Living on the Dreams of Legends: An Introduction

It has been 51 years since England won the World Cup in 1966. Three decades after, the stands of Wembley swelled with the anthemic tune of Three Lions as England, the host nation of Euro 96, tried to end thirty years of hurt. The outcome was the same as it always had been. Failure. Another 21 years have passed and England have come no closer to winning a major championship. The sound of success for the present day England has become a distant echo from the long lost past.

So why is this? Year after year, tournament after tournament, England fail to deliver a championship performance worthy of Sir Alf Ramsey’s world champions. England invented football and is a country obsessed by the game. But time and again they fail to deliver on the world stage. England’s record makes depressing reading for any fan. 

Since being crowned world champions in 1966 there have been 24 major competitions. England failed to qualify for seven of them and reached the semi-finals only three times. In the same period, they managed to win just six knockout matches.

The statue of Bobby Moore stands as a permanent reminder of the failures of the generations who came after him. Often described as perennial underachievers, instead it would be more pertinent to suggest England’s performances have been disastrous. Team after team attempt to live on the dreams of legends – and fail.

With every passing tournament our players return as fallen lions who have stumbled foul of a cheating opponent, a poor refereeing decision, broken bones and often a lack of penalty taking technique. It is time to stop making excuses and start asking the right questions.

In this series we will examine a number of factors which have caused England to consistently fail in major championships and offer pathways for reform to ensure we can learn from our failures.

Economic reasons have influenced England’s lack of progress. Premier League clubs spend millions of pounds on their academy systems and develop few English players as a return. Football in England generates billions of pounds in revenue but only a small proportion is spent on developing new players. Some of the best young English players have been discovered and developed outside of the country’s top clubs.

Society influences the development and progress of players. We have become a country obsessed with instant success over long term improvement. Young people today want to reach the dizzying heights of greatness without having to put the necessary hard work in. The author, Malcom Gladwell, wrote at length about the 10,000 hours rule. Youth players in England have neglected the need to start developing technical skill at a young age and ensure practice supports them to improve.

Teams in England lack the courage to field more home grown players. Players like Marcus Rashford have shown they can thrive if given the time and space to grow and develop as a player. The number of home grown players has rapidly declined in recent years and stopped English players developing to the highest of standards. The best teams have shown they will only pick wonderkids rather than develop groups of players.

England have suffered from constant burdens over the years. The media expectation is consistently unreal. It is either very high or very low – and nothing in between. Are England underachievers, or do they just perform below inflated expectations? We often pin our hopes on a single player rather than the team itself. Other than Maradona in 1986, no other player has single handedly carried their country to World Cup victory. England have failed to utilise skillful deployment of strategies and methods as a team – instead they simply hope for one player to be brilliant.

Technique is a prevalent issue in English football. For years, English coaches at many levels have favoured direct, long ball play rather than development of the technical aspects of the game. Unlike other successful countries, England have failed to learn to play the ball out from the back and protect possession. This is backed up by the constant call for grassroot players to show more passion, get stuck in and “smash” someone. Can you really believe young Spanish players hear the same calls from the touchlines?

In England, the school sports day sits synonymously with why England have failed in major tournaments. In many schools, all children are rewarded for simply taking part and winning is ignored. Our children should learn to lose and understand the implications of a loss. Only by embracing and interrogating why they lost, and accepting feedback, can they see how improvements should be made. The England football team has made no clear reforms based on past failures.

The new England DNA dossier outlining the desired style of play for the future is quite generic. It fails to consider sub-optimal outcomes of the past and install mitigating actions to directly address these failures. England must move away from their old fashioned, cultural style of play and evolve with other nations.

A popular argument for why England players cannot develop is that there are too many foreign players in the Premier League. This is false. If the Premier League is to be called the best league, with the best teams and best players – it surely needs top class foreign players to maintain this standard. Removing foreign players will reduce the overall quality of the league and English players would not play with or against the best players. This, of course, would hinder English player progress.

One of the most important and overlooked reasons for England’s lack of success is down to psychological reasons. We now live in the time of the agent where young unsigned players receive outrageous incentives – which damages young talent. In order to elevate England to the highest levels, our clubs must build psychological resilience, mental strength and character in our players. English players struggle when opponents push back against them, they don’t know how to handle it and often crack under the pressure.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from elsewhere. England have produced world beaters in other sports such as rugby, cricket, tennis and cycling – so why not football? Why hasn’t the FA searched for support from elsewhere?

Only through interrogation of failures will we ever have the feedback needed to ensure reforms are made to restore England to the distant landscape of world beaters.

So let’s get started. Perhaps in time, we won’t have to live on the dreams of legends any longer.