England Victory Shouldn't Mask Dreadful Home Nations World Cup Performance
Thanks to Andros Townsend's timely debut goal, England were able to put something of a seal on their win over Montenegro on Friday before the late-in-the-game jitters started to set in. The three points don't seal England's passage to the World Cup next year, but they are top with one game remaining.
So should everything be rosy and carefree as the nation looks forward to the final challenge, a required victory over Poland?
Clough sacked by Derby. Man Utd are struggling, England just need to beat Poland to qualify for World Cup. Welcome to 1973. Again.— Mark Robinson (@robboma3) October 11, 2013
In a sense, they certainly should be—but the fact that England have arrived at the last round of games and still need to win to be certain of top spot is indicative of how much they have struggled in the group stage.
Unfortunately for the rest of the home nations—encompassing England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland in this instance—that's as good as this qualifying campaign gets.
Much has been made in England over the past few months of the Premier League being only one-third "English", while Jack Wilshere's recent comments over "we are English" draw further attention to the lack of quality on offer.
There are some who believe a quota is the way forward to ensure home grown players get their chance, while others would prefer to concentrate on a core of fewer, but more talented, players to make the international scene a better place.
Whatever your opinion, the common theme is that there is only one option for the home nations: Improve, or be doomed to continue failing for the next decade.
The run-down of those nations' performances is sobering.
England, as above, are in pole position to qualify top of the group.
A win over Poland is required to guarantee it, otherwise the playoffs will beckon. It really shouldn't have come to this. Tame away draws in Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro were symptomatic of a muddled, negative and tentative approach to what should have been a straight-forward group.
They should go on to achieve the ultimate objective, but have left themselves literally no room for error.
Republic of Ireland qualified for Euro 2012 but the squad needed altered in key areas to mount a challenge for the World Cup two years later. With Austria and Sweden in the group to challenge for second place behind Germany, it was always a tall order, but it was achievable.
It should certainly have seen the Irish fare better than taking just three wins in the group so far—two of them against Faroe Islands.
Where wins were required against sides who should have been more or less their equals, none have been forthcoming.
In the end, it has cost Giovanni Trapattoni his job. Ireland must look forward to appoint a younger, more innovative and braver man than merely going for a tired, past-it elder statesman who will not be willing or capable of rocking the boat where needed.
Scotland and Wales, paired together in Group A, were never likely to qualify from a group containing Serbia, Croatia and the phoenix-like Belgium.
Performances, rather than results, mark out what has been a tiring and disappointing campaign, where both nations have merely competed for the right to be not-quite-as-bad as the other and slightly ahead of Macedonia.
Scotland have actually won the same number of games as the former Yugoslav nation.
They changed their manager and Gordon Strachan may make a better fist of things, but Wales have severely regressed since the awful way they lost previous manager Gary Speed.
The worst of the lot have been Northern Ireland.
Perhaps rightly so, given the size of population they choose from and the issues they have had with players opting to represent the Republic, but even so, Michael O'Neill's side have now picked a grand total of zero points from back-to-back games against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
One win from 10, in a group where they play four times against those two minnows, is nothing short of embarrassing.
Excluding England, the other four nations have managed a paltry nine wins from a combined 36 games, just one quarter of fixtures ending in victory.
Even England themselves have barely won more than half their games, five from nine.
The proposed new European International League would certainly make for interesting and regular testing of just how far, and how quickly, the likes of Scotland and Wales can fall—or climb, if they can reverse the trend.
Once the qualifiers are done, and if England do indeed make it through the Poland match unscathed, all these questions will no doubt be put to one side by the regular media, the paper print and the vocal backers of international football.
Who has had the worst World Cup qualifying campaign, accounting for relative objectives and squad strength?
Until England crash out at the round-of-16 stage—possibly on penalties and probably against a mid-level South American or CONCACAF side with one or two technically gifted youngsters in their ranks.
Then the whole charade will begin again.
Qualify or not, England's problems in truly challenging at international level remain apparent and present, as they do for the rest of the home nations.
The quality of players available must be improved. That much is clear. What those in charge of the respective nations must do is act in what they believe is the best way to actually make that improvement.
For England, 30 years of doing very little hasn't accomplished much, so perhaps it's time to finally admit that merely hoping for the best isn't going to lead to success and actually implement strategic, sustainable change.
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