as well give up”? Perhaps derived from a combined sense of a national superiority complex and post-empire declinism?

Are too many of the top-flight English clubs managed by foreigners (next season’s Premier League will only have four English managers – Bournemouth, Burnley, Cardiff and Crystal Palace), and have England hired and fired too many managers since 1966, having put too much pressure on them to perform instant miracles?

Are the players simply too tired after a long season, where the players in the top clubs often play over 50 games in four different tournaments without a winter break?

Or did former England striker Alan Shearer have a point, when he spoke of England’s lacklustre performance and lack of fighting spirit against Iceland in Euro 2016 in a post-match analysis:

“We were out-fought, we were out-thought. We were out-battled. And we were totally hopeless for 90 minutes.”

Are successive England sides therefore simply not better than their results: often weak-willed, tactically inept, skill-less and mediocre teams whose managers, press and fans shun technically gifted English players who play in a league where most of the stars are foreign?

Multinational Premier League
Because the many foreign players in the Premier League, combined with what England manager Gareth Southgate has called an “island-mentality” that sees few English players playing abroad, is definitely noticeable when compared to the other big European national teams.

Nearly 70 percent of the players in the Premier League are foreigners, compared to around 50 percent in Italy, Germany and Spain. Only five and seven English players respectively have won the PL and PFA Player of the Year Award since the introduction of the Premier League in 1992. And only two English players were on the PFA team of the year for 2017/18, compared to eight 20 years ago.

Chelsea had started this trend by fielding a team without any English players in 1999, Arsenal have started over 150 Premier League games without a single English player, and in their final game of the season, league champions Manchester City only had three English players in the starting line-up.

Additionally, all the players in Gareth Southgate’s squad for Russia 2018 played in the Premier League. This was also the case in 2010, 1998 and 1970, 1966, 1958, 1954 and 1950 and England have never had more than two players from outside the English and Scottish leagues in any World Cup squad.

The “golden generation”
One of the most glamorous teams of recent generations was the so-called “golden generation” of Beckham, Owen, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes, Ferdinand, and Cole. A team that Pep Guardiola has said was on par with Spain’s golden generation who won both the World Cup and European Championships.

Rio Ferdinand has later claimed that the reason for the team’s lack of success was the pressure of “crazy” expectations , as well as manager Sven-Göran Eriksson playing a “rigid 4-4-2” and not being “brave enough to sort out our midfield.”

Michael Owen said in his autobiography that the fans and press, as well as the players themselves, believed that England could “go all the way” at the World Cups he played in but that the “amount of stick” that the players got from the press when things didn’t immediately go to plan was is annoying.

But according to Steven Gerrard, the “golden generation” should shoulder some of the responsibility themselves. “I didn’t feel like we were part of a team … and I didn’t hit my top performances for England consistently,” he told BT Sport.

Sven-Göran Eriksson, on his part, says that in his autobiography “Svennis” that he doesn’t believe that his players really believed that they could beat quality teams like Brazil.

A brighter future?
But things are looking up for England in the future. Gareth Southgate’s England are evidently on the right track, even though England failed to reach the final or win the World Cup in Russia (England were after all 16-1 underdogs to win the tournament before it started).

The Football Association’s so-called “England DNA” elite player development and coaching philosophy, which Southgate helped formulate and which was launched in 2014, aims to encourage a common sense of tactics, values and identity throughout the England set-up.

It is a football philosophy that, according to the FA, aims to develop players with excellent mental, technical and tactical abilities that can dominate possession and play with tactical flexibility.

And England are after all the reigning U-17 and U-20 world champions and the reigning U-19 European champions so someone must be doing something right.

But, success at youth level does by no means guarantee success for the national team. Nigeria won the U-17 World Cup in 2007, 2013 and 2015, but have never progressed beyond the second round at the World Cup. And Germany, who have won the World Cup four times, have never won the U-20 World Cup.

A new beginning
But perhaps the main issue at stake is for England to focus less inwardly and on past glories while other teams evolve their games and more outwardly and on the future.

– History itself must not become a burden. The future is the focus and the aim is to create new history, as the FA puts it on the England DNA website.

Gareth Southgate certainly seems to have solved some of the tactical and mental issues that marred previous England campaigns and has reconnected the England team to the press and the public in the process.

Perhaps the relatively low expectations of the fans and press helped. Perhaps the fact that Southgate had a plan and a system and chose the players to fit these and not the other way round had an effect. Or the fact that many of the players had played in the lower leagues and therefore played without a sense of entitlement.

And there could be more to come, because as Southgate told the Guardian,

– We know we are not the finished article and I don’t think we have a lot of world class players … [but] we’ve been a real team.

Perhaps that is how the curse of history of 1966 will be laid to rest. Not by necessarily having the best players but by playing as a team for team and country in what is after all a team game.

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