Back at church after a few weeks’ absence, I found the vicar in a terrible state. ‘Oh my dear chap, we’ve all been thinking of you. Is it true?’ he said. ‘What?’ I said. ‘What you said in The Spectator about getting divorced,’ he said. ‘You must never take the nonsense I write seriously,’ I said. And all down the aisles, as the news spread (‘We’d been praying for you,’ one woman said), I could see waves of relief spreading through the church, and I thought, ‘How lovely. People actually care!’
But there are some things that are far, far too important to make jokes about, and one of them is England’s dismal performance in the World Cup. So when, in a few paragraphs’ time, I propose that for failing their nation in its hour of need our players and manager should be subject to penalties similar to the ones handed out in the first world war for desertion I don’t want you to laugh. Just nod.
The first world war analogy came to me, as inevitably it would, while I was watching The Somme: From Defeat to Victory (Sunday, BBC1). Though it can’t be more than six months since the last Somme documentary, this one took the counterintuitive line that the battle was in fact an Allied victory.
Yes, yes, of course the first day of the Somme was a hideous rout, with 19,240 British soldiers killed and whole streets in the north of England left with not a man of fighting age alive because of the system of Pals battalions, which encouraged friends and neighbours and work colleagues to join up and serve together. But it was the mistakes of that day, the programme argued, which taught us the vital lessons that would win us the war.
Among these were: when facing enemy machineguns do not advance slowly towards them in line abreast across no man’s land (well, not unless there’s a creeping barrage just ahead of you); don’t employ unimaginative generals who stubbornly insist on sticking to their plans rather than responding to changing events; allow officers in the field the chance to show more initiative; invent the tank.
Did so many men really need to die, though, for us to learn this? I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that quite a bit of this stuff was known already — but simply hadn’t been properly disseminated. For example, what the programme didn’t mention was that the reason 36th (Ulster) Division achieved their objectives wasn’t purely down to Northern Irish pluck. It was because instead of waiting to form in waves like everyone else, they were ordered to hurry forward before 7.30 and lie down just in front of the German positions. When the bugle call came, they only had a short dash to the enemy trenches.
After we’d seen the 2nd Salford Pals wiped out, there was a maddening scene where a general in his tree-top observation post was urged by one of his juniors to reinforce the position taken by the Ulstermen before the inevitable German counter-attack. And as you watched you just wished you could go back in history, give him a good shake and say, ‘Listen, man! Do as he suggests and you may yet save the day.’ The problem with history, of course, is that no matter how often you revisit it, the same thing happens every ruddy time. In this case, the general thinks for a bit and decides, ‘No. What I will do is send in a third wave of men to follow the previous two waves that have been mown down. Third time lucky, what?’
Which brings me neatly to Sven-Goran Eriksson. Now, readers, you know me well enough by now: what I know about football could comfortably be written on a grain of rice. But even I could have made a better hash of managing England than he did, and I’d have done it for a lot less than £4.5 million a year.
‘Why, Daddy, why?’ asked my seven-year-old, tears streaming down his face, after watching us go out on penalties to Portugal (Saturday, BBC1). And I had to explain to him first, that losing on penalties is what England always do, so he might as well get used to it. Second, that despite all the support we’ve given over the years to ABBA and Gustavus Adolphus, a Swede simply cannot be trusted to look after our national interests. Third, that though we heap vast financial rewards on our players when they do things right, we do not punish them sufficiently when they cock up.
Here, then, is how I’d sort things out.
Eriksson. Crimes: treachery to his adopted country; monumental incompetence. Punishment: death by cheesewire.
Lampard. Crimes: allowing his niceness and good looks to fool us into thinking he’d be any good in the World Cup. Punishment: firing squad.
Beckham. Crimes: being good at only one thing — dead balls — and not even good at that in this World Cup. Punishment: cynanide pill.
Rooney. Crimes: not scoring a single goal; reminding us at the worst possible moment that he’s a potato-faced oik. Punishment: thrown into a cage of starving pit bulls.
Carragher. Crimes: if you can’t get your penalties in (except when the goalie’s not ready) don’t step up to take them. Punishment: the Tower.
Owen. Crimes: Sorry mate, but you like horses, don’t you? Think of yourself as a well-loved steeplechaser who has fallen at one too many hurdles. Punishment: blast of a hunting horn, then a pistol to the head. Agincourt, Crécy, Waterloo, Dunkirk… Never do our lads perform better than when they know that the price of failure is death. Why should it be any different for a national football side?