To hoof not thread.

Part of me wishes – honestly – that Jack Wilshere would just go out and have a few beers and smokes and be him. Then bundle his way past a protesting Woy-in-a-wight-lather (okay, cheap but doncha just kinda resent that flustering pomp thing Hodgson’s got going?) and on to absolutely dismember some half-tasty international opposition. Singlehandedly. In a tournament game. With little flip passes from the outside of his left boot. Threading DNA molecule-like clusters of wall-pass-to-the-power-of no-no-no-he can’t- YEE-EESSSSAA like some cack-handed and slightly boozy Fabregas. But then part of me wishes he would just give in to his fate as a perennial crock; put us out of our misery; break all available limbs in a rash challenge leapfrogging a bollard outside some niteklub in Prague and have done with it. We deserve that, surely – to be put out, right out, of our misery?

This billowing pro and contra emotion around Wilshere is all about… what? When did it start?

In the very beginning something about him stirred us. When he first dinked a tiddlywink of hope into our Ovaltine. When he first semi-loped (can small blokes lope?) and semi-swaggered onto the park in the white of England. We some of us sat bolt upright on the couch for the first time since the Wicker Man. We put away the bedtime drink and reached for a cool beer. In Wilshere it looked like we’d finally found one.

Not only did he have that slightly retro Landun schoolboy(ish) confidence fing abart ‘im – the whiff of catapults in playgrounds or blotting paper splatted expertly into the khazi ceiling, or fizzing past teacher’s ear, he oozed, crucially, excitingly, with what we tend to lamely call ‘culture’. He was so comfortable in possession there seemed little doubt he might actually actually express that higher thing, that football. But perhaps the binary peaks in our relationship with this phantom tightened early around the simple unpatriotic truth; that his was a Spanish Stroll, surely and this was therefore unlike us? It was likely better than us, better than the turgid precedent for tarnished gold but could it prosper in the Three Lions kit?

Plainly with Jack the potential was there to burst exhiliratingly through the fusty limits of what had been us into something better and – please god – more competitive. That caressing of the traditionally renegade sphere, that invented time and space, that fifteen yard passing range, that coolness in the clamour. He spoke of other worlds, of brave new everythings where Ingerland played – competed – with Alonso/Xabi/Schweinsteiger. Momentarily, he really did. At the end-stop of our fifty-year deathlike dearth, it just seemed possible that we might have one but experience having traumatised us, we waited quietly.

We waited and symbolically or otherwise the poor lad got crocked. No – he actually did get crocked – for a living, it seemed. Season after season. In practical terms the granddaddy Gerrard simply dropped a gear and the axis with Lampard persisted – hopelessly – and the national side of Ingerland went on being the national side of Ingerland; woeful; emasculated; subtle as an air-raid; dense as a docker’s sandwich. From before Sven to Fabio to Roy we all traversed together the saddening terrain from one cliché of a failure to the next, with all of it predicated on that raw inability to treasure the ball – to hoof not thread.

With every fibre Wilshere enacted his understanding of – his protestation against – that dumbness. But he was never there, or he never had ‘a run at it’ – injuries gnawing away at both his momentum and our belief. With every absence, with every ‘lay-off’ for the ῠber-Gooner we the resigned flopped out again with another miserable beer and more carcinogenic snacks. Rather than being the pivot at international level, the boy barely featured.  Cruel.

At Arsenal too Wilshere flitted and flattered, his Wenger-approved neatness and penchant for centrality being only sporadically key to their easy, double-clutched movement. Like his club though, there was maybe was/is something one-paced about his game; pleasing mid-gears, so much fluent transition but a lack (alack!) of murderous high-voltage. But I find myself in the past tense…
The possibilities for England still  include saviourhood/irrelevance/absence through injury. As always, availability for selection will define things.
The juicy prospect of a critical role at the rear point of a midfield diamond aired itself recently. Given that Sterling of Liverpool featured at the prow of this formation, a Gor Blimey tingle ran through some of us. We all know (and I imagine even Hodgson knows) that Jackie Boy is happiest asking questions of a central defender thirty/forty yards from goal. However, his brilliance at collecting and feeding and moving and threading with bodies around him equips him beautifully for the (deeper) Let’s Get This Baby Movin’ role too. He is good enough to not just carry the metaphorical water but also the expectation. He is close to England’s finest at (say it again) treasuring the ball and building a threat. So let him have a whole lump of possession and (with Sterling at 10 in front) the other buggers better watch out.

That the blend, the detail of this is still palpably unsorted by the England hierarchy tells us plenty, I would argue, about Hodgson’s lack of foresight. Henderson suddenly appears to be a nailed-on starter and this perhaps alleviates some of the fears around Wilshere’s lack of focus defensively-speaking. Much depends on how much width and creativity (or constriction and ‘control’) the wider two of the four diamond players are asked to provide. Sterling has already earned the right – ahead of Rooney, incidentally – to be the free spirit taunting the space immediately in front of the opposition centre-backs. Does this really mean that we have to be (as it were) culturally cautious elsewhere to allow for this luxury?

Hodgson may feel that he has to ‘protect’ our admittedly ordinary back four by opting for durability more than creativity but how ‘bout he told the defence to grow some and the essence of the diktat became about us with the ball? How ‘bout he/we stopped to count the number of defenders in his side and concluded that two of them probably don’t have to mark anybody for eighty percent of the game? And Gary Neville demanded intelligent pressing and brilliant – international level brilliant – defending with or without a shield?

In other words rather than denying expressivity in our own team by selecting surplus minders in our midfield could we not trust those who can really play to play? Huh?

Qualification for the next major tourney should be straightforward enough now following a good win in Sitzerland.  Hodgson has the slack he needs to be positive, to mould a brighter way forward.

The Spanish Era may be over but not in the sense that it remains clear (now and always) that quality of touch/vision/passing are the keys. Not how or if you ‘can tackle’. Not capacity to perspire in the name of the shirt (even.) Quality of touch and the presence and confidence to play and treasure the ball is it.

Wilshere if fit (yawn!) must play central. He could play deepish and own the team strategy. He could. He could blossom and so could the new generation. They could. But the fear remains that he simply won’t get the chance. Because his ankles seem knackered and the culture – our culture, not his – still works against him.

Whilst you were watching England…

So was I, ultimately. Having side-wound my way round the kitchen – faffing, cooking – whilst still ‘protecting’ a certain #tinnasardines (see previous blog) I did, indeed sit and watch. Didn’t really intend to. Not with friends arriving/rugby on/@tate channel to draw me in/dog to walk. But you just do; when once it really was the biggest and most important and exciting thing.

Now it’s not. Not with these players, this gaffer, the pervading sense of gaudy amorality; the Premiership milieu wavering between maxoffense and dangerousshitmeltdown on the ECG that is my/our(?) heartfelt response to stuff.

Setting aside any nationalistic lunacy (which I tend to) there’s very little in the way of pull. I’m kindof way beyond the gut-churning anguish that traditionally accompanies moments of national embarrassment and almost post intellectual-botheration entirely but if pushed to offer a diagnosis on the Tight-arsed Donkeyism served up by the heroes in white for the last 40 years my doctorly sprawl would look something like this;

  • ’tis a function of dullish and limited coaching and shortage of both top-tier talent and comfort within the territory that perennially sucks the expressive life (and therefore the viewing pleasure) out of the ‘occasion.’
  • In tournaments especially, chronic lack of belief oozes out of the pores of even the better players so that time after time we (England) offer little more than responsibility-shirking, eyes-glazed, allegedly hard-tackling unambition.
  • Meaning players daren’t do stuff; and managers daren’t change things.
  • In short the technical inadequacies of our players are utterly exposed when they show (alongside the presumed skill-deprivation) a depressing lack of fibre. And time after time, they do.

Who’s actually flourished in an England shirt, in the last… in your memory? Rooney, certainly, about five years ago; when he was young and didn’t know any better. When he grew up and the pressures and knocks got to him, he became – symbolically, almost – the worst of the lot, his performances on the Big Stage having been nigh-on insultingly poor. The formerly brilliant scally became some depressed Sunday League would-be-10, joylessly shinning when he should be caressing. I think we may go back to the Bobby Robson era before we find players fulfilling themselves, expressing themselves – outliving themselves as I like to think of it.

Unfair? Possibly. Clearly we do have talents – players who can play. Ironically, one of the very best – Wilshere – has this week exchanged ciggie-in-mush for a boot by sadly confirming he too has fallen for the conceptual footie-norm of Englishman-as-yeoman. How lovely it would have been to have heard him purr about Iniesta. Instead he brought us back to the Stoke City School of Allegedly Fixed Realities, where, as we know, conceptual appreciation of the bravery of ball-retention as an art-form is absent from the curriculum. (Even now, under Hughesy.) Wilshere then, sounded dumb, which was a shame… and to be fair, it contradicts his metier on’t park.

But this is all medium-eloquent rehashing of stuff we already know. What I need to do (I know, I know) is take yoga-size breaths and say something meaningful about what’s to be done, right? Here are some thoughts – again, bullet-pointed to make it look like I’m presenting something kosher. They’re general – because depending on the presence or absence of Better Offers, I may even write about The Match (tonight!)

  • Let’s start with England. The boy Hodgson has merely continued the deathlike suffocation of Braver Thoughts by actually shoring up(!) the tradition 4-4-2 bullshit-bulwark. He should take no credit – and get little sympathy – for ‘leading’ the team through yet another appalling Euro Championship in which his side played pathetically little football and appeared yet another bunch of fearful and insipid non-individuals. He needs to go and World Cup qualification or otherwise should not deflect us from that truth.
  • Management is about inspiring as well as organising; in fact if you inspire you may not need to organise half as much! Brilliant free spirits – or even bighearted brotherly ones – can be propelled through sheer force of personality towards triumph (and I choose that word over success, here.) They may vanquish in a glorious flux of energy, despite being theoretically vulnerable in their ‘openness.’ Think about momentum; think about the role supporters play; picture players bristling and sprinting – living (or outliving) off the fuel of inspiration. Hodgson may have whispered the occasional word of wisdom but he patently has failed to inspire anybody. There is no pretence, even, that he has or could.
  • The current retreat to formulaic Englishness may mean that only Brit managers might be considered as a replacement for Hodgson. This is as ridiculous as the failure of the FA to even discuss ways forward with the willing Guardiola. There are few candidates. Possibly, in a year or two, the Liverpool manager but even ar Brendan might be diverted from the path of knowledge by the pressures of the job.
  • So we probably need to bin these and most other nationalistic notions and… get patient. And get another foreign manager. And let him manage – absolutely.
  • Clearly the development of St George’s Park has potential. Even if the fascists running the Premiership fail to slacken their asphyxiating hold on who plays ball in their league – specifically, how many locals get a kickabout. If the culture of coaching does continue to move towards small-sided games on small pitches where keepers cannot hoof the ball 40 yards up the field and centre-halves learn how to pass and control there may be an improvement, in a decade or so. Or so. But only if the coaches believe in the culture-change.
  • If we continue to get bullish irriots bawling ‘show me some aggression!’ (Jack Charlton, circa 1970) at shell-shocked kids from the touchlines then our magnificent and epic Donkeyhood will continue to thrive at all levels.
  • On a personal note – and I do think this is relevant – I have captained and selected football teams and grew up with footie as the most stable and central staple of our relatively few life staples. Had little else to play or play with, wanted nothing else. But despite being temperamentally suited and probably intellectually equipped, I have not been inclined, for many a year, to get actively involved in football coaching. (Cricket and rugby – yes.) This is undoubtedly partly because the game itself – both on and off the pitch – has changed. Whilst on the one hand the fabulous pre-eminence of Barca and Bayern in recent years has invigorated the spectacle and arguably the nature of the sport, the new squishy chestnuts (greed/diving/contempt for fans and/or authority etc etc) are spoiling the taste of it.
  • Closer to home, contemplation of this unhealthy but bourgeoning empire – The Prem – Premier or Family-Sized bucket of fodder that it is, does for me what a huge tub of KFC or popcorn might. Makes me turn pretty instantly away. And, as I’ve opined before, I know I’m not alone on this. So the cultural imperative to watch and to support the game – let alone Engerland FC – ain’t quite the same. (No matter what any figures may say to the contrary.) The quality of people’s loyalty (to the game, to England) is fraying.
  • To the point that only a genuinely radical and sustained and visionary transformation of all levels of football in the UK will a) put a smile back on my/our faces b) lead, in time, to our wee boys and girls (and thus eventually our representative sides) playing the same game, with the same degree of skill and ambition, as our Dutch, German, Spanish and Italian counterparts. And we’re not big on visions, are we?

Blimey. Off on one again. Did the game start yet? Did I dream all that? What time is it?

More of this? I did write an ebook – well appreciated, as’it’appens by Hayward/Mason/Moore.  It’s here at amzn.to/SSc9To