Weekend Highlights: England’s New Clothes

“Those guys are the ones that are desperate to play for England and I think Wayne is in that category. I don’t understand [the boos] but that seems to be the landscape and I have no idea how that’s expected to help him.”

Admire the cut of England’s new suit, ladies and gents. The sophistication of the marketing campaign. The memory of victories past; great moments captured in sepia footage that perpetuate a hunger for victory that most of us have never experienced first hand. Iconic towers suffused with glory so pungent they make your eyes water. Or maybe that’s just the stench of hubris.

I don’t want to be the kid who watches the elegant parade pass by from my dad’s shoulders, listens to the cheers and hoots of excitement, the shouts ushering in an entirely new era unblemished by failure, only to point at the subject of the clamor, wait until an appropriately quiet moment and shout “Gareth Southgate’s naked!”, but England? You leave me with no choice.

I’ve nothing against Southgate. A good company man, he’s nevertheless uncomfortable with the role thrust upon him. We know this because he apparently “made it understood [that he had] serious misgivings as to whether [the England job was] the right thing for him to do at this stage of his career,” at the end of June. Much gravy has passed under the bridge since that time, but even Cristiano Ronaldo would struggle to get sufficient spin on the ball to dip it under this bar.

Like England’s players, Southgate is merely a cipher through which the Football Association push their agenda. It’s not his fault, it’s not their fault, but they make mightily convenient blame carriers.

Not buying it? Take a moment to read the quote at the top of this piece again. Gareth Southgate made his debut for the England seniors in December 1995. He’s been in and around the England setup for 21 years, shared the (admittedly hollow) moments of glory and felt the full force of the media backlash reserved for when players are instrumental in orchestrating a nadir. Even if he’d spent the last 21 years suspended in a colourless gel when not playing or patrolling the touchline, it’s impossible to believe he ‘doesn’t understand’ why Wayne Rooney is being booed by fans.

I don’t advocate booing, but when form appears to have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether a player is fielded or not, to the point where his presence is actually having a negative effect on the ability of his colleagues to do their jobs, fans are going to react. It might be convenient to paint us as unruly flag wavers intent on spoiling whatever party comes to town (and god knows a minority make that easy) but most of us are intelligent enough to realise there is something more at work here.

Whether Rooney is first pick on the England team sheet because of his value to the kit sponsors, as has been posited by some, is not for me to say. I don’t have the insider knowledge or the contacts required to make such a statement but the Secret Footballer’s observations about the weight that third party or ‘360 deals’ carry and the figures involved make fascinating reading.

What I can say with confidence is that something at the heart of English football is rotten and the stink is finally permeating through the shiny facade our national game projects. People can smell it. It’s everywhere. Ex-players occupying positions of power within the media and expressing disbelief that Ryan Giggs wasn’t chased down the street and pinned to the ground by Huw Jenkins is the same stench, just passed through a different filter. Ditto the Daily Mail faux facepalming its way through examples of apparently rampant homophobia among Premier League football managers while remaining firmly ‘homosceptic’, burbling under their breath about Adam and Steve like some revolting parody of a handsy uncle at a wedding.

When is end? How long are we going to tolerate people from the game pushing these damaging narratives, whether deliberately or because the golden goose has looked after them well and kicking it to death in public is tantamount to breaking omerta?

I would have less of a problem with their white, male, heterosexual, lucre attracting agenda if it worked. Chris Sutton’s plaintive cries of “Does Bob Bradley know the Premier League?” during BBC 5Live’s Monday Night Club last week would still irritate the hell out of me, but what could I say if ‘jobs for the boys’ resulted in success, trophies and fantastic, thrilling football?

But it doesn’t, does it? It results in an England manager being appointed, backing Rooney and departing by mutual consent after being filmed turning a sputtering torch on footballer’s shadier side and England 1-2 Iceland. At this point, Rooney is a symptom of a bigger, far more gruesome malaise. His being dropped for tomorrow’s game, which some press outlets are already discussing with fervour, will serve no purpose but to ramp up the optimistic chat around the hospital bed.

English football isn’t naked, like the Emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s famous fable. It’s a rotting corpse being paraded through our streets. Another squirt of Febreze in its general direction will do nothing but distract those closest to it.


Kelly Welles