On Wednesday night, at Wembley, England played Ireland. For the home team, the most pleasing aspect of the evening was that the crowd didn't sing about the IRA; at least, not in sufficient numbers or at sufficient volume to be noticed by the television cameras. Ireland scored a good goal. England scored a spawny one. So predictable was the actual football that the sentence after this one was written three hours before kick-off. It was a draw, and it wasn't very interesting.
Post-season friendlies are difficult things. If the experience of going through the football season is roughly akin to being beaten close to senselessness by an unforgiving and cruel assailant, then these tacked-on exhibitions are the unforgiving assailant's small friend running up to your prone and battered body and, just at the moment you thought the punishment was over, kicking you in the ankle. (If it's not, then it isn't. The joy of conditional similes.)
But that problem notwithstanding, there is something extra-grueling about England these days, a kind of bilious miasma that follows the national team around, coating every soul it touches with a patina of low-level misery. It's not just in the football, though Roy Hodgson's ongoing efforts to prove Liverpool fans right aren't helping. It's all the ancillary stuff: the endless rows about The Armband, the cynical and exploitative kit launches, the hostile press conferences, the lunatic headlines, the unhinged opinion pieces, the vacant seats on the halfway line, the relentless maximisation of New Wembley, the pompous vacillating about about England fans' naughty chanting versus Foreign fans' naughty chanting, the flouncing retirements, the preening un-retirements, the tubthumping, the xenophobia, the delusion, the snark. In many ways, that band are the perfect summation of England and their attendant fuss: an inescapable and witless parping.
It pollutes everything, even the football. If England win, momentary happiness is either rationalised away in favour of laughing at the FIFA rankings and nit-picking over the manner of the victory, or subsumed into a tsunami of hype. If England lose, then heaven help us all, even those of us who don't support the team but just happen to live here. And if England draw, limply, against a team who don't have quite the quality but at least look a bit sparky? Well, it's just a bit ... depressing. So drab was the result against Ireland that even Gary Lineker managed to have an actual opinion.
Radical action is needed. England, starting today, should close themselves down. Apologise to Sunday's opponents Brazil, withdraw from World Cup qualifying, and chain the gates of Wembley closed. Say to the world, and to the nation: look, this isn't going particularly well. No pleasure is coming from this. Nobody's having any fun. And while football shouldn't be about guaranteed fun -- losing sucks, and has to suck -- it should be, at the very least, about the possibility of fun. It sometimes feels as though the only way the national side could be enjoyable again would be in the event of a trophy win, which is a terrible state of affairs.
This would be quite a good time for a break. England won't be doing anything relevant in Brazil, if they even get there, and so the only downsides would be a few holes in next season, and the possibility that Frank Lampard might not make it to 100 caps. These can be solved, respectively, by people doing something else, and by people laughing at Frank Lampard; that last might be a shame for the man himself, but this is about the bigger picture. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his symbolic bauble for his nation's mental well-being.
Give the nation a year or two off to relax, and then get it all going again once everybody's calmed the hell down. Let the underage teams potter along, they're fundamentally harmless, and James Milner deserves the chance to pick up a few more caps. And then, once it's back -- say, the beginning of qualification for Euro 2016 -- make a few important, detoxifying changes. Just the one new kit every two years. Take England back around the country again. Publicly announce that the captain's armband, and its accompanying tossing responsibilities, will go to whichever player has the most caps, or alphabetically in the case of a tie. Treat autobiographies like drug offences: a two-year ban for the first; a life ban for the second. Take all the most egregious, dispiriting features of modern England, and draw the poison.
At this point, were this piece appearing in a proper newspaper, I would conclude by saying something like "of course, I'm not really calling for England to stop completely; it's just that England needs to think about how to get some of the fun back into following their national team." But it's not, and I'm not. I'm serious. The England team and its attendant circus is a toxic growth on English football and English culture and needs to be cut out and destroyed with fire. Take away the trumpets, let blessed silence ring out. Knock down Wembley, and salt the earth. Start again. Do it better.