When I was a lad, watching England was a frustrating affair. My first memories of the national team when I really knew what was going on (Italia ’90 was fun but I wasn’t too savvy) was the 1992 European Championship in Sweden, where we crashed out without winning a game. This was a team that had finished fourth in the last World Cup just two years before and had been pretty unlucky not to win the thing, what was going on? Graham Taylor, that’s what. Ok, so he had lost the most talented English player of his, and most other generations, Paul Gascoigne, to injury … but what else? Everton’s Peter Beardsley was out of favour and in his stead poor Gary Lineker in his final tournament was either on his own up front, or partnering Arsenal’s Alan Smith or a very young Alan Shearer from Southampton. Madness, considering the partnership that Beardsley and Lineker had developed in previous seasons but that was Taylor’s logic and we had to live with it. The net result was one goal from three games in that tournament.
But this was the summer that heralded the start of the Premier League. More money from Sky and a first generation of sophisticated foreign imports like Bergkamp, Cantona and Zola would surely influence our game and bring us into line with the slick, possession-based football that would serve the Germans, Italians, Spanish, Dutch and French over the coming years … right?
In 1992, just 22 players from outside the UK and Ireland played in the first season of the Premier League. Since then 1,397 foreign players have played at least one league game in England, for 45 clubs and from 96 nations. As of August 2012, there are 74 different nationalities represented in the top flight of English football and only 40% of players are qualified to play for England. Wigan Athletic fielded just three English players in the entire 2011/12 season and we all know how few Premier League managers are English and, worse, how few have won the trophy … precisely zero.
So in 20 years a lot has changed, but the performance of the England team? In four major matches in the last six months England have managed, in total, just four shots on target. Against France (Euro 2012 group stage), Italy (Euro 2012 QF), Belgium (friendly) and Poland (World Cup 2014 qualifier) each game featured just one shot on target from our boys. Despite inconsistent form for his country and zero domestic goals this season, Wayne Rooney is our only real international class striker.
In effect, cut to 2012 and it’s a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The foreign imports have not helped, in fact they may have hindered, the development of young English players getting first team experience. I suppose a difference in the situation facing Roy Hodgson to the one facing Graham Taylor is that whereas Taylor could have picked Beardsley or Ian Wright but didn’t (and a few years later we had a glut of goal scorers like Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand or Andy Cole pushing Shearer and Sheringham for their places), poor old Roy is staring down the barrel of Danny Welbeck.
Help is around the corner in the guise of St. George’s Park National Football Centre and recent changes to the way the FA will instruct coaches to teach the game (smaller pitches, a greater emphasis on technical ability rather than strength and competitiveness) but England fans are unlikely to see the benefit of these changes, in terms of results for the national team, for at least ten years. In the meantime, in a strategy that seems anything but long term, we still pick the likes of James Milner in midfield, don’t pick wingers and rely on set piece goals off the shoulder to get points.
In 1992, a winning and seemingly technically superior England team was the dream and even 20 years later, aside from a small flutter at home in 1996, it seems that for the foreseeable future, that is something about which we can still only dream.