England: All That Glistered Was Not Gold

SOFIA, BULGARIA - SEPTEMBER 02: England manager Fabio Capello looks on with sub Frank Lampard during the EURO 2012 group G qualifying match between Bulgaria and England at the Vasil Levski National Stadium on September 2, 2011 in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

With the benching of Frank Lampard, Fabio Capello gave England fans a glimpse into the future. A future that contains not one solitary flake of the so-called "golden generation".

When England conclude their business with Euro 2012 - be it an embarrassing and unlikely failure to qualify, the usual quarter-final exit to a palpably superior team, an unexpected and glorious run to the semi-final, final, or even to the promised land of victory and the Big Shiny Silver Cup - Fabio Capello will conclude his business with England. He will leave, and be replaced, though quite who by - it must oh it must be an Englishman - remains mysterious.

Whoever it is will be taking the job with an unusual amount of selectorial freedom, however, since we are currently living in the last days of the "golden generation", a phrase that sounded unwise the moment it left Adam Crozier's lips, and quickly became a millstone, an albatross, and a cross to bear (whichever you like best). Whereas Portugal's golden generation - Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Sergio Conceicao, and so on - were at least a coherent international side that had gelled in victory at consecutive FIFA Youth Championships, this was simply a confluence of talented players from disparate clubs and of mismatched styles. The players themselves, incidentally, profess to have always hated the tag, though it seems unlikely their agents felt the same.

* There is some debate about whether Wayne Rooney is part of this generation. Given that David Beckham - the figurehead - is over ten years older, it seems reasonable to place him in the next lot, as vague and hopeless as the whole exercise is.

Now, Beckham is playing out his final seasons in the Californian sunshine, and will not be adding to his 115 caps. Joe Cole, for so long assumed to be an impish playmaker just waiting to escape from the confines of his coaches, spent last season ruminating over his eternal failure to get the hang of big boy's football, and has now left the country altogether. (Yes, of course moving to the French title-holders to play Champions League football is a step down from Liverpool's reserves. Do you even have to ask?) Rio Ferdinand and John Terry are creaking and twanging their way to the knacker's yard, where they'll be able to swap racing tips with one-time wonderboy Michael Owen. Ashley Cole endures, yes, but then Ashley Cole always endures. Sol Campbell, Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes; going, going, gone.

And, of course, the two most vexed and vexing members of that gilded, lily-livered lot: Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. When not in one another's company, with their club crests above their lion's hearts, they were talented and assured, dynamic and influential. Together, for country, they were simply known as The Question. So all-consuming did The Question become that the words still hurt to look at, and have to be mixed up for the sake of the reader: Play. Can. Together. They. Interrogation point.

Of course, The Question was never actually much of a question, since the answer was patently: no, stop trying it, try something else, one decent game in qualifying doesn't change the fact, no, no, please God not again. Jonathan Wilson views the tactical side of the matter as part of a larger fallacy with the whole of the golden generation:

This, arguably, was the main reason for the farrago of the golden generation: England were blessed with a remarkably talented generation of players; the problem was that Michael Owen and David Beckham needed a 4-4-2, while Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard needed an additional holding player. ... It was almost as though football itself were taunting England for its lack of tactical sophistication and its concomitant obeisance to the cult of the celebrity player.

Wilson also notes that neither Sven-Goran Erikssen nor Steve McClaren - the former not an Englishman, true, but a natural diplomat and avid disciple of celebritarian football - had the "clarity of thought" to resolve the situation one way or another, and so evade The Question. Capello, by contrast, dealt with it once and for all, introducing the radical idea that selecting a football team wasn't just a matter of selecting the best or most famous players, but of finding a team made up of complementary parts. In the case of Gareth Barry, the most attractive attribute was a complete lack of interest in what Gerrard called "bombing on", a pastime both he and Lampard revelled in.

"Bombing on". It's an odd, beautifully English phrase, neatly folding the martial metaphors so beloved of English sporting discourse into the tactical simplicity that Wilson diagnosed. You can almost imagine Gerrard and Lampard meeting Prince Philip ...

"Good morning, Steven? And what do you do?"

"Well, sir, I go bombing on."

"And you ... Frank, is it? What do you do?"

"Well, sir, I go bombing on as well."

"Really? My word. And tell me, do you both go bombing on at the same time?"

"Oh no, sir. When I go bombing, he stays behind ..."

"... and when he stays behind, sir, I go bombing on."

"Marvellous, marvellous. Well, make sure you show those Germans, eh?"

"Yessir."

Now, this unhappy time is coming to an end. Lampard - though he, like Gerrard, will certainly feature in the rest of Capello's squads, injury permitting - suffered the strange indignity of being benched for a player who's only turned out in the Championship so far this season. Gerrard, meanwhile, has spent almost the entire of the Dalglish restoration on the sidelines, and has had to watch as other players have taken his attributes and parcelled them out amongst themselves. Charlie Adam does the long passing now, and takes free kicks too. Stewart Downing does the crossing into the box, while Luis Suarez takes up the quintessentially Gerrardian role of bussing around off the front man, before falling to ground at the slightest contact. Whether Gerrard returns in glory and steers Liverpool to the promised land of fourth place doesn't matter; in football, the only certainty is obsolescence.

That's what getting old does to you. Behind them both, the chirrup of the young grows louder. Gary Neville - another member of the pyrite generation - has praised Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley as examples of "more intelligent" players that he believes presage another generation, one inspired by watching "a better quality of technical player ... Cantona, Zola, Ronaldo." This is not to say that the future of England won't be dogged by its own bizarre problems; this is still a country savagely in thrall to the power of celebrity and deleteriously suspicious of anything of unfamiliar provenance. Yet Euro 2012 looks, in anticipation, like a natural breaking point. Not just a full-stop, or even a paragraph, but a whole new chapter.

Sometimes, the world is good enough to provide a metaphor so perfect that it surpasses anything that a writer might invent. And so it was after England's chastened return from South Africa, where 5,000 limited edition gold-plated iPods, each boasting a laser-etched "Frank Lampard", were melted down due to a lack of interest. The generation that stumbled from one false dawn to the next is finally settling into the long sunset. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, Frankie, for it tolls for thee. And Stevie G.

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