It is late in the evening. You’re in a bar. You’ve had quite a bit to drink but you are conversing with the fragrant young lady you found hanging around in there. You find her quite attractive and are possibly keen for things to proceed. What should you say to her, to speed things along? Wayne Rooney’s contribution is unbeat-able: ‘Are those tits real?’ That’s certainly the gambit I would go with if I ever find myself in a similar situation with, say, Princess Michael of Kent or Shami Chakrabarti. Wayne said it to ‘party girl’ Laura Simpson shortly before he got charged with drink-driving. Now he’s in trouble with the police and his wife, Coleen. I don’t think Coleen is too bothered about the driving charge.
As all of this was happening, the England football team (sans Jo-Jo, the Incredible Dog-Faced Man) were recovering from their exertions against our great footballing rivals, Malta. A small island populated by 421,000 souls. A larger island, populated by fewer people — Iceland — knocked England out of the last tournament we were in, so there was good reason for worry. The ITV commentators were bigging up the Malta lads. ‘He turned in some very useful performances for Welling,’ one of them said admiringly about a chap scampering around the middle of the park.
The England players (average wages of around £100,000 per week) laboured and laboured, with the wit, guile, ingenuity and pace of a recently gassed badger. They won, sure enough, 4-0, with three goals in the last five minutes putting an unwarranted gloss on the whole dismal process. Three days later they were at it again, playing the might of Slovakia.
These are the kinds of team we play most of the time — tiny countries which were not countries at all 30 years ago, or tiny islands, or scantily populated countries that are not, according to the UN, proper countries at all (that’s Scotland, then). Add up the populations of all England’s world cup qualifying group opponents, times the sum by five and you would still end up short of our population. And yet in these qualifying groups, we have found our level. We are perhaps a whisker better than Slovakia, as Monday evening’s game suggested. We nicked a gallant point off the titanic Slovenes. We got a last-minute equaliser against Scotland. Come up against the bigger nations in a meaningful match and we are utterly lost.
The question is, why is England so useless, given its players earn so much and the Premier League is supposed to be one of the best in the world? Some blame the insipid and equine manager Gareth Southgate — who in truth does not inspire much confidence. He continues to play the lamentable Joe Hart in goal, for a start, when I would prefer almost anyone else, such as Stevie Wonder, Helen Keller etc. But England has had many managers, some good, some so-so, and none have elevated the national team above mediocrity, above the level of Slovakia, in the past 15 years.
The answer is we do not have the players. They are not very good. Ah, you say, but they are paid so much money! How can this be! And the answer is partly that we delude ourselves, partly that we ruin goodish young players, and partly that it is a rigged market. That’s why they earn so much.
The transfer window recently closed, and if you’re a football fan you may have followed the excitement at finding out who was going where and who was after whom. You might also have noticed that not a single England player was wanted by any European club. Not one. There were no bidding wars over our lantern-jawed striker, Harry Kane. Nobody came in for the two (comparatively) bright prospects Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford. The top teams in Europe (Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, PSG, Juventus, Barcelona, Internazionale, Monaco) have jubilantly diverse squads. In addition to the Germans, Italians, Spanish and French nationals, there are Czechs, Poles, Turks, Croats, Slovakians, Moroccans, Dutch, Belgians, hordes of Latin Americans: every nationality under the sun, except for English. No English at all at any of the top clubs. Nobody wants them, because they’re crap.
But, you say, they play for the top clubs in England, don’t they? Yes — and that’s where the rigged market comes in. Every Premier League side must have eight English-born players in its squad, according to Football Association rules, which have been tightened over the past ten years. And so the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool and Arsenal sift through the utter dross and are willing to spend a hilarious £35 million on the willing but severely limited Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It’s why Danny Drinkwater-Carrier was recently snapped up by Chelsea. They need their English contingent, and so the transfer prices are artificially lifted and so are the wages.
The foreign managers of our top clubs would very much like it if this rule was abandoned. But then you wouldn’t have any England players in the top teams at all; maybe just the aforementioned Rashford and, at a pinch, Adam Lallana of Liverpool. This is perhaps also one reason why EPL teams have fared so badly in Europe recently: too many English, even if they are often mysteriously absent for the really big games.
And what do we do to our young players? Either we were deluded about their potential (Theo Walcott, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney) or we somehow suck the life out of them. Perhaps by inflating their wages, thus affording them an inflated sense of their own worth. Two years ago we were very excited by the arrival of a young man called Raheem Sterling. Look at him now — unwanted by his club and abject at international level. I pray this doesn’t happen to the latest saviour of the English game, the aforementioned Rashford. But I wouldn’t bet against it.