Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Ballad of Butch Wilkins

Amidst the muddle of some roundly criticized punditry on this World Cup (attacked most notably here), the tournament seems as if it's finally coming to life. We may now be more diverted by the quality of the football, rather than the at times insanely abstract drivel served up by those at the mic. Mark Lawrenson's reference to a "corridor of uncertainty" during the New Zealand v Slovakia tie the other day was a standout comment, alluding perhaps to some dark alternative version of the game accessed only by a trap door at the apex of 18-yard box and byline.

All this talk however does bring the contrasting opinions of those that have played the game professionally and those that haven't into sharper focus. Is there a discernable gulf in outlook between 'the game' and the punter, and a resultant difference in why we commit to following our respective nations?

The distance between player and fan wrought by commerce in recent years has of course been well-documented, in relation to the Premier League especially. But the player's objective of simply winning games versus a wish on the part of the fan to be entertained offers a particular contradiction, brought to light most starkly in this tournament's fairly tepid opening week. The classic contrast in styles that shaped the dynamic of the Brazil v North Korea and Spain v Switzerland games has offered tension, uncertainty and potential upset via the conflicting traits of skill and fluidity of movement versus aggression and organisation.

The specific predicament of England puts a new slant on the 'winning ugly' approach already discussed on this blog, and the failure to properly define a clear playing style arguably complicates expectations even further. Despite mining a largely typical northern European game based on physical strength, England have oddly reared, once or twice every generation, a player of naturally Latin technique. Unlike South American nations, who regularly boast half a dozen such ball players at any one time and can thus afford to drop one to the bench, England traditionally decide implausibly not to build a team around their sole playmaker (see Marsh, Hoddle, Waddle and now Joe Cole), and instead concentrate their resources on the kind of game lambasted by Franz Beckenbauer after the draw against the USA. Add to this the fact that in recent years, successive England coaches (two of which haven't even plied their trade on the 'kick and rush' English way at all) have predominantly rejected the passing game seen during the Venables and Hoddle years in favour of a more direct but somewhat aimless style of play, where possession is not the key ingredient.

So, in absence of both front to back flair and a basic possession game, England routinely look lost. Having endured so many disappointments at World Cups and European Championships over the years - usually under the delusion that we might just win it - I'm not quite so bothered about 'progress' per se this time. A chronic lack of depth in quality tells me that we honestly don't have much of a chance.

Why then should it be so strange to want simply to be entertained? Why not go all-out to score goals? Why not, instead of detailing wingers to nullify the progress of the opposition's attack, urge them to express themselves and create? As I write, Argentina, big favourites for many, have swept the South Koreans aside with some occasionally breathtaking forward play. They also have a terrible defence, but it doesn't look like Maradona or anyone else really cares about that. Brazil in '82 had a famously porous backline, but are renowned as being the greatest team never to win.

Even the most blindly optimistic appraisal suggests of course that the current England team are nowhere near that good, but whilst we are at least similarly dreadful at the back, it seems only to provide us with another great neurosis. And why shouldn't we want everything to be just right for this, the last chance for the 'golden generation'? In view of such determined turd-polishing (the performances at the last World Cup were, let's not forget, truly execrable, but hey - we made the last 8!), perhaps a somewhat more lateral attitude could be profitable. After all, what could be more destructive to the opposition than unrelenting attack, rather than a constant jockeying out of the (yet again) fear of conceding?


  1. re: failure to build a team around players - still think it's criminal that we didn't build a team around Matt le Tissier... I can't imagine we were struggling to recruit David Batty a-likes that could have circled him, done all the work and then given him the ball and waited for something to happen...

  2. David Williams6 July 2010 at 13:46

    "Corridor of uncertainty": I very much like the idea of it "alluding to some dark version of the game" – very funny, too. But it is in fact a bit of cricket terminology, alluding to the few inches around and about the batsman's off-stump where metronomic bowlers like Australia's Glenn McGrath liked to probe. As far as I know, Lawro's the first to apply it to football, and I'm still not really sure what he meant by it.