x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A national disservice to England players

The weight of expectation from the fans on their national team can turn a dream call-up into a nightmare.

Tom Cleverley, centre, and Phil Jones, right, will be hoping for happier experiences with England than our columnist enjoyed.
Tom Cleverley, centre, and Phil Jones, right, will be hoping for happier experiences with England than our columnist enjoyed.

Young England players such as Manchester United's Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones will have joined the senior squad full of hope and expectation this week ahead of the 2012 European Championship qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales.

I hate to dampen those expectations, but playing for England doesn't come close to the dreams you have as a young footballer.

Turning out for your country is supposed to be a highlight of your career. I look back and have more negative memories than positive - and I'm not the only player to think like that.

Here's the reality of playing for England. The whole country goes on about a trophy which was won in 1966, the World Cup. They consider England to be a world power in football and have unrealistic expectations of the team.

When every international tournament comes around, people who know little about football decorate their houses and cars with the national flag. They are led to believe that England have a chance of winning by a media who, for some reason, claim to believe just that, despite the fact the England national side has never won the European Championships and has just that one World Cup to its name. A team who are routinely ranked between eighth and 12th in the world because there are between seven and 11 better teams.

When England invariably doesn't win - or doesn't come close to winning - a nation whose hopes were built up become disappointed and the players get the criticism and are deemed as flops.

This creates a negative culture of criticism, of managers being fired regularly and of players not performing to the same level that they do for their clubs.

Let's get this straight: The England national team are not a world power. They haven't been since 1966 and are unlikely to be in the future because of the culture surrounding the national side. The Premier League is the premier league in the world, but the England national team is the Aston Villa of world football.

England boast two world-class players, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, though I'd add a fully fit Rio Ferdinand to that list. There are plenty of other countries with players who are as good as, if not better, than England's.

The difference is that other countries are not burdened by the w8eight of expectation, which in turn creates a fear of failure among players. I worked incredibly hard for England and so did my teammates. It wasn't enough for the fans who expected a variation of the Brazil 1970 team - but maybe a bit better.

That's never going to happen when the national team is like it is - not really a team, but a group of players brought together who don't really know or trust each other.

A group with established cliques and favouritism.

A group where there's little dressing room harmony - and harmony is the basis for success.

I look back at my time with England as one massive energy sapping exercise that tampered with my head. Too many players were called up for squads and never actually played. You would spend 10 days away from your family in a hotel and work your socks off training in the hope that you might be involved.

Granted, other players have had better experiences with England than me. They enjoyed better timing, too. I was the top scorer in the Premier League in 1994 but England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States. Yet I speak to plenty of former England lads and they look back and view it as an enormous waste of time and effort.

There are no quick fixes for England, nothing that a new training centre will solve or the appointment of an even bigger-name manager on an even more lucrative contract. It's an impossible job even for a great coach such as Fabio Capello who has been successful throughout his career in club management.

The culture is ingrained. People will expect England to win the European Championships next year on the strength of topping a group full of much weaker countries such as Bulgaria, tonight's opponents in Sofia, and Wales, who await at Wembley Stadium next week. They will buy their little flags and urge their boys on.

The national team will have the benefit of a far bigger following than any other country in Poland and Ukraine next year - a support that puts any others to shame in terms of numbers. If only their expectations were more realistic, the England players might relax a little, enjoy their football and not disappoint quite so much in the big tournaments.

sports@thenational.ae