football fans are a strange lot, and reaction to the side’s underwhelming
Euro 2016 qualifying draw only goes to prove it. The prevailing mood seems
to be, “We want the team to win, but not too easily”. That England’s
footballers have shown time and again that no job is too big or too small
for them to make a pig’s ear of is temporarily forgotten.
Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania – not names to conjure with, it’s true, although
there is every chance that we will be chewing our nails in a few months’
time about a potential banana skin away against a technically adept Balkan
midfield, or furiously demanding why Wazza and co are being forced to hotel
in a central European hellhole with woefully inadequate shiatsu facilities.
For the time being, the draw has been kind, cloyingly so, embarrassing England
with multiple, beautifully wrapped presents, while we reciprocate with a
begrudging Our Price gift voucher (expired) and a petrol station greeting
The draw ceremony itself was the traditional Uefa mixture of the tedious, the
pompous, and the bonkers, with England, as ever, tolerated rather than liked
by the other guests. For instance, no Banks, Shilton, Clemence, Wilson,
Seaman or Nicky Weaver among the 13 Great Goalkeepers who were honoured in
Sunday’s festivities. Given that this section of proceedings featured an
excitable Fabien Barthez kissing everybody, it may have been one to swerve
The pan-European naffness of these affairs, the uncomfortable sight of men
with international medals and bad knees gamely bantering with former
opponents in each other’s third or fourth language is one which always
leaves the viewer in Blighty feeling that particularly English mixture of
hurt exclusion and relieved superiority that categorises our relations with
the continentals from the Eurovision to the single currency. The sentiment,
in the ‘Uefa family’ at least, seems absolument mutual.
Having expanded the football championship to absurdly bloated levels, and
tweaked assiduously to ensure that teams with big TV markets are nearly
guaranteed progress, the next logical step is for Uefa simply to carve up
who is going to play whom, perhaps by some sort of closed bidding process.
Princes William and David
could be deployed to try to secure England plum, attractive but winnable
qualifiers, but given our poor but honest track record with the dark arts of
international sporting politics, it is likely we would end up in a group of
death, having to play Spain four times away before a winner-takes-all
penalty shoot-out qualification play-off with the Germans.
As it stands, England now take on the Swiss, the aforementioned three other
teams and San Marino. Many fans enjoy the romantic concept of San Marino’s
plucky amateurs (“There’s the full-back, he’s a plumber, the centre-half is
a schoolteacher, up front, there’s a tax exile alongside the President for
Life of the San Marino Football Association”).
But we are happy that it exists somewhere in our universe, as long as we do
not have to actually sit through it, a bit like experimental theatre and
It seems to me that the blooding of young players, the disenfranchisement fans
feel from the team at a distant, half-empty Wembley, and the unlovely sight
of the Corinthian spirit being crushed beneath the boot of Gary Cahill in a
humdrum 5-0 trouncing, could all be solved in one fell swoop. How? By
opening up selection for the England XI to face San Marino to supporters.
I propose that anyone who buys a ticket for all the home qualifiers is put in
a prize draw, and the winner gets to start for England against San Marino at
England can surely win against a bunch of no-hopers even with the handicap of
having some random in the XI. Indeed, during the worst years of The
Problematic Left-Sided Position, they often managed to do just that.
If the chance to actually play for the team fails to motivate the fans, then
nothing will, and the sight of seeing the Gerrard-Lampard axis broken up
once and for all by omitting one of them in favour of a loyal, if
athletically challenged, member of the public is too good to pass up.