Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Fifty Years of Hurt

Henry Winter, five time Football Writer of the Year, is one of the most recognised football journalists of recent times thanks to frequent appearances on Sky's Sunday Supplement and BBC 5 Live.  His knowledge of the game is second to none, yet few would know of his love of the game and the national team.

His new book, Fifty Years of Hurt, may change any loose assumptions of a writer being not in love with his nation's best XI. Winter is eager for you to know he has seen the last 244 England internationals, and even saw some games off his own pocket when he was between jobs at the Daily Telegraph and his new employer, The Times.

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Henry Winter

Winter has always come across as a well spoken, articulate intellectual about the sport; an admirer of the great purveyors of majestic football from our own Paul Scholes to the continental mastery of Xavi and Andrea Pirlo. Yet Winter is a disgruntled fan, one who is embarrassed that his nation has only won the World Cup once, only reached semi-finals of a major tournament four times and are seemingly always taking two steps back such as the woeful 2014 World Cup performance in Brazil proved.

Yet the author is full of hope and optimism for the near future, perhaps Euro 2016 is one tournament too soon for the new breed of zestful youth at Roy Hodgson's disposal in the guise of Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and John Stones; but he sees that the full influx of a plan of action culminating in the centre piece of St. George's Park in Burton is coming to fruition for a new golden generation.

Winter's book takes us on a journey from the halcyon sepia toned triumph of Wembley 1966 to every failure since. He speaks to great English players and asks why it is they failed at that certain tournament, and when we did have success why did we not kick on from there and build upon it as Spain and Germany have done in recent times claiming the ultimate prize in the sport, the World Cup.

The author attempts to dissect and pin point a problem as to why we fail at the game we love so much, a game that hosts the most watched domestic league in the world, a league where a team rated as relegation favourites can win the title convincingly. 

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England's greatest day - 30th July 1966

This is a great premise for a book, yet at times the book comes across as more enamoured with the great players he is interviewing than getting to the crux of the matter. As a reader, I was expecting a more technical evaluation of the problems we have with our national team in the vein of say Jonathan Wilson whose Inverting the Pyramid is a keynote book for any football lover. I was expecting how changes of formations and styles of play have left us standing still, failing to qualify for tournaments whilst Germany never do.

Instead the book sometimes reads like a hard luck story for the national team, where all we needed was a little bit of luck and avoid playing a phenomenal talent at the peak of his powers and we might have won. If only Alf Ramsey did not take Bobby Charlton off when 2-0 up against Germany in Mexico 1970 or Gordon Banks did not have a dicky tummy? If only we did not have to play Argentina and Diego Maradona in 1986 we would have won? If only we knew how to take penalties? If only our players had stronger metatarsals?

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England have encountered bad luck over many years

At times it reads like a sob story when it really should not, England have struggled for years to harness creative players and build around them from Glenn Hoddle to Chris Waddle to Paul Gascoigne. These players were marginalised and used sparingly when they should be at the centre of a side. Now Gascoigne had his demons and injuries but it is no coincidence that when he was at the peak of his powers twice, twice we got to a major semi-final.

England have picked the wrong manager and then jettison one when they are getting results as Bobby Robson and Terry Venables can attest to, they hired Steve McLaren when he was only a good coach not a manager. They failed to use the great players of the past and pick their brains when things went wrong, the FA being a situation of upper class elite thinking of players as mere servants and beneath them.  This has led to the FA selling their soul to the Premier League, and having no power over events. Players get paid handsomely for playing 90 minutes a week and then retire not wanting to give anything back to the game, they would much prefer to sit in a studio and be critical than coach or train the next flock of talent.

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Neville's ambition is absent in his peers

The chapter 'Pathways' is an interview with Gary Neville (most likely interviewed after his short term spell with Valencia) and he puts it in great perspective about his peers from the so-called 'Golden Generation'; 

'Look at Gerrard, Lampard, Carragher, Ferdinand, Owen, Beckham, Terry, Ashley Cole, Sol [Campbell] - how many of them gone into coaching? You're talking about a whole England team, the best players, and only me coaching, and I'm in televison as well.'

This is not to put the book down, as it is a page turning endeavour. The sort of book you can devour in just a few sittings and it is to Winter's credit and established persona that he can get such luminaries as Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, individuals you suspect to be guarded to talk with such forthright honesty about the situation.

You could do without such chapters as 'In the Shadow of the Show' where Winter is watching a Premier League game in Los Angeles at 6am on a Sunday whilst on his gardening leave from the Telegraph. Its a nice angle to show the global reach of the League but you get the sense that the fact that football is being shown in LA is not the reason we left Brazil early. 

Nevertheless, Winter rights with a real passion and desire to see England succeed in this modern age, he wants to see a team be as admired by the tika-taka of Guardiola's Barcelona sides; yet perhaps the need for change might not come from a constitutional change as we have seen in France where there new footballing school ended in 1998 home glory during the World Cup, perhaps you need an individual with a vision to be the mainstay of the change of direction be it Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klinsmann, willing to bring something new to the party and stick with it. England had this with Glenn Hoddle, but then his personal views made his position untenable, England have never recovered and a chance was missed.

When will the years of hurt end for England? Winter may not necessarily have the answers but if people were put in charge of the national team with as much verve and ambition as him, then perhaps the hurt might not last for much longer.

Fifty Years of Hurt is published by Bantam Press in Hardback on 2nd June 2016 for £20.00. A perfect gift for Father's Day and a great read during Euro 2016 and to celebrate the anniversary of England winning the World Cup in 1966 on 30th July.

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