No English football club has progressed into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Are we surprised? Does this come as a great shock to followers of the game. No.
The arrogance I’ve heard spouted about how the English Premier League is “the best in the world” is utter nonsense. You have to live overseas to get a feel for how others look upon English football. Yes, they love to watch it. Yes, they find some of the games to be more exciting than what they watch in their own country. The crucial word: some.
In Spain they do not get excited at the prospect of watching West Ham play West Brom or Stoke play Sunderland. Who does? And yet I sense English football fans are more interested in watching the less fashionable Spanish teams play each other in La Liga.
Technically the game in Spain has been superior to English football for several years. Are there rubbish football matches played in Spain? Oh yes! Plenty of them. I’ve watched Spanish football on a regular basis since 2003 and there is no shortage of dross. But even the most average of home grown footballers playing in La Liga display technical ability in advance of their opposite numbers in the lower reaches of the Premier League.
While English football stood still, striking the pose of cocky imperialists who thought their own game was far superior to those foreign types; countries in Europe and around the world developed their game. They took it to another level. And they looked after their own.
For a few years Barcelona under Pep Guardiola played the best football I have seen from any club team in my 56 years on this earth. Bayern Munich are now the dominant force in European league football. No coincidence that they happen to be managed by Pep Guardiola.
For far too many years English football chose to do away with youth and reserve teams, show the door to talented home grown youngsters. To do the exact opposite of Barcelona.
And it’s not simply skill on the ball that has led to other countries overtaking the English clubs. Time was that you could rely on Spanish players to pull out of crunching tackles, to avoid confrontation and jump out of the way when the studs were flying. The fact that football has ceased to be a contact sport has benefitted some foreign teams and led to the few remaining hard men in the English game having to be careful, or face being shown a red card.
Liverpool won European Cups with hard men like Tommy Smith and Graeme Souness mixing it when needed. If overseas players they came up against got ideas above their station, the hard men of English football simply kicked them up in the air and you never saw those talented foreign players go near the ball for the remainder of the game. Neither Liverpool player would see out 90 minutes today. They would be given their marching orders.
These days Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are accustomed to being kicked up in the air. They anticipate it and rarely miss matches due to thuggery from opponents. Not only can foreign players today take the knocks, some can also dish it out. Outside of Italy, that hasn’t always been the case.
Its technique on the ball that most divides football in England compared to Spain and Germany. That and the ability to pass the ball with accuracy. It never ceases to amaze me how many English born footballers are incapable of passing the ball directly to a colleague. A basic skill.
It’s arrogance, complacency and the obsession with buying overseas mercenaries that has led to English clubs falling behind. Only Chelsea come out of recent Champions League history with credit. At too many clubs the lack of forward planning and the concentration on the here and now has seen them fail. Manchester City may make the mistake of sacking Manuel Pellegrini. More short term thinking.
Of course money is the force behind the drive for instant success. Some club owners seems to think that should be as readily available as SMASH – ready made mashed potato!
English football chose to do a deal with one devil, Sky Sports. Like Medusa, its tentacles have reached out and consumed domestic English football. BT have now got in on the act. The soul of the game was sold to television and so many of you bought into it. You still do. And now you’ll have to pay more. Sky just raised your subscription and, no doubt, by far the majority of you will not blink before paying more for less.
Football fans moan about the unsociable times that games kick off. Away supporters from the deep south are expected to travel to the far north at times when they should be at work. Football fans countrywide complain about the cost of going to a match. But football fans are complicit in all that.
Via your monthly subscription you give permission for Sky Sports or BT to dictate which day and at what time a football match is played. You fund the richer clubs and thanks to your subscription they pay obscene sums of money to foreign players and their representatives. You moan about the production line of inadequate foreign footballers who come to your club, stay a season and then leave to kiss a different badge. But you helped bring them to England and to your club.
The obscene sums of money spent on mercenaries does not stay in the English game.
On the night that only Joe Hart prevented Barcelona from embarrassing Manchester City in particular, and English football as a whole, I found it to be reassuring that the youth team at Chelsea were winning their way into yet another FA Youth Cup final. I just hope many of those players get their chance to shine in the first team.
When I used to produce the in house videos for Chelsea, the youth team set up at a very different Stamford Bridge encouraged young players such as John Terry and Neil Shipperley. Both made their way into the senior game. They got their chance. Had they been born ten years later I’m not sure that would have been the case.
Had Lionel Messi been born in England and not Argentina, would he be the force in European football that he is today? I doubt it.
As someone who has drooled while watching him in action, I don’t think he is the perfect player. Pele was. Nobody since has been. But like George Best, they have been a joy to watch. Pele and Best entertained. Messi continues to. They are my three favourite players of all time.
But while others debate online who is the greatest player of them all (Gary Lineker is in the Messi camp), I’m simply grateful to be alive at a time when such stars played football as it was meant to be played.
Not one of them was born in England. So it’s long past time that those who would have you believe English football is the greatest, tore up that well worn script and began again.
And it’s time for the game in England to return to its roots.