It doesn’t matter why England lose, it only matters that people care that they do. Watching Capello’s troop mess around against Switzerland last Saturday made it clear that what was unthinkable two years ago is today’s reality: that apathy is England’s new big deal.
People have stopped caring. The poor goals against, the disjointed play and the missed chances were all there against the Swiss – shambles as usual. The manager even explained away the 2-2 disappointment with an anecdote about exhaustion. But something in the end product has been missing since the failure in South Africa; the booing and the indignation haven’t been there to accompany the subsequent failures, but they’re failures nonetheless; the idea that it matters seems to be missing.
Under McClaren, England were dreadful. They espoused heartbreaking defeats, goalkeeping howlers and serious discussions on David Beckham. A ubiquitous sense of tragedy became the norm. But at least people cared. Failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was mourned until consensus accepted it as the worst thing to happen to English football since discovering the outside world. The idea that apathy would someday rule seemed laughable back then.
Eriksson made qualification look uncomfortably comfortable, and media hysteria was always stepped up to make things interesting. Erikssons’s gentle strolls into tournaments enjoyed propaganda pitching them as marches towards inevitable glory. Granted, it was a little strong on the nationalism, but fun to go along for the ride all the same - fun to think that England might win and to get a bit excited. And each time reality caught up, the search for scapegoats was just as exciting as the quarter-final defeats; when the Swede was at the helm emotion rarely ran dry.
Before that there was Keegan, a manager bound for self-destruction – so there was always another drama to enjoy. And let’s not forget the failures of Taylor and Revie, to pick two, and what could have been under Robson. In those halcyon days defeat was thrilling and sad and desperate and every other antonym for apathy that you can think of. England had fought shy of tedium until the recent malaise.
They’ve never been as stale as they are now.
The World Cup brought the crisis of caring to a head. Capello inspired resentment for not being English early on, after which the pendulum swung and there were hope-filled predictions. But then humiliating defeat to Germany at the World Cup knocked something in the English psyche. The defeat in itself wasn’t the problem, it was that the pub nationalists realised that it had all happened before and, more likely than not, would happen again – we were, then, in the midst of a national existentialist crisis.
And the post-Golden Generation aren't the antidote. Let’s be honest, Ashley Young and Darren Bent aren’t the symbols to reignite the flag wavers. They sit neatly between being good and bad: they’re more than solid pros, but they’re not poetry in motion. Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney are nearer the mark, but the problem goes beyond players with average ability. England are blandness personified is the truth of the matter since Rooney is loud, but thick - no enigma, and Wilshere is aggressive enough, but petty teenage aggression doesn’t make him Roy Keane. Capello’s reign is fizzling out and a new generation of players is fizzling in.
The antidote is appalling, but necessary. Harry Redknapp is England’s man. When Capello’s time runs out, only Redknapp, of all the feasible candidates, inspires enough emotion to breathe life back into Team England. Adored and despised in equal measure, Redknapp would probably make a dreadful England manager; sadly, it looks like that’s what the supporters need most. Because they might not be able to sustain another middle-ground man, and middle-ground team.