Category Archives: England

“Nice guys don’t win”, and other rhetoric

A fortnight on from the death throes of England’s dismal World Cup campaign, and the navel-gazing recriminations show no signs of abating. From the debilitating effects of Manaus, to the paucity of domestic talent in the Premier League (compared to the all-conquering set-up of, say, the Costa Rican or Chilean leagues) it has been the traditional quadquennial waft of hot air – achieving nothing bar further dissimulating Hodgson’s métier of cowardice repackaged as pragmatism. Yet amidst all this tired guff and hackneyed bluster, one cliché stood out as particularly egregious – Alan Shearer’s assertion that “we English are too honest.”

Of course, Shearer – less a talking head these days than a risible talking thumb – has form here, regularly championing the “diving is a foreign plague/not in our DNA” trope on Match of the Day. Yet, even if we selectively leave aside the dangerous pseudo-eugenics of this claptrap, the very notion that England’s increasingly habitual tournament failure is down to an innate superabundance of “honesty” is unambiguously ludicrous on two levels.

Primarily, empirically, theoretically, philosophically, whichever way you slice it, it is just not true. Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, for example, have never shied away from the rough stuff. Raheem Sterling contains more strength in one buttock than your average post-Soviet weightlifting team, and is more than happy to put it to malicious use. Gary Cahill has undergone so comprehensive a process of Mourinhofication that he would happily boot a toddler up in the air if it secured an opportunity to head something clear at the near post. The idea that the England squad spend their days listening to Belle and Sebastian whilst thumbing through Paolo Coelho’s latest simperings is as ludicrous as it is erroneous.

Secondly, if we take accepted wisdom that the two best players in world football are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the “too nice” theory is further undermined. Messi, in particular, has played up to his take-home-to-meet-the-grandparents qualities throughout his career – all floppy hair and bouncing off tackles like an enthusiastic toddler crashing into furniture. Likewise, Ronaldo who, for all his risible preening, could hardly be described as a hatchet man.

If, then, we accept the notion of England, or indeed any team, being too nice for success as a facile and inaccurate one, then what are we to make of it? What does it tell us about English football – and England’s – view of itself. Certainly, it speaks of the type of post-colonial smugness that still drips from every corner of the establishment – sporting, and political. An absolute refusal to countenance inherent flaws without viewing them through the prism of a presupposed moral superiority. Rubbish at football? Must be we’re too nice. Terminally in hock to a fundamentally flawed economic model? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit – nation of shopkeepers, and all that. Housing crisis? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit TOO! Nation of buy-to-letters, and all that. Phone hacking? Natural inquisitiveness. Establishment cronyism? Looking after old school chums. A veneer of ‘British values’ routinely lacquered over systemic faults, a watered down version of that loveable rogue Churchill’s addled justification of militarised imperialism based on moral superiority.

There is a further, wider, problem with such thinking, and that is that the notion that “nice guys don’t win” has increasingly become a cause célèbre for a generation of furiously embittered man-children. Witness the widespread social media pant-wetting about the striking mugshot of Californian convict Jeremy Meeks – which was taken by some (i.e. those whose agenda it suited) to be incontrovertible proof of a female conspiracy against them. “Why can’t girls be attracted to lovely soldiers” came much of the wailing – an absurd, and insulting, supposition of universality on both sides of the table. This “nice guys never win” notion has joined “I’m sick of being in the ‘Friend Zone’” as a go-to point for a prevalent and increasingly rampant passive-aggressive misogyny, the “nice guys” in question never stopping to wonder if their self-entitled tirades about “sluts” following each knockback compromises their self-image of shining armour. The self-pitying delusionality to the “too nice” trope here occurring on an individual, as opposed to national, level.

To unpack the semantics of the phrase, one must also ask what the supposed counterpoint is for this apparent niceness. What level of nastiness should our sportspeople aspire to? Just how shitty should they be in order to achieve success? Perhaps an answer can be found in the long-held theoretical Luddism at the heart of English football – a relentless harking back to the supposed glory days between the end of the Second World War and England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Whilst the reasons for this period establishing itself in the popular consciousness as English football’s Golden Age are as obvious as they are reasonable – post-conflict escapism, England’s solitary international victory, the dynastic narratives of Busby and Shankly and the first flushes of success for British teams in Europe – it’s hard to shift the sense that there has long been, more so now than ever, a fetishisation of the acceptable nastiness of the football that prevailed at this time. This was, after all, before violence was transferred from pitch to terrace; an age of granite-hewn men routinely booting lumps out of one another under the forgiving eye of lenient referees. Three decades of earthy nastiness sandwiched between the mustachioed Corinthianism of codified football’s first half-century and the “too-nice”, gentrified post-premiership generation. Although on the surface, Shearer’s protestations about England’s damaging niceness are superficially drawn as comparison to those dastardly foreigners, perhaps he is – subconsciously, at least – engaging in some casual retrogressivism.

What really constitutes ‘too nice’? What constitutes ‘too nasty’? Does such lazy moral absolutism even have a place in football? Shearer is, after all, not exactly uniquely qualified to act as the game’s moral arbiter – as Neil Lennon would doubtless testify. Ultimately, the issue is obfuscatory. England did not fail so miserably in Brazil because they were ‘too nice’, just as the Leeds United of Don Revie – to pick one example – owed their success to many and more complex reasons than their fabled ‘nastiness’. Neither an aspirational model, nor (a)moral exemplar, folk demons such as Revie, Maradona or, more recently, Luis Suarez, instead provide a necessary force in English football’s narrative. Through reveling in their notoriety and widespread opprobrium – a populist unpopularity, if you will – we facilitate the permeation of the facile assertion that we’re too nice, too decent, too honest to win.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

In the reaction to England’s demise, a post-mortem that simultaneously went through the motions and was indulged with great joy (just listen to Chris Waddle’s almost gleeful “We will never, ever learn”), a general sense of proportion and perspective was missing. It is one we have a better chance of gaining now that the group stages are over and we can see in the cold reality of our wallcharts which teams have been successful and which haven’t.

Some, of course, were expected to do well, though it is notable how few of the fancied teams have had it all their own way. Germany, so impressive in the first game against Portugal, had to settle for a draw against Ghana. Only the Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina and Belgium have come through with 100% records, and of those the Netherlands were given a scare against Australia, Argentina needed a last-minute Messi wondergoal to beat Iran, while Belgium have not looked convincing in any of their games. Some of this might be the result of teams taking their foot off the gas for their final group game or making wholesale changes to the team – this was probably the case with France, who made six changes for their game against Ecuador. Of the fancied teams, Spain and Italy are out, Brazil have stumbled, Argentina have looked great because Messi is on form, but as the commentators in their match with Nigeria suggested, look “pretty ordinary” when he doesn’t play. Germany played a perfect game against Portugal and then slowed down a bit.

Allowing for the sparkle of the French and Dutch teams, perhaps the most impressive team thus far has been Colombia, who not only won all their games but have, at +7, the highest goal difference (equal with the Dutch). Their games finished 3-0, 2-1, 4-1. How have they been able to be this effective given they are missing Radamel Falcao, their best player? The answer, or at least part of it,  might be thought of in terms of dialectics. It’s worth roping in Chile here, who have been as remarkable as Colombia. Both of these nations have shown not only that they recognise the dialectical nature of a successful football team, but have been able to marshall the dialectic in different situations, of which Colombia’s loss of Falcao is the perfect example. Their ability to do this has been matched by England’s utter failure in the same regard.

Various reasons have been given for England’s failure: they’re not streetwise enough, they took too many young players, they were too attacking, they didn’t play Rooney in the right position, they couldn’t keep the ball properly, the central defence isn’t up to scratch, they didn’t do enough to entice John Terry back into the team, the Premier League isn’t allowing young English players to come through at the top clubs. All of these undoubtedly had some impact on the team’s showing, yet that very fact suggests that there’s something else, something larger, broader, more general, that they fit into. I think it’s England’s lack of dialectical understanding.

Not being streetwise enough is code for them not wasting time and disrupting the opposition’s rhythm by taking niggly fouls and slowing the game down. Yet this only works as a tactic if you have something positive to offer yourself in response. Being streetwise largely works to nullify an opponent, not give you the edge (unless you can con a referee into giving you a penalty). So while England clearly aren’t streetwise enough, for deeply embedded cultural reasons, they also weren’t brave enough. Some, though, said they were too brave, insofar as they went for an overly-attacking style that left their fragile defence too open. After the Uruguay game in particular, all the commentators seemed to have discovered that Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka weren’t the best centre-half partnership. Chris Waddle suggested that England responded to criticism of their defensive play at Euro 2012 with attacking play at this World Cup. This is the lack of dialectics in a nutshell: one or the other rather than two in a mutually constitutive relationship with one another. Rather, then, than realising that a team can incorporate a certain streetwisdom (someone wondered why England didn’t try to kick Suarez’s dodgy knee) while also playing the direct, exciting counterattacking football that saw them score what was a pretty good goal against Italy, England half-heartedly concocted a plan to nullify Pirlo while hoping that Raheem Sterling could pull something out of the bag. If Sterling’s club manager, Brendan Rodgers, has displayed an admirable flexibility in altering his favoured possession game to better accommodate the counter-attacking prowess of Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, then England’s attempt to, in the words of one of the Radio 5 commentators, “copy Liverpool” says everything you need to know about the national team: rather than arriving at a game-plan based on the players available, the opposition, and a dialectical conception of a team, they’ll just Ctrl-C Ctrl-V thank you very much.

The argument about Rooney in between the first two games was also an example of un-dialectical thinking. Rooney is a great player, went one strand, so he can play anywhere. Rooney is our only world-class player, went another, so he should play in his best position. No-one, anywhere, talked about the team, at least not until it was too late. Yes, Rooney is a great player, but football is a team sport. This is something both Chile and Colombia have realised. We might have said before the tournament that Chile have a couple of outstanding – though not world-class – players in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez; we would probably have said that because those are the two players we know from the Champions League. They have both been excellent, yet even if the Chileans themselves think of this pair in these terms, their game-plans suggest otherwise, or at least suggest that Vidal’s and Sanchez’s abilities can be best utilised – can, perhaps, only be utilised – as part of a coherent collective unit. Colombia offer an even more stark example: they lose their best player before the tournament, which you might think would force them to adopt a more team-minded approach, rather than just relying on Falcao, but what is most remarkable about them is that that team approach, which asks more of the collective in the absence of their main talent, has allowed for individual talent to emerge from it in the form of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. What made the Rooney debate such an infuriating one was its simultaneous proximity and distance to this kind of conception of team sport. Commentators talked incessantly of how Rooney should fit into the team but without a sense that the question involves not just what Rooney can bring to the team but also how the team can help Rooney. The debate is not about whether Rooney or Sterling is ‘better’ in the number 10 role, but how their respective individual-nesses and the collective relate to one another in service of the goal of winning the game.

Unfortunately for England, this lack of dialectical thinking is endemic and extends to the relationship between club and country and that between youth and age not just within the first team itself but between that first team, youth teams and youth development. You could argue it’s also present in patriotic politicians pulling funding for grassroots sports facilities while bidding for World Cups and Olympic Games. There’s a certain defensive rigidity that comes from constant failure and constant pressure, and I’m sure that has contributed to the failure of the national team at this tournament. Yet that pressure itself seems partly to exist to shore up the crumbling foundation of a national footballing identity. There has been quite a bit of talk about this in recent days, with references to the current Belgian team and other European sides who have decided on a way of playing and put that into practice at all levels of the game, from under-10s up to the adult first team. The problem, commentators say, with doing that in England is that those who would be tasked with doing so are incapable of settling on a way of playing. If we’ve finally accepted the antiquated nature of the old favourite 4-4-2, these commentators say, do we play 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, or even three centre-backs? How can we answer that, they say, if we don’t know if we want to play a possession-based game or a counter-attacking game? And if we can’t answer that, they say, how do we put practical measures in place, like getting kids to play on smaller pitches to encourage their ball-skills and possession, or focusing on their first touch and movement for counter-attacking?

The attractiveness of those national set-ups where all levels of the game play the same way – Spain being the most obvious recent example – comes less from the methods themselves than the success they have engendered. I balk a little at asking someone at the FA to decide on how English national teams will play for evermore, and balk even more at then asking the same person to implement that plan across the country. I also suspect that the lack of loose, reflexive, dialectical thinking that I’ve been talking about here would be absent, and that a familiar rigidity would gain legitimisation with the addition of some sort of national blue-print; no matter how many times England lost in the group stages, there would be those pointing to the plan and advocating sticking to it. No, what English football needs to discover is a greater suppleness, something displayed the other night against Ivory Coast by none other than the Greeks, who have perfected the limited art of defending en masse and sneaking 1-0 wins since they one-nilled all the way to glory in Euro 2004. Not only do they play defensively, but they’ve been doing so for eight years! If ever there were an example of footballing rigidity, this would surely be it. What then, to make of the sight of Giorgos Karagounis smacking the bar with a thirty-yard pile-driver, or the attacking verve that led them to hit the woodwork in the first half, or the pressing that led to their first goal? I don’t know. It’s possible they’ll go back to their defensive ways in the next round against Costa Rica, and go home. But can you imagine a similar suppleness of mind and change of character in the England team?

Posted by Mark West

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Notes on Fallout

So, despite my making the cavalier declaration that the combination of results needed for England to survive in the World Cup post-Uruguay did ‘not strike me as impossibly unlikely’, the inappropriately nicknamed Three Lions are mathematically out of the tournament. After a weekend of press coverage which was, at least in the broadsheets, largely sympathetic to Roy Hodgson and his players, the recriminations are beginning. Unsurprisingly, the catalyst of spite has been Harry Redknapp, a man incredibly popular with tabloid journalists because he’s a bit like Terry Venables in his bloke-selling-perfume-on-Dagenham-market charm and also because he tends to answer their calls. Redknapp’s take on the weird – both enervated and over-hasty – performances in Manaus and São Paulo was that perhaps some of the team didn’t want to be there, a notion he backed up by claiming that, during his tenure at Tottenham, a number of his English players asked their manager to withdraw them from the national squad. The consequent uproar has offered us yet another insight into the intersection of football’s small-p politics and ‘real’ political ideology.

To begin with, there’s the story of what is happening beneath the surface of Redknapp’s apparently ‘helpful’ disclosure. The relationship between the QPR boss and Roy Hodgson could not be more Shakespearean if it were staged on a balcony in Verona, written in iambic pentameter and grossly misunderstood by the National Curriculum. In one corner, you have the incumbent leader, a benign if occasionally gauche man who reads European literature in his spare time and cheers his young followers with legitimate space tales. In the other, you have the (alleged) popular choice, his route to the throne blocked by what he takes to be conspiracy, consumed by the rage of his embittered sense of entitlement. With Hodgson having his job guaranteed by the FA in the wake of the Uruguay game, it is hard not to suspect that Redknapp is attempting a Iagovian coup-by-insecurity.

Hodgson and Steven Gerrard have responded intelligently to what might well be an act of provocation. Gerrard in particular has found a skillful way of walking the line between humouring Redknapp and letting him know that, however annoying it is to have him pissing into the tent, he’s not going to be given an opportunity to micturate out of it. By asking for the names of those who attempted to avoid England ‘duty’, the captain is, I think, offering up the suggestion that the would-be deserters simply don’t exist other than as fabrications in a more pernicious agenda. I have it on pretty reliable authority that some players find playing for England in friendlies a bit of an inconvenience at times, but this in no way proves Redknapp’s allegations. Moreover, why shouldn’t players find international games – particularly the utterly meaningless trips to shit-at-football-but-very-wealthy countries that the FA send the squad to as part of their interminable branding campaign and the games scheduled for no reason other than to repay the cost of rebuilding Wembley – tedious?

The assumption that Redknapp’s stirring will live or die by is that all footballers are unquestioningly patriotic. I’d dispute this. When we see them belting out the national anthem or doing one of those ludicrous pride-and-passion pre-match space-fillers, I suspect that patriotism is something which is used as a focal point for team-mindedness, a node for professional success. One does find the occasional Siniša Mihajlović or Zvonimir Boban for whom nation-love is clearly a very real and visceral thing, but I’d hazard a guess that for the average international footballer patriotism is a way of rationalising responsibility to the footballing cause. There’s a ludicrous misrecognition on the part of the right-wingers doing their Queen-and-country act in the stands who think the men on the pitch share their blood-and-soil mentality: for the most part, footballers focus themselves out of any formal political identification (it’s rarely pointed out as it destroys the depiction of players as asininely nationalistic, but the Mihajlovićs are outliers on the right just as much as the Graeme le Sauxs and Pat Nevins are on the left). Presenting footballers as purely patriotically motivated is a form of fantasy about the politics of the working class from which they are almost unanimously drawn, which is to say that it suits certain agendas to treat the proles as borderline fascists (which would make socialism into an illegitimate bourgeois charade).

This links tellingly to the stories society tells itself about the army. While the majority who join are motivated by the route military service offers out of poverty – hence the similarities in geographical origin between infantry soldiers and international footballers – the narrative is that they do so for the patria. In one fell swoop, the shame of Britain’s socio-economic inequality is masked and its ridiculous, disastrous post-imperial wars touched up with affective ‘credibility’. The logic is that war can’t be a crime against the poor because the poor like going to war, as if patriotism in the Forces isn’t largely a case of having to locate some structure for coping (this is implicitly shown to be the case in various works by reporters embedded in the US military during the War on Terror, notably Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and Sebastian Junger’s War. Geoff Dyer’s recent account of time spent on an American aircraft carrier drops heavy hints in the same direction. Clearly, you don’t have to be a Marxist hardliner to believe expediency is the basis for a significant proportion of enlistments.)

And so, having drawn my own analogy between football and the military, it’s time to turn to the terminally nonsensical – and that’s putting it politely – Ian Wright. If there’s a league table of footballers making inappropriate interventions in affairs, Wright would vie at the top with Paul Gascogine turning up at a siege with a can of lager and a fishing rod for ‘Moaty’. The former Arsenal striker and present-day useful idiot declared in today’s Sun that players who tried to dodge an international call-up should be forced to ring the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to shirk. There’s plenty of grimly funny imaginings of this doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, so I’ll decline the opportunity to add my own and simply point to the fact that this is yet more evidence of how football is being used as one vector in the increasing militarisation of British society. Most recent tournaments (those that have supplied a victory) have found their UK TV coverage adorned with cutaways to Our Boys enjoying the game with non-alcoholic beers at Camp Bastion as a respite from ‘holding off the Taliban’, and then there’s the way that the FA Cup draw seems no longer the preserve of a monotone Graham Kelly but of serving Forces personnel. You’re more likely to find discounted tickets being offered to soldiers than to the unemployed nowadays, which is pretty instructive if you want to think about how the Tories have capitalised on Blair’s wars to cloak their vicious-as-fuck austerity drive in a miasma of nationalistic sentiment. Remember the poppies-on-shirts debate and the EDL’s protest on a Zurich rooftop? It’s all that all over again.

As I’ve said above, I think Gerrard and Hodgson have played pretty cutely so far. There does, however, need to be a louder voice asking why a player should be asked to feel a certain way about representative sport and what it means ideologically that they so frequently are. For my part, I’m much more comfortable with a player taking pride in turning out for their childhood team than with them pontificating about the moral obligation to want to play for one’s country. Last year, my team Darlington won the regional Northern League, the first step – I hope – on the road back to the Conference, from which bankruptcy had exiled them. Forced to rely on cheap local talent, the Quakers fielded a Darlo fan, Steve Johnson, in a crucial top-of-the-table away match against Spennymoor. After a 3-1 victory, Johnson headed to the travelling fans to reveal a t-shirt which read, in an homage to and bettering of Mario Balotelli’s, ‘Why Always Us?’ That‘s solidarity.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Doublethink of England

Change the manager, change the personnel. Change the training centre, change the conditioning. Hire a psychologist, phone Dave Brailsford or Clive Woodward. Hire their psychologists. Change the manager. Change the personnel again: make them younger, more humble. Change the mentality. Change the conditioning. In a darkened room in the Midlands, watch six years of Spanish, and Catalan, success in a silence broken only by gentle tapping on the Ipad touchscreen. Change the style. Be assiduous, like Shankly. Sweat the details. Brailsford tells you that the decimal percentages make a difference. Hire a media consultant, another psychologist, someone who’s worked with Andy Murray, someone from ‘Obama’s Camp’. Everything’s interdiscplinary, intertextual. Change the conditioning. Fly your men out eighteen months early to pick the hotel. Hire a colour therapist. Hire a music therapist. Hire a feng shui therapist. Change the style. Change the conditioning. The decimal percentages. The decimals. Your captain understands the project. The style, the conditioning, the mentality.

And yet: England stand, at the time of writing, on the edge of elimination from the World Cup Finals at the group stage, a fate they have not succumbed to since Walter Winterbottom unwisely left Brian Clough at home and took his Munich-wrecked squad to Sweden in 1958. Perhaps results will combine in England’s favour – and that combination does not strike me as impossibly unlikely – but there’s little doubt that the inquest has already begun.

I have no real interest in picking over the tactics or the team, save to give a brief account of what it feels like to watch England at this tournament, but not only at this tournament, as it has felt the same – with a couple of irreverent overturnings of the trend – since the 2004 European Championships. There is an embodied experience of watching an England international which I am sure is shared by many, and it’s one I can liken only to that of sitting on a bus in traffic, urging it to accelerate in the full knowledge that to do so in the space available is impossible. You’re grasped by a visceral perception of the chasm between the will and the reality principle; even the occasional surge forward, provided this year by Raheem Sterling, presents itself as an exception which adds to the weight of the general rule. The team look as if they’re playing it quicksand: this inertia metastasises from the game to the audience, a very real sense of deadweightedness.

What I think is interesting here is the way that this lethargy, which exists regardless of who is in the team and how they are set up to play, stands at a counterpoint to the rhetoric and iconography of leonine ‘passion’ which girds the national team. In the stands, fans display symbols of a putative English ‘indomitability’, Spitfires and – provocatively – Crusader outfits. Before the game, the coverage displays black and white headshots of the players, their faces fixed in an uncompromising grimace. If everything else changes, this extreme dichotomy between belief and the radical disbelief exemplified in the performances remains exactly the same.

There’s a kind of doublethink here which matches that of English life at large. Ron has already touched on this in his discussion of the national team’s affliction with market or capitalist realism, but we can perhaps put this in more Orwellian terms. To live in England now is to be asked to believe simultaneously that happiness is impossible – we must be ‘realistic’ – and that we are already, perhaps inherently, happy. Similarly, England must lose and cannot lose. Wayne Rooney must perform badly but he also cannot play badly. Perhaps the disorder which inevitably kicks off as history repeats itself once again is not a simple expression of disappointment but a confused articulation of what it is like to inhabit this contradiction in both sporting and political terms.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Scotland, Independence and ABE

 

In years past, both Andy Murray and Gordon Brown have been placed into difficulty regarding the England national football team.

In 2006, Murray received hate mail on the BBC website after saying that he would be supporting “anyone but England” (ABE) at the World Cup in Germany that year. Coming from a sporting Scot, this is pretty unsurprising – most English people would presumably assume Scots don’t want England to win – but given Murray’s ploughing of the lone farrow of “British” tennis excellence, this worryingly rebellious (if honest) streak had to be quashed. One wit let it be known on the BBC’s website that they would be supporting “anyone but Murray” at Wimbledon (possibly before they realised the dearth of more unproblematically “British” players that had any chance of getting past the first round).

Then in 2007, Brown exhibited the anxiousness and clumsiness that was to accompany his prime ministership when he tried to pre-empt the kind of criticism Murray received by suggesting in a conversation about England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup that he’d like “the host” to win. As the BBC reported: “Asked then who he wanted to win the World Cup, Mr Brown replied: “I think the host.” When asked “Not Scotland?”, the Chancellor replied: “Well, of course, I want Scotland to do well, but let’s just see how it all works out.”” Potentially worried that this reflected a rather pessimistic attitude toward Scotland’s chances at a hypothetical tournament, and smarting from Alex Salmond’s accusation that he had “completely lost the plot,” Brown later clarified his “ideal scenario”: “Scotland play England in the final and Scotland win.””

These examples bespeak a closer and more ignorant – at least on the part of the English – relationship between England and Scotland, one hardly (then) thought about save on occasions of sporting rivalry like this. The relationship between the two countries seems a lot different now. England has been forced to learn – and think – more about Scotland, even if the prevailing attitudes are still imbued with faint bemusement; Scotland wants more and more to differentiate itself from England. If Scotland will hold an independence referendum in less than four months time, David Cameron’s Westminster government seems a lot more English than Blair’s Labour one did, which featured, in addition to Brown, the Scots Alistair Darling, John Reid and Robin Cook, among others. Cameron’s Englishness is so much the type that Scots dislike – loud-voiced, ignorant, un-self-aware, Southern – that differences which may be quite small (his cabinets have featured Glasgow Tories Liam Fox and Lord Strathclyde) are amplified. That’s not to mention the very real political differences between the Cameron government and the vast majority of Scottish people; the Scottish Government is actively engaged in sabotaging (or mitigating, if you prefer) some of Cameron’s most hated policies.

If in 2010 a shop in Aberdeen was visited by police on account of its reportedly “racist” ABE t-shirts, will similar sentiments arise at this World Cup, spurred on by the independence referendum in September?

It is hard to say. My immediate sense is that the referendum, rather than creating a space in which all sorts of nationalist blather can ooze out, is actually showing it up for the silliness it always was. My impression – cybernats and former Secretary Generals of NATO notwithstanding –  is that the debate about the referendum really has been about the issues and about politics, but also – and more inspiringly – about what sort of country we want to make and to live in. It is distinctly different to the drudgery and conspicuous lack of choice in a general election. In this context, in which the entire country is having a serious, engaged and optimistic conversation with itself about what it wants to be, ABE seems a remnant of a different age (just like those Labour governments). As my friend Ciaran said when I asked him about it, “my support for Independence comes less from a patriotic sense [than] a political perspective.” ABE has something of the pre-2008 crash about it, a negative (in the photographic sense) reflection of the boorish culture that surrounded the “golden”-WAGS-Eriksson (and, dare I say, it New Labour) generation of ten years ago. Today’s squad has largely moved on from those figures, and the ones that are left – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard – are the more introspective and palatable members. John Terry has retired from international football, David Beckham from all football, and there is not a robot dance to be seen. Instead we have “the Studge” and a host of much more likeable players – Danny Welbeck, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain et al all seem like fine upstanding young gentlemen in comparison with the group that went to Baden-Baden in 2006.

That said, given that 2014 sees both the referendum in Scotland and a World Cup at which England – and not Scotland – will be present, one might be forgiven for expecting a resurfacing of ABE sentiments. While there are always going to be ironic cheers when this year’s Heskey hoofs a shot over the bar, I wouldn’t bet on an upsurge of nationalist-infused ABE. Part of the reason is because of the negative nature of the sentiment itself. As a friend said to me, “part of the reason that Scottish people often are so vehemently anti-English when it comes to sports is a perceived sense of entitlement and ludicrous degree of expectation that comes with every major tournament. Up until the last World Cup there was still a lot of talk about England being contenders. Now that expectations south of the border are so much lower, it’s difficult to generate as much bile – it’s just not as fun anymore.” No matter how many Clive Tyldesleys there are in the world, if the team they’re cheerleading are so conspicuously average, it’s hard to work up too much excitement about them.

The comparative muteness of ABE sentiment is also partly due to what Ciaran described as a “lack of general interest in international football.” Although he “can’t stop [himself] basking in their defeat,” his schadenfreude has “less vigour” because of this. If it’s always been the case for fans of the larger clubs, I think this lack of interest is increasingly the case for the average football fan too, for whom the international side of the game is pretty uninteresting and for whom a growing proportion of their football interest is devoted to worrying that their precariously-financed club gets its bit of the TV-and-advertising deal bonanza. This isn’t helped by the fact that the players themselves hardly seem bothered by it (no matter how many times they claim to be “proud to wear the shirt” and that “it’s a dream to represent your country”) and also by the impression that it is simply not the place where the best football can be seen. Fans support teams named after the city where their stadium is, but they watch a team made up of players from around the world. Globalization and capitalism are responsible not just for massive TV deals but also the decreasing importance of the nation state – and individual and collective identities connected to them – in general. If you don’t feel particularly English, then it’s hard to support a team whose whole identity is based on marshalling some sort of anachronistic Three Lions-St George sense of Englishness. And anyway, for many the Champions League is a better tournament than the World Cup.

Brief, unscientific research since the beginning of this year’s tournament seems to confirm at least part of this. If most pubs in Glasgow have put up flag bunting, like they do for every tournament, some have chosen a team to support, usually one of the favourites. I’ve seen Brazilian, Spanish and German ones displayed prominently in bar windows. Watching the opening Brazil v Croatia match in the pub the other night, there was a lot of investment in Brazil not embarrassing themselves (revealed in the strength of the cheers when Neymar equalised) but a similar amount who found the possibility of Croatia upsetting the narrative an appealing prospect. I’ve been in Glasgow for the 2008 and 2012 Euros, and the 2010 and this World Cup, and I’m always struck by the way these tournaments are here a way for people to become more internationalist, boning up on the rivalries between Central American minnows or how Bosnia’s political history translates into their midfield dynamism. This is obviously partly due to Scotland’s absence from those tournaments; if they’d been present, I’m sure much more focus would be on them at the expense of this welcome cosmopolitanism. I didn’t go to the pub for the England v Italy game, but you don’t often need to go that far to hear evidence of ABE feeling. Earlier this year, I could pretty much tell the score in the Six Nations matches featuring England because a particularly raucous neighbour would scream every time whoever England were playing took the lead. Watching Saturday’s game at a friend’s, the surrounding flats were dead silent. Of course this could be for many reasons, but it seemed apt.

Before this World Cup, there was perhaps a better occasion to gauge the current strength of ABE sentiments, when Scotland played England at Wembley last summer. In addition to the excitement of the game, with Scotland taking the lead twice and England pegging them back and eventually winning, the event was noteworthy for the pre- and post-game opinions of fans, players, and commentators, all of whom seemed to be on the same page, both Scottish and English. The overwhelming impression I got was that everyone was excited to have the fixture back on the calendar, and that it was fun to indulge in a bit of friendly rivalry. There was talk of a home nations tournament being revived. Even the result seemed to please everyone: Scotland didn’t expect to win, but gave a good account of themselves, while England didn’t risk fan invective by losing to a team who at the time were ranked 36 places below them. There wasn’t, to my knowledge, any violence outside the game, and it ended with all involved saying “this was nice, we must do this again sometime,” Scotland basically inviting England up to Hampden next year. It may be possible that I’m gilt-edging this, and that others might have a completely different impression. My assumption that both teams were happy with the result might smack to some of precisely the condescension Scottish football fans hate in the English, but it comes from talking to a co-worker, a member of Scotland Supporter’s Club who travelled to Wembley for the game. On his return it wasn’t the result he wanted to talk (or moan) about; instead he wanted to show me photos of the trip on his phone. He was looking forward to the return game at Hampden in 2015, and politely suggested that Scotland might win it.

Posted by Mark West

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Preview 13 – England

I probably don’t need to remind you that it’s something of a miracle we even made it to Brazil 2014. Since the Iraqi nuclear attacks on London in early 2003 (who besides the late dictator Tony Blair thought those WMDs were actually real?), England and its football culture has, understandably, been in a state of some disrepair. With Zone 1 of the capital reduced to a toxic crater, and with infrastructure dispersed throughout the nascent Quatropolis of the British Republic (Stratford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow), we’ve been forced to think in unusually strenuous terms about history, collective identity and the place of football within it.

Quite aside from the difficulties most of us now have with the mere concept of “England” – a name that we now tend to associate with the recherché world of monarchy, pastoral myth and capitalist belligerence that has mostly evaporated since the destruction of London and the Home Counties just over a decade ago – it is extraordinary on a logistic level that a team from the Republic exists at all.

Post-2003, after the world economy was thrown into turmoil by the attacks on London and New York, and Britain’s inordinate reliance on finance capitalism and the tourist industry came to an abrupt end, we have faced material hardships on a biblical scale. Over the last ten years, as we dealt with the humanitarian fallout from nuclear catastrophe and tried to slowly rebuild our economy as a hub of manufacturing and the creative arts, sport has been the last thing on most people’s minds.

But there is also, of course, a sense in which the birth of the Republic has revitalised English football, and vice versa. Before the bombings, the Premiership was in a bad way, and there were signs that it was about to get even worse. After an initial honeymoon period, the alliance between global capitalism and the big English clubs that deepened from the early nineties had created a disaffected, apathetic climate, one in which both supporters and young players had begun to lose faith that the game was anything more than an elaborate marketing spectacle.

Domestic competitions had come to be dominated by a handful of mega-wealthy clubs, ticket prices were rising at an alarming rate, and heavily overpaid players were starting to become objectionable characters who displayed increasing detachment from the underlying moral and aesthetic imperatives of the beautiful game. There were even signs that the FA Cup was losing its importance, and that the same 5 or 6 teams would be able to effectively monopolise domestic football long into the future by way of a de facto plutocratic super league.

2003 changed all that. With Chelsea and Arsenal consigned to the history books after central London was razed to the ground, and with the steady withdrawal of corporate money from both the Premiership and the British economy as a whole, a newly egalitarian game began to emerge in a landscape blighted by a combination of (man-made) ecological disaster and severe economic depression. With player wages only slightly above the average rate for British Republic citizens, and with English teams unable to take part in European competitions, our stratified, hierarchical domestic league was completely overhauled. Between 2004 and 2013, 8 different teams won the (newly unsponsored) league title, and the FA Cup was won by a different team each year.

At Everton in 2006, Wayne Rooney and John Terry (a refugee from west London) spearheaded a glorious league campaign that ended with a dramatic last gasp victory over Hibernian on the final day of the season. Andy Caroll scored 42 league goals as Newcastle won the Cup in 2010, narrowly losing out on the league title to Preston. In 2011, Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson led Villa to a spectacular title victory. At resurgent, supporter-controlled Sheffield Wednesday, Gary Cahill, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge were the backbone of an exceptional team that won the double in 2012. After a steep decline from their nineties heyday, Man United fought successive relegation battles, but their cup victory in 2013 over Rickie Lambert-led Leeds was perhaps a sign that the good times will soon return.

With this difficult yet emboldening recent domestic history behind them, I can’t help but feel that the 2014 England squad might be capable of pulling off an unlikely triumph in Brazil. The last decade has been difficult, but we now have a renewed sense of what this whole venture means. We are a lot closer now in background and worldview to the rest of the world, much more in tune with our working-class heritage, much less blinkered by myths of greatness and a mingled feeling of inflated superiority and nagging inferiority. Above all, we have something to prove – namely the fact that we are part of a democratic new country that is moving slowly but inexorably into a brighter, more passionately felt future. If power corrupts, then disempowerment can humanise, and this is a truth that Roy Hodgson and his idealistic young team must keep close to their hearts in the splintering sunlight of Manaus.

Posted by Alex Niven

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Football’s Counterfactual Draw

So the local and European elections are over and we’ve all had a chance to digest, or perhaps indigest, the results. It’s been a victory for the politics of fear all around Europe. This in itself would, in some ways, not be so bad if these fearmongering politicians represented some kind of realistic point of difference, in as much as – from a sort-of accelerationist point of view – it would draw a line in the sand. Perhaps it would force people to take some kind of active political position rather than the incoherent status quo where most people would seem to prefer the policies set forth by the Green party and despise those proposed by UKIP, yet ended up voting for the latter in significant numbers for the local elections and by a landslide in the European elections, registering arguably the most mainstream-friendly political protest in history.

That we English lemmings falling off the cliff of neoliberalism appear to have voted en masse for a message that boils down to ‘leave us alone, we want to build a bigger cliff so ner’ is depressing, but it does lead us to the first minor what if…what if the Greens had received the same kind of publicity as UKIP? They’re a flawed party, for sure. Too middle class, too white and too bizarre in some corners. To touch briefly upon the football they are something like the Yeovil Town of politics. You’re glad they exist but ultimately they’re a little bit rural West Country – both club and party probably have beards and, you can’t help but suspect, genuinely and enthusiastically love folk music but feel deeply suspicious of hip-hop, even when it’s articulating their politics as well as folk ever has (with due apologies to west country, folk and Yeovil Town fans for my gross stereotyping here. Come and find me in Brixton some time and I’ll buy you a cider). But they have ideas, they have a positive vision for the future, and those two things alone make them a true alternative to the business-as-usual represented by the media-styled ‘big four’, and one that, like a St Pauli, could well attract a rather large following if only people heard about them on a regular basis.

All of which rambling brings me to the major what if I end up contemplating whenever I’m depressed by election results (i.e. every time there’s an election) or whenever I hear visionary statements in support of the working man and the future of our species from the Labour party such as  ‘we’ll try and freeze energy prices for a bit’. Epic. That what if is John Smith. What if he hadn’t died? Now I know older heads among you have no doubt lived through a number of disappointing Labour governments, but viewed through the lens of my life span those Labour governments seemed almost incomprehensibly socialist compared to the present collection. I was only sixteen at the time of New Labour’s election but even then it was apparent that Labour would have won regardless, and in John Smith they had one of the last of a dying breed – a non-career politician who appeared to have actual beliefs based on actual life experience, who had some understanding of the lives of the working poor and who didn’t see at least some aspects of socialism as if they were an electoral death sentence. While it’s entirely likely that he would have been a distinct disappointment to genuine socialists, it’s also hard to imagine him having embarked upon the orgy of privatisation-by-stealth initiated by Blair and Brown’s government, policies which laid the foundations for many of the coalitions most hated ‘reforms’ – privatising the royal mail, laying open the NHS and the transference of state schools into private hands via academisation.

Why do I indulge in this whatiffery time after time? Like picking at a scab it serves no useful purpose, it merely reopens old wounds. In this respect I am a typical football fan. Instead of the late Mr Smith, consider Wayne Rooney. The latter stands out more in the what if stakes. At 17 in those matches in that European Championship he was a genuine protégé. Those early glimpses were of a player fully deserving the hype being bestowed upon him, and, O joy for all true Englishmen, the French players were absolutely shitting themselves at his every touch. Then there were his breakthrough performances against Switzerland and Croatia. He went off injured early in the quarter-final against Portugal and, though we played reasonably well for the rest of the match, we had lost our catalyst, a player who in those early matches seemed capable of lifting England out of its grey backdrop of major tournament failure.

It is something akin to this whatiffery that Colombian and Uruguayan fans have tortured themselves with regarding their respective icons Falcao and Suarez. Both are phenomenal players who do possess that transformative power of the individual who can lift the whole team: Suarez in particular has shown consistently that he can lift the good to the sublime, bringing the best out of his teammates too in a way that Falcao can’t emulate. Realistically, though, Falcao would have been disappointing if he had made it and Suarez probably will be if does. Falcao has been out since January; even if he had made it there would have been no hope whatsoever of him being sharp. Suarez is a bit different. He is a physical phenomenon possessed of a peerless will to win, but no footballer can transcend human embodiment (except perhaps Erhun Oztumer). Injury, or a lack of fitness, prevents peak performance. The spirit will be there, no doubt, but the flesh will still be weak.

These are all, however, examples of slow burning, lingering what ifs. The causes and consequences play out over weeks, months and years, never subject to that sense of powerfully diverging pathways that create some of most memorable moments in life, for good or ill. Even in the case of John Smith’s death the factions of neoliberalism existed around him and would have had a part to play regardless. Even Thatcher needed her ‘vegetables’ – politics cannot survive on meat alone. No, the truly heart-rending or ecstasy inducing what ifs are those destiny-altering ones at which the paths of cosmic possibility seem to diverge – the chance-which-is-not-chance encounters which, in mythology or religion, tend to be taken as proof of fate or divine will. What if, for example, Steven Gerrard never does win the title? Well, then his what if will become a kind of ultimate, meta what if, a what if moment that other what if victims in footballing history will console themselves with, or perhaps tell younger players about as a profound warning to ‘buy some proper fucking boots, son’.

Thirty-eight games. Fifty-seven hours worth of football distilled into that fraction of a second where his boots went and Demba Ba started racing away and you could see the ball hitting the back of the net before he even touched it, where for a Liverpool fan the whole season flashed before your eyes and you knew, you knew for sure right then that it was over, all over, the dream gone, the dream dead, the dream killed by what Italians call ‘ironic destiny’ while,  if you were a Manchester City fan, your heart soared, you couldn’t believe it, this was ordained, this was destiny, this was God pointing his finger down on you, like in those shit old lottery adverts, a beam of light from the fucking sky assuring you that this time it’s yours, the rest is noise, this is where you won it, it all turned on this moment, a moment that will test the capacity of every replay function ever devised – your memory, your match report, your VCR and nowadays, joyously, your GIF of that moment plastered everywhere you could possibly post it. A what if where on one side exists desolation, the other delirium – the flip of a cosmic coin, the ultimate what if, and football deals them out like crystal meth, and here we are, addicted.

(Editor’s note – footballing counterfactuals are explored at some length in this episode of SotB’s sister podcast This is Deep Play)

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Wilshere – Gove Axis

Most bank holidays don’t provide this much fuel for liberal outrage. Alongside the success of UKIP, and other far-right parties throughout the continent, in the European elections, Britain’s abysmal, wilfully and self-consciously retrogressive Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has deemed the presence of a number of foreign texts on the GCSE English Literature syllabus undesirable. In a proposed shake-up, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, all longstanding Key Stage 4 stalwarts, have been shown towards pedagogic Siberia by Gove, who favours reestablishing the nineteenth century novel and Romantic poetry at the core of teenagers’ literary education.

For me, Gove’s decision feels oddly like a callback to Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere’s attempted militations against the naturalisation of players such as Adnan Januzaj for his country. Wilshere’s argument seemed to imply that foreign-born players, particularly those with no determinable blood connection to England, would be incapable of grasping the significance of wearing The Shirt. Beyond the Imaginary bad faith of his remarks – it seems to me that being part of the team constructs loyalty to The Shirt, rather than The Shirt possessing any intrinsic meaning – Wilshere appeared to be indulging in a bit of bloke-at-the-bar Best of British Common Sense, gesturing towards some moment in the past where the Westphalian nation state (obviously a thorny issue in non-sovereign England’s case) meant more than it did today. Latent in his comments was the sense that the national football side is an aspect of the way in which the patria expresses and sustains itself, that patriotism is a good thing which can be reproduced by the success of a football team spurred on by an organically grown pride in the homeland. Gove’s conviction is similar: that literature is a fundamental part of maintaining a coherent sense of national purpose.

In each case – albeit far less in Wilshere’s than in Gove’s – the argument or belief has a chauvinistic motor. However, both of these apparent examples of petty nationalism contain, inadvertently, important points which get overlooked in what looks like a scrabble to avoid agreeing with the Daily Mail. Let’s begin by thinking about what might actually be useful in Wilshere’s resistance to naturalisation.

‘Naturalisation’ is the process of making something seem natural. In international sport, it refers to the process by which competitive rules are stretched in order to allow a ‘natural’ place of birth to be forgotten. The collective imagination, with its curious sense of propriety,  accepts some aspects of this forgetting. We’re therefore prepared – admirably, in my book – to make allowances for an athlete who represents a country they have been forced to live in as a consequence of political expediencies. In Britain, Mo Farah is a good example of a sportsperson whose naturalisation is, unless you’re the Daily Mail, not a matter for debate. It becomes more difficult, however, when athletes come to the country solely to pursue their career and are then brought into the fold of representative sport: to many, this looks like an attempt to get around internationally-agreed rules of selection.

When we’re thinking about ideology, ‘naturalisation’ is once again associated with forgetting: the forgetting of the social, economic, political and historical underpinnings of an idea. When something is ‘naturalised’, it becomes common sense, and we forget that it was ever any different. There’s a case that, in the field of football’s politics and economy, the naturalisation of players – the hypothetical cases of Januzaj and Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb stand out here – also function to naturalise in the other sense. Even if you object, and I do object, to the chauvinistic concept of ‘national identity’ which may well underpin resistance to using naturalised players, Januzaj or Bentaleb coming into the England set-up would serve to obscure the rapacious strategies of footballing recruitment used by the bigger Premier League clubs.

 

The recent debate around a possible League Three has thrown the issue of player stockpiling into the spotlight, making us aware of how the biggest clubs hoover up young talent not only from geographically remote areas of Britain but from all over the globe. There is clearly something unhealthy about this: it involves processes of aggressive accumulation which are deeply damaging to football in less wealthy areas of the world, as well as to smaller British sides. Januzaj is a beautiful player in the making – he has something of Johan Cruyff about him, even – but it troubles me to think of how few Manchester United fans stop to think about why the club’s developing stars come, very frequently, from abroad. Had Januzaj decided to become English for the purposes of international football, and had the FA allowed him to, it is possible that player naturalisation would have played a role in the further obscuration of the material realities which determine footballing success. Remembering where a player comes from, on the other hand, can serve to interfere with football’s attempts to appear mystically aloof from political and economic contingencies.

 

Gove, too, might be saying something which is of value, even if that value is something he is not aware of whatsoever. For all the outcry about dropping ‘great’ texts from the curriculum, the GCSE mainstays are a matter of ongoing despair for the significant proportion of literature lecturers in HE – I can talk about this with plenty of first-hand experience – who are exhausted by the idea that To Kill a Mockingbird is a ‘brilliant book’ because ‘it has a message’. The reduction of literature to a buffet of thematic soundbites is the real ‘achievement’ of the extant GCSE syllabus, a syllabus which seems to me to teach its students that being able to say ‘racism is bad’ is to possess a detailed understanding of the whole subject. Complexity is routinely dismissed on the patronising and, I think, elitist grounds that Dickens or Wordsworth are unmanageable for modern teenagers, who are apparently only able to ‘relate’ to moral obviousness.

What has long bothered me is that the texts used to serve up this moral obviousness are, on the whole, American. The effect of this is a kind of outsourcing of ethical and political strife: the United States becomes the place where racism happens, where intellectual deviancy is punished, where poverty disempowers and disenchants. Students become adept at deploring racial injustice in the Deep South or the excesses of McCarthyism, but they are also implicitly instructed by the selection of course texts that these things are not, or are not as much of, a problem here as they are there. Inequality is ideologically configured as a problem of another time and another place: it’s the same cultural logic that’s involved in Britain’s completely unearned self-congratulation over its part in ending the slave trade (a trade on which much of the nation’s subsequent wealth was based). The well-meaning, yet somewhat facile, humanism which rails at Gove for ridding the syllabus of ‘tolerance’ might, in fact, be overlooking the maintenance of structural inequality achieved by the presence of the texts in question. As with Wilshere, Gove’s patriotic bêtise might be unpicked to discover an unconscious specification of ideology’s workings.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

 

The Meaning of… Ross Barkley

On a cold night a couple of months ago my friend Jonathan and I climbed the many stairs of the Leazes stand at St James’s Park Newcastle and took our seats in the top corner, which, even though it was now past seven and was dark, had a clear view of the headlights and taillights of vehicles travelling up and down the A1 motorway as it cut through Team Valley. When I lowered my gaze, I could see the entire pitch below – players from both sides warmed up, but their numbers and even their physical characteristics were somewhat disguised by my distance from them. It was like watching the game from an airship – or, if you’re theologically-inclined, the kind of view God might have of a football game between Newcastle United and Everton.

The game kicked off. In the run up to the match, Newcastle had been doing badly and Everton well, but the home side dominated for the first fifteen minutes before being pinned back into their half.

A free kick was awarded to Everton outside the Newcastle penalty area. A figure in blue stepped up. ‘Oh no! Barkley’ a nearby Magpies fan muttered to himself. Sometimes a stadium is an amplification system for thousands of anxious internal monologues that, when externalised all at once, sound like a single voice: the roar of the crowd.

Except it wasn’t Barkley – it was Leighton Baines, and the free kick came to nothing. The nearby fan had, nevertheless, given voice to the growing buzz that surrounds Barkley. Barkley’s ability to turn a game was feared by opposition fans, even if there hadn’t actually been much proof of that potency. Barkley had had a reasonable season, and had started perhaps half of Everton’s games. But he was still more likely to tire or lose the ball than galvanise a victory – his uncompromising physicality had a tendency to burn itself out, and his individualism often blinkered him to the simple pass that kept possession. He had scored a handful of excellent goals and put himself about admirably. I was a little amused, however, by the way opposition fans anticipated his brilliance – it seemed, to me, a bit of an urban legend, like the way the children on the streets of Baltimore tell tales of the renegade stick-up man Omar in The Wire.

Then Barkley picked up the ball in the Everton half and ran two-thirds of the length of the pitch, dodging half-hearted tackles from the Newcastle defenders and ignoring his teammates’ invitation to pass before thumping it into the goal at the Gallowgate end.

As an Irish Everton fan, drawn to the club after the World Cup in 1990 because Kevin Sheedy played for them, I had seen a couple of friendlies Everton had played against League of Ireland sides over the years, the most recent of which was an August 2011 friendly against Bohemians. The game actually took place in the second week of the Premier League season – Everton’s away game against Tottenham had been postponed because of the riots a few days before. In Everton’s side was Jermaine Beckford, who had enjoyed a fairly indifferent 2010/11 season with the club, aside from a remarkable goal against Chelsea where his solo run from the edge of the Everton area ended with him hitting the net. He scored against Bohemians too, and even though the game was pretty dull and ended 1-1, Barkley impressed in midfield. The overriding impression I still hold of him was his raw, unfinished quality: he galloped around chasing the ball, he mistimed challenges – but his touch and control were generally very impressive. He was still 17 years old.

Ross_Barkley_Bohemians_V_Everton_(3_of_51)

In football, a sport where careers are short, youth is fetishized. Many Evertonians can reel off a list of players who started young for the club and went on to great things: Joe Royle made his debut for the first team in 1966 aged just sixteen. Wayne Rooney was the same age in 2002 when he came on at Goodison Park against Tottenham Hotspur. Some others who got their start young: Jack Rodwell, Jose Baxter, James Vaughan, Francis Jeffers and Danny Cadamarteri. (A couple of years before, I had seen Dundee United play a friendly against University College Dublin where Cadamarteri was an unused substitute for the Scottish side. He retired at the end of the 2013-14 season, having played for two years with Carlisle United.) The fetishisation of youth is in part a mania focused on potential – what a player could become, based on the possibilities projected onto the imagination by their every move, shimmy and shot.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s highly entertaining autobiography is particularly good at ignoring the relative importance of the kind of everyday drudgery most people know essential to football – instead, he concentrates on the pivotal, kinetic moments of his career. These transformative events take place largely when Ibrahimovic knows he must impress a scout or a potential manager. They are performed, in other words, when an opportunity – often financial – presents itself. Ibrahimovic conceives these moments – the memorable, often stunning passages of play where time appears to stand still and the crowd collectively holds its breath – as not just the product of the game on the pitch as it happens, but part of a larger game of contract negotiations and transfers to bigger clubs. (Although, this being Zlatan, there is also a persistent motivational factor of spite in some of his greatest performances.) Given Ibrahimovic’s contextualisation of these moments, one must applaud the contemporary player who creates a moment of undomesticated transcendence in a comparatively meaningless game – applaud him not least for his lack of self-control.

When Barkley picked up the ball in St James’s Park, I still had an idea of him as a raw player, full of potential. When the ball hit the net, I began to think about how that raw individualism – responsible for the kind of outlook that makes you elbow your fellow players off the ball and dribble eighty yards – might be educated out of him in the future. A few weeks later, he scored a spectacular long-range goal, struck from an angle against Manchester City, that was later awarded Everton’s goal of the season.

When Barkley was named in the England squad for this summer’s World Cup, manager Roy Hodgson echoed what Everton manager Roberto Martinez had been saying all year: it might be a little early for Barkley, but his potential makes him an exciting prospect. It remains to be seen whether his rawness – that which makes Barkley great, but also unpredictable – is harnessed or discouraged at international level.

Posted by Karl Whitney

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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The Meaning of…Steven Gerrard

O Captain my captain!

I love him and I hate him, I sing his praises and berate him.

He’s one of my favourite players yet one of the most frustrating I’ve seen. He’s one of the most complete footballers ever. How many others could almost single-handedly drag an inferior team back into a European cup final from three nil down as an attacking midfielder…and then help batten down the hatches as a right back? How many other players have put in match winning performances from every possible position in midfield? His completeness has almost been his undoing – he’s the epitome of trying too hard, of aiming for the impossible when the simple would have done, of taking  upon his own shoulders what needs to be delegated. And those slips! This does not slip – and then another gift at the crucial moment.

Ultimately, he personifies my experience of watching football – the frustration and the fantasy, the glory and the gory, the humble and the hubris.

I’ll be glad when he isn’t Liverpool anymore, but there’s never going to be another one like him, and I’ll miss him when

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Next season though eh?

Seb Crankshaw

I find it difficult to conjure any particular memories of Steven Gerrard.

When I think of Gerrard I recall two generic, largely unspecific images, both of which, to my mind, date from the Benitez era. The first is Gerrard, symbolic of the kind of berserker attitude that won Liverpool the Champions League, thumping his chest, shouting at team mates – running the side. This is the Gerrard of the popular imagination, I’d venture – typifying the ‘passion’ for the club that only locals can supposedly bring. This vision of Gerrard goes along with commitment – Gerrard the one-club man, a whey-faced, ghostly apparition of the lost figure of the local hero.

The second is the Gerrard of the through-ball and the looping pass to feet, head down, visualising accuracy like an earnest golfer, with a still-potent Fernando Torres ahead of him.

These visions of Gerrard have persisted, but been slightly worn through overuse. Under Rodgers, they’ve been given a lick of paint, rehabilitated in a side whose attacking threat recalls the best of Benitez, but whose defensive frailty reminds me of the 4-4 Merseyside derby that saw Dalglish leave the manager’s job for the first time and signalled Liverpool’s slump into the shadow of Manchester United.

The emergence of Gerrard in the late 90s promised a better future for Liverpool. His 2013/14 season at the club recalls both the best and, in his title-deciding slip against Chelsea, the worst of Liverpool’s last twenty years. The World Cup could well enable him to cast off the gloom thrown by his last few league games upon his successful year.

Karl Whitney

Aristotle once wrote that “A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall”. Last season, Steven Gerrard became that “hero”. In finally identifying that he was no longer capable of playing the gung-ho, box-to-box, Roy of the Rovers position, Gerrard found a new lease of life in a deeper defensive role. That this proved so successful is no real surprise as part of his longstanding allure is in his vital contradiction of being the second best player in every position.
 
It is interesting that Roy Hodgson has placed so much faith in Gerrard, given their brief and turbulent time together at Liverpool. In a wonderfully cinematic moment, Gerrard took his club’s future into his own hands against Blackburn. Stepping up to take a penalty, Gerrard rubs the Liver bird on his chest, takes one bitter look towards the bench, before blazing the ball over. A revolutionary act, but the only way he could stop the collision course on which Hodgson was taking Liverpool.

Hugo Greenhalgh

Having only rarely watched him play, and only having a vague idea of the essence of the man, I can only look at Steven Gerrard in terms of what how he’s described tells us about the glorious City of Liverpool, where I spent some fantastic years at the end of the 1990s. Equally, since I have a somewhat blinkered frame of reference, presently looking up from the nameless relegation void between the EPL and the old second division, I’m going to conduct my analysis by means of the complex but narrow prism of what we can learn about Liverpool by watching Cardiff City, which offers two valuable source texts.

Text one is Anthony Gerrard, Steven’s centre half cousin. Signed for Cardiff by Dave Jones in 2009 and sold by St. Mackay in 2012. Ant quickly developed a ‘bants-tastic’ reputation, was ‘great’ to have around the club and was a real ‘character’. As a result, Tony swiftly became somewhat of a ‘fans favourite’, mostly because he was often photographed pulling an angry face, pumping his fist as a display of his ‘passion’ or being caught swearing on television cameras. This reached a zenith when, after being dropped to the bench by Mackay, he spent his half-time warm-ups at away games taking potshots at the mascots:

Things, however, quickly slid and we all began to realise that being a real ‘character’ can also mean being a first class knob head. Gerrard started calling out fans on the Twitterverse, and being outspoken (and not a little vulgar) in response to their (justified) criticisms of the team. Fans also slowly began to realise that he wasn’t very good. It was, then, with particular trepidation that we watched ‘our Ant’, reportedly a lifelong Reds’ fan, step up to take the Bluebirds’ final penalty in the 2012 Carling Cup Final, playing against his big cuz. Of course he pulled it laughably wide: we all knew he would. As a result of his miss, the cup went to Merseyside. We all know he didn’t do it on purpose, but the nagging suspicion is still there with many fans (‘cheating scouser’), and the speculation that he celebrated with ‘the scousers’ on the bus home effectively put an end to his Cardiff career there and then.

Text two for consideration is Craig Noone. Soon after the Bluebirds signed the nihilistically-named tricky winger, we learned that (as well as a penchant for #bants) he was, in fact, an ex-roofer who came into the game relatively late and once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof. Since then, this factoid has been repeated ad infinitum by all football correspondents and commentators whenever he has made the first team to an extent it has become evident that there is some legal obligation for the media to follow every mention of Craig by the affirmation that ‘he once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof, y’know’.

So, what, then, do we learn about big Steve and the City of Liverpool by watching Cardiff City? Of course, Anthony and Craig’s repeated association with big Steve is as inevitable as it is lazy, due to his stature in the game. In many ways, though, Noone and the Gerrards (what an awful band name that would make) are made, in something approaching the social deterministic vision of Emile Zola, to propagate to at least some extent the myth of the ‘cheeky scouser’, loveable but none too bright, and possibly even violent, working classers for whom football offers the only chance of salvation from squalor. However, unlike Stephen, or so this logic goes, most Liverpudlians are doomed to never make it, destined instead to wallow, in resentment or spite, their ‘cheeky’ humour a vent for bitterness. In a similar way, Nooney represents the projected media ideal of the scouser ‘saved’ from his roofing hell by football but who ultimately cannot escape his destiny: he’ll never quite make it. Steven, of course, is the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe this myth is also played out on a macro level with Steven G. as a perennial, and flawed, nearly man. There is certainly, if not precisely or explicitly, an anti-Liverpool discourse here, one that revels in the city’s ‘nearly’ status and its perennial failure to emerge, in footballing and prestige terms, out of the shadow of Mancunia. How we loved it when Livepool threw away the title. Will Gerrard’s trend be continued in Brazil? For this correspondent at least, it’s a shame cousin Anthony won’t be getting on the plane.

Russell Williams

The above picture, a still from Sky Sports footage taken after Liverpool more or less relinquished their claim to the Premier League title after a zany 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, emblematises Steven Gerrard’s sixteen-year professional career for me. The image shows him consoling a distraught Luis Suarez, shooing away a television camera attempting to film the tears of the Uruguayan striker. It captures Gerrard’s essential double bind, by which he is at once an astounding captain, a leader and motivator par excellence with genuine concern for his charges, and a simulacrum of that thing. As I wrote in 2012, Gerrard – like John Terry and Wayne Rooney – wears the ‘mask of indomitability’ masterfully; we’re left wondering constantly if there is any real to his ‘passion’ or if it is a pure mediatisation of that emotion.

As Gerrard wards the camera off, it’s possible that he’s also soliciting it. Protecting Suarez from the intrusive glare of the media is clearly the responsible thing for a captain to do, and one’s immediate response here is to think that the act denotes Gerrard’s fundamental human decency. However, a suspicion also lingers that he is comprehensively aware of this denotation, and that he needs to be seen not wanting to be seen.

Gerrard’s career is almost coterminous with the political episteme constituted by the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuum. In this period, the affective aspect of politics has intensified in precise counterpoint to a more generalised waning of affect: being seen to ‘care’, or to share in spuriously ‘common’ desires which have replaced genuine collectivity, seems to be regarded as a far safer bet electorally than possessing either proven competence or the potential for it. Simultaneously with this, the tenor of branding has shifted fundamentally, with the governing maxim no longer ‘this product is great’ but ‘this product is invested with passion’. We’re passionate about conservatories! We’re passionate about crisps! We’re passionate about dog food! However much it cloys, it is hard to believe in an individual who is not to some extent invested in aspects of these values, for who would want not to care? The ubiquity of passion is not something one can objectively decry; rather, it is key to neoliberal, or more properly late-neoliberal, interpellation. It would be too easy to say, then, that Gerrard has agency in a simulation of emotional investment: it is more accurate to admit, after Flaubert, Steven Gerrard, c’est moi.

Joe Kennedy

Ask any Liverpool fan eighteen months ago what their thoughts were on Steven Gerrard, and their reply would most probably have been a heavy-hearted assertion that the club’s captain was a player out of time. Gerrard’s subsequent late-career renaissance may force us to re-examine the term, but it does retain validity, albeit with a shift of context.

If Gerrard does remain a player out of time, it is because he is an anachronism. Not in style, per se, as much as in the disparity of his talent when viewed within the prism of Liverpool’s ailing aspirations throughout the breadth of his career. Posing the question “what if Gerrard had played in the Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s” is a seductive counterfactual, and not just for the beguiling image of Gerrard churning through the mud – all elbows and waist-high tackles – another in the contemporaneous lineage of alpha-footballers. Those decades look now, societally and sportingly, a more collective age. A time in which The Team outshone The Individual, before the post-Thatcher cult of personality that would proliferate and subsequently define the pre and postmillennial decades. A time to which Gerrard, it is fair to speculate, would have been far more suited.

Liverpool and England’s captain is often accused of rampant egoism; assigned the banter-tinged sobriquet “Stevie Me”, and cast as a committed self-mythologist flaying ‘Hollywood balls’ into touch. Yet this is a fallacy, and a lazy one at that. Despite the highlights showreels, Gerrard – his perma-crumpled brow so often giving the game away – seemingly derives little pleasure from his enforced totemism. A self-confessed worrier, bearing the expectational weight of an institution mired in habitual mediocrity has, rather than fuelling a Big-Fish ego, served only to undermine Gerrard’s game. “Give the ball to Stevie” has been a cry heard endlessly throughout the last decade and half at Anfield, Gerrard coerced into a path of relentless individualism by the lack of faith in the likes of Phillip Degen. It’s no coincidence that the two managers who bowed to this populist desire to make Gerrard the literal focal point of the team, Hodgson and Dalglish, secured the poorest return. Meanwhile, any attempts to lift this burden – most notably Rafael Benitez’s characteristically wilful iconoclasm in shifting Gerrard to the wing for a season and a half – have been met with hostility from a press and fanbase resolutely determined on lurching into Jungian archetype.

For all the spectacular moments throughout his career, it is this aspect of Gerrard that is perhaps the most intriguing. Whilst his playing style fits the modern Sky Sports paradigm of superstardom, Gerrard’s personality – burdened by introspection – resonates more closely with post-war existentialism than latter-day individualism. That this pressure manifests itself in both club and international is a particular cruelty. Had Gerrard been born in Leipzig or Livorno, for example, then the encumbering responsibility would at least have been restricted. As England captain, however, he is both symptom and exemplar of that deeply-ingrained trait within the national, as well as football, psyche: the steadfast refusal to trust the collective in a crisis. The scrambling, knee-jerk messianism that has consistently undermined the England national team for all but a brief window of its history.

Already destined to be remembered as one of the defining players of his generation, it is hard to fathom quite what Gerrard could have achieved if freed from the shackling weight of individual expectation. The late-career loss of mobility, and much vaunted work of Steve Peters (whose counter-intuitive work with Gerrard seems increasingly about psychological deprogramming) may have gone some way to precipitating a degree of enforced recalibration, but the performative Sisypheanism of an England World Cup campaign will doubtless rekindle old habits. Reluctant yet recursive, Gerrard may not be the perfect player – far from it – but he is, at least, the perfect embodiment of the travails of this England team.

Ron Hamilton

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