Hands up those of you who still believe English footballers are amongst the finest in the world.
Hmm, quite a few of you. You obviously have a lot more faith than I do.
Once upon a time, I was one of the converted. I was one of those who believed that England had a team chock full of the world's greatest footballers—a team that would be able to fulfil the dreams of supporters across the land and finally add to that solitary World Cup in 1966 (did that really happen).
I would look at the likes of Campbell, Ferdinand, Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and Owen and drool at what they would achieve in the next big international tournament. But that next international tournament came and went, and each time I was left with a crushing sense of anti-climax.
Why is this? Why do we consistently underachieve at a major tournament?
The reasons are manifold.
Let's start with the obvious: The Premier League. A bloated, greedy, self-serving organisation with zero interest in the national team, the Premier League was formed by clubs as a way to maximise the earning potential of football in this country.
But let's not completely dismiss this mammoth organization.
The EPL is rightly hailed as the most exciting league in the world. The money that has poured in from the the Sky television deals mean that some of the best players in the world have plied their trade in England. Clubs have been able to build fantastic stadiums for fans to watch the games in, and the older, more dilapidated grounds from yesteryear have faded into history.
But due to the top-heavy nature in which Premier League TV money is distributed, club chairmen are petrified of dropping out of the top division and into the purgatory of championship football.
Clubs spend beyond their means to stay in this false, Rupert Murdoch-built utopia. The only salvation for these clubs is to stay in the EPL; dropping out would mean a harsh and salient reality check. For documentary evidence, just observe the falls from grace of the likes of Coventry, Southampton, Charlton, Bradford and, most infamously, Leeds United. Mere survival in the Premier League is of paramount importance to all clubs outside the top four.
Those clubs that make up the so-called Big Four (now Big Five with Manchester City's entry) spend, spend, spend. But their goal is not just to stay in the league. The vast swathes of lucre they have splashed out on expensive imports—coupled with sky high salaries—ensure that the only way these clubs can justify their excess to worried bank managers is by qualifying for the even more lucrative and cash-driven UEFA Champions League.
The demand for quick success from trigger-happy chairmen ensures that the state of the national team is placed at the bottom of any agenda for the managers, just after AOB. Managers and coaches dare not risk putting an untried but gifted youngster into the first team. Instead, they are more willing to buy ready-made players from abroad, many of whom are no better than the English players that they stop coming through. Inevitably, this has a negative impact on the calibre of player available to the national coach, as not enough good English players are coming through the ranks.
International games are seen as an inconvenience by managers, fearful of their star player coming back with an injury. The number of players pulling out of friendlies grows ever longer, as the pressures of the Premier League weigh on the players' shoulders.
Let's not forget the ludicrous idea bandied around by Richard Scudamore of the "39th" game—a superfluous idea that came about for no other reason than to milk the emerging markets of Asia and America out of more lucrative merchandising and television money. An extra game tagged onto an already crowded fixture list is hardly conducive to a successful national side.
With such an overwhelming focus on domestic matters, the state of the national team comes a very distant second.
And what of the players?
Do they have the desire to take that extra step up in quality required at World Cups and European Championships? More importantly, do they actually have the quality to play at that rarefied atmosphere. Recent evidence would suggest not.
The last time England made any kind of impression at a major championships was at Euro 96, when they were only an outstretched leg of Gazza's from qualifying for the final. Since then, they have consistently underachieved at the major tournaments. The nadir was the failure to qualify for Euro 2008.
When we analyse the players, the assumption is that they are of sufficient quality to perform better at the highest level. But their consistent failure to deliver at international level suggests that maybe they aren't as good as we think they are. Ask yourself this question: When was the last truly inspirational performance by Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard or Wayne Rooney in the white of England.
It's been a while, hasn't it?
The general consensus has been that there is too much pressure when they play for England. Sorry, but I don't buy that for a second. If anything, these players have it too easy. They have all the adulation when playing for their clubs in the EPL, where technique is overlooked in favour of strength and running power. When they play at international level, they come up against teams such as Germany, Brazil and, of course, Spain—all of whom ally strength and running power with superior technical ability.
Is it possible that, when faced with such opponents, the desire of the players drains away?
For years, the blame has been laid at the door of numerous coaches: Keegan, Eriksson, McLaren and now Fabio Capello—a man who has won everything at club level. A man readily recognised as one of the greatest coaches in history, he is pilloried for not bringing the best out of the England football team. Maybe it's time to look at the players themselves and ask whether they are up to the task of representing the England National Team.
But why are the players so lacking in the technical ability at the highest level?
Maybe the coaching is not of the right type. In England, more emphasis is put on players who can run faster and quicker, who can tackle harder. In Spain, Brazil and Germany, technical ability is lauded over physical attributes.
Is it also not possible that, with the high influx of foreign players into the Premier League, young English talent is not being given the opportunity to thrive?
How many countless youngsters have fallen by the wayside because they could not break into a team ahead of their foreign counterpart? There is always the counterargument to this: that the cream will always rise to the top and a talented young English player will make the grade regardless. But this goes back to argument at the start. Managers would much rather bring in cheaper, ready-made foreign alternatives rather than give a young English player the opportunity to bed themselves in to the first team.
Want an example? Try Daniel Sturridge banging the goals in for Bolton while Salomon Kalou still labour's away at Chelsea.
Let's not let us, the loyal supporters, walk away from this scot-free either. As fans, we have a role to play in this grim study in underachievement. Ask any fan what they would rather see: their club win a trophy or England win the World Cup. The answer invariably comes back in favour of the former. What this highlights is the relative lack of interest from fans when it comes to the national team.
It's always been my contention that a successful England team breeds a mood of optimism throughout the country. Witness the feel-good factor enjoyed during those balmy summer days from the summer of '96. We fans can't complain too much about the national team's lack of success when we only really care about the welfare of the team every two summers.
As fans, we also have an enormously superior view of the EPL as being the best league in the world. We thrive in the excitement and goals that the football provides. But the fast pace of the football is also a weakness: technical excellence is sacrificed at the altar of end to end thrills. In this hustle-and-bustle, madcap frenzy, the opportunity to hone technical skills is limited. When English players then take their game to the national side, they are found to be woefully short of the necessary skills to flourish at international level.
Where do the fans take the share of blame, you ask? It's very simple.
If a defender were to take more than three or four touches of the ball, he is instantly encouraged by the crowd to launch the ball forward as quickly as possible. Passes are made that are not feasible, the ball is lost and it ends up at the feet of the opposition.
The end-to-end nature of the EPL is its strength and its weakness. This attacking yet reckless style of play is fine at club level where you can guarantee the ball will be back at your feet within seconds. But lose it at international level and you won't see it for minutes.
We fans, however, would not countenance a change of tactics.
Ultimately, what are the solutions to the question I posed?
What needs to happen is a change in attitude towards our national game. There needs to be a recognition from the EPL that a healthy national team should be one of its key priorities. That means releasing players for national duty and not putting the England team way down its list of priorities. This needs to come from owners and chairmen, but particularly from managers.
A quota on foreign players would be fantastic to allow young players an opportunity in the team. But before this, the all-important football centre in Burton needs to become a reality. It needs to be a place where good habits are bred into the player, and where we can rear the future coaches with the right attributes.
The national team has to take pride of place and become something for players to aspire to. Too many times, you look at players and wonder if they really care enough. Remember Jamie Carragher's admission in his autobiography that he would rather miss a penalty for England than for Liverpool?
I, for one, would love to see England compete on an equal footing against the likes of Spain and Brazil. But until we, in England, view our national team as something more than a sideshow to the real entertainment of the Premier League, I fear the disappointments will continue at the major tournaments of the future