Peter Young
9 August 2002
England Football Online
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Comment: English Football's Losing Mentality

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Acceptance of second-rate status prevents England from achieving their full potential

Coach Sven-Göran Eriksson has blamed fixture congestion--and its twin by-products, player exhaustion and injuries--for England's failure to progress further at the World Cup 2002 finals.  

Eriksson is plainly correct.  Injuries to key players and dismal second-half performances from tired players doomed England's efforts in the Far East.  The physical demands of the game at the highest level are incomparably greater than they were 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.  The very best footballers simply cannot play two and sometimes three matches per week, week after week, without breaking down eventually, either through injury or exhaustion.  Player fatigue dramatically increases the risk of injury.

England had to either do without or settle for sub par performances from their three best players at the World Cup.  Steven Gerrard missed the tournament after suffering an end-of-season injury.  David Beckham played although he was obviously nowhere near full recovery from his broken foot.  Michael Owen was not fully fit.  Several other players were injured or well below form through tiredness or lack of proper recovery time.  Owen himself has said he and his team-mates were too tired to play well at the tournament.

Some wags have called these the same old excuses.  That does not detract from their validity.  They are the same and old only because fixture congestion and the resulting player injuries and exhaustion have long been problems and because nothing has been done to change things.  

It has long been evident that club demands on players must be alleviated if England's best talents are to achieve their full potential on the international stage at the two big tournaments, the World Cup and the European Championship, which are, by necessity, played at the end of a gruelling season. 

There are several measures that can be taken, either singly or in combination:

1.  The Premiership should be cut to 18 or even 16 teams, as football's governing international bodies recommend.  

2.  The Premiership clubs should be relieved from entering the League Cup.  

3.  A winter break of three or four weeks in Premiership play, which would allow players to recuperate, should be implemented.  

It will be a huge victory for England's international prospects if any of these are achieved.  There is strong opposition from the clubs and the fans, the former because their revenues are threatened, the latter because club football is closest to their hearts.

Half a century ago, England's first manager, Walter Winterbottom, struggled with the top clubs, which controlled the Football Association's International Committee, to achieve the most basic accommodations for the national side--things like managerial influence in team composition, selection of players based on merit and team blend rather than on the Committee members' personal preferences, some stability in team lineups from one match to the next, club readiness to release players selected for national team duty, the gathering of players a day or two ahead of time to allow at least some preparation for a match, and preparatory friendly matches against foreign opponents.  These reforms were slow in coming, but eventually they did come.  

Winterbottom explained:  "Bit by bit we began to get things accomplished.  ...   All these things came about in the face of very great resistance.  It always took another defeat to bring about the next slight improvement."  Brian James, England v Scotland, p. 193 (Sportsmans Book Club edition, Readers Union Limited, London, 1970, originally published by Pelham Books, 1969).

There lies the rub.  An England defeat in the 1950's meant something.  It was another indication that England had lost its footballing pre-eminence, and that was enough to force recognition of the need for changes and, eventually, the changes themselves.

Defeat of the national side today by any of the stronger football nations is accepted almost as a matter of course, even in the most important competitions.  Defeat by Brazil will provide an honourable way for England to exit the tournament, the Times of London said, before the quarterfinal meeting at this year's World Cup.  When England did go down to Brazil, the prevailing sentiment was that they had done quite well, better than expected, and should be accorded a reception as heroes on their return from the Far East.  Media and fans alike later noted, with inexplicable satisfaction, that England had once again had the ill fortune to meet and fall to the tournament's eventual winner.  Now that is an old and tired excuse.

All this reflects a losing mentality, one which infects the English football community and prevents England from achieving their international potential.  This defeatist attitude is the product of decades of disappointment on the international stage.  Its consequence is fatalistic acceptance that more of the same is all that can be expected.  

Calling fixture congestion and the resulting player injuries and exhaustion the same old excuses is part and parcel of this losing mentality, as if nothing can or should be done about them.  When defeat is accepted, it is no longer a spur for change.

England had the player talent and the resources to win the World Cup this year.  Player injuries and exhaustion precluded them from having a fair shot at it.  The fixture congestion that is the primary cause of player injuries and exhaustion can be changed.

English football is in dire need of a winning attitude, the determination to make whatever changes are necessary for England to take their proper place in world football.  It is time to give England the boost they need:  players fit enough at the end of the season to perform at their best on the big stage.