I’m a colossal coward. Last week I wanted to say that we should all calm down about England being a bit crap recently, that they always make it difficult for themselves in qualification but usually make it through. But I didn’t say that because I was afraid of looking stupid if Poland turned up and beat them 3-0. I could have just written a post saying all that stuff and backdated it but, although I’m a coward, I am at least an honest coward.
England are a hugely inconsistent team and have been for as long as I can remember. Last month I met a friend down the pub who’d been too busy to catch the England-Wales result and I told him that England had won, but played quite badly. He responded that the performance meant nothing as long as England won, because it had no bearing on how they’d play next time. Of course, in the next match England played just as poorly and lost to Northern Ireland but the point remains: nobody would have been surprised if England had romped to victory either. This is the team that can beat Germany 5-1 away and then make heavy weather of beating Albania, the team that gets a scrappy draw with Switzerland and two games later thrashes the Dutch 4-1.
In fact, the most consistent thing about England is their inconsistency, starting tournaments with rubbish performances which then have to be compensated for by stirring victories over more difficult opposition. Any attempt to deviate from the pattern of awkward opening games is brutally punished, such as when they had the temerity to actually try and beat France in Portugal last year. It’s practically a tradition, stretching all the way back to the dull 0-0 draw with Uruguay which opened the 1966 tournament (although I loathe to make facile parallels with England’s only previous World Cup win, which has been hung over the team with such monotonous regularity that it would be easier and less painful to simply club each England player over the head with the Jules Rimet trophy on the occasion of his first cap and get it over with).
Everybody is now fretting over whether this squad, which clearly has good potential, can do themselves justice in Germany next year. Performances in the qualifying stage mean nothing, however. Nor do performances in the friendlies running up to it, nor even the performance in the opening game. We won’t know what their potential really is until the group stage is over, because that’s England for you. But we’ll all fret about it anyway, because we enjoy fretting about the England team. It’s a national pastime in a way that no other aspect of football is, and why the current attempts to marginalise the international game will either fail or ruin it for everybody. Speaking of which, perhaps next week I’ll get around to doing my rant about Arsene Wenger.