As Rickie Lambert has emerged from the Football League shadows to lead England's attack in Ukraine, Sam Winter looks at the rise of the working-class striker amidst the decline of International football in England.
As a six year old boy I watched wide-eyed with wonderment as Euro 96 fever erupted over the nation; my earliest memory of a major football tournament being played in front of my eyes on television. I can vividly remember watching each England game unfold; the drama, the passion, and the sheer national spirit. This was a time where International football was completely ingrained in our English national identity, still the ultimate honour for any footballer; European and World victory the pinnacle of sport in this country. Here we had the likes of Adams, Shearer, Seaman, Pearce, Gascoigne, and Platt, belting their hearts out as the National Anthem rang around the old Wembley. Euphoria swept England as Scotland, Netherlands, and Spain were put the sword on a march to the semi-finals. Pride in despair descended as the agonising defeat to Germany was confirmed by the unbearable tension of the penalty shootout. Even as a small child I knew that it didn’t get any bigger than playing for England. Yet 17 years on this notion has all but disappeared from the English game and the national mentality. And now on the eve of a crucial World Cup Qualifier in the Ukraine, as England toil in a group with the hosts and Montenegro, would it even be as great a national disappointment as it should be if the team fail to qualify for the 2014 showpiece in Brazil?
|The passion displayed in 1996 is a distant memory compared to modern day England|
Great Expectancy, Great Decline
I’ve watched the importance of the national team diminish over the years since that first international experience. Don’t get me wrong I felt in 1998 and 2000 it still really mattered, as vilification of David Beckham and Phil Neville will testify. England’s failings under Kevin Keegan saw positivity drop significantly and the appointment of a first foreign manager questioned the national team identity. But England hit some “heady” heights under Sven Goran Eriksson; a 5-1 victory in Munich and that David Beckham free-kick, an exemplary qualification record for major tournaments and the emergence of the “Golden Generation”. But the fact that a qualification victory and a last-gasp draw against Greece are the celebrated England games of recent times purely underlines England’s continued failures when it really matters. Of course England have no divine right to win major tournaments, but they’ve certainly wasted golden opportunities. Under Sven, England had a core of players that at the time would have walked into any team in world football: Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Owen, Ferdinand. On paper England had a capable tournament-winning side, but when it mattered it was the same old Quarter Final misery as before; England limping out when they could have given so much more.
Media scrutiny and national expectation have never helped the cause; England sides have never been able to handle a tag of being favourites unlike the French and the Spanish in more recent years. The infamous “WAG culture” and managerial misdemeanours overshadowed the 2006 World Cup and the failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was disastrous for a nation with the pool of players England possessed at the time. Fabio Capello briefly got pulses racing again ahead of South Africa in 2010 but another abject display left national expectancy and enthusiasm at an all-time low. In my time England had never played so poorly on the big stage and when Euro 2012 came around, there was minimal fanfare surrounding the tournament. Customary flags on cars and houses were gone, nobody expected success and nobody was all that bothered or surprised when the Quarter Final’s beckoned another penalty-shootout exit. And here we are approaching 2014, World Cup Qualification in significant limbo.
|England were woeful in 2010, compounding how far they have fallen|
England's Own Worst Enemy
The National decline in international football’s interest has many contributing factors that boil down to a core of English football failings. Failure despite hope and expectancy is admittedly a major cause however the explosion of the Premier League in England is the telling factor for multiple reasons. Unquestionably the Premier League has done wonders for English football since its creation; the style of football played, the personalities, the stadiums, the teams, the drama, and the memories, have all contributed to the Premier League becoming a worldwide attraction. However its growth has tilted England’s international prospects into a dangerous slide. The financial incentive of the Premier League and an obsession with Champions League football has seen club become more powerful than country. Players withdraw from playing for England; retire from England, at the advice of their clubs. Playing for England should be the pinnacle of any footballer’s career in this country, yet it is significantly second fiddle to the Premier League. A staggeringly low total of 32% of players in the Premier League are English in 2013, almost a third of what it was at the leagues introduction. Teams have fielded 10 or 11 foreigners from the start of English league games, and those English talents left have seen their price tags inflated due to their now precious existence. England’s coaching system and grass-roots setup is flawed, and the decline of the British manager in the Premier League has not helped coaching development at the top level. The value placed on the Premier League also effectively blocks hopes of a useful winter break ahead of international tournaments, a break that benefits other major international teams. The FA’s obsession with developing Wembley Stadium, despite the success of the touring England side under Eriksson, is also financially hindering footballing development. England were taking football to the fans before Wembley’s rebuild; all across the nation, and the passion and interest was once again sky high. But with the English game as it is now, particularly with the excitement and importance of the Premier League, it is little wonder that support of the International side is so low from a fans perspective.
|The Premier League has caused a Club vs. Country divide that has seen a priority shift for the likes of Rio Ferdinand.|
Rickie Lambert's Football Fairy-Tale
English football has too few fairy-tale moments these days. Wayne Rooney scoring the winner against Arsenal as a 16 year old and then riding his bike round the corner to home is a fairy-tale moment. The lifestyle and fame that is handed to emerging talents in 2013 certainly reduces these moments and thus you cannot particularly blame these youngsters from having a lesser interest in playing for their country, or not singing the words to the national anthem when they do play. It is just how the game they came into is now.
Reading my hand-me-down Roy of the Rovers annuals painted the fairy-tale footballers path for me as a young boy: Grafting through the lower leagues, hitting the big time through sheer performance, and walking out at Wembley and scoring for England. This was certainly the dream of former Stockport County striker Rickie Lambert, and the Liverpudlian was on the tip of destiny as he sat on a Wembley bench on the 14th August 2013 at the age of 31. Aside from Lambert’s remarkable story, the fixture between England and Scotland on that night could have significant positive implications for the future of English International football. This was a match-up that was 13 years late, a return of the home nation’s encounter that should once again be played annually. If the England side need a boost or an incentive, particularly before a major tournament, then this needs to be the fixture to provide it. The oldest of football rivalries, both sides showed a fierce determination to get one over their neighbours in a pulsating game. This game showed what it really means to wear the shirt, the three lions on the chest. On this occasion, with the game locked at 2-2, Roy Hodgson called on his latest substitute.
|Rickie Lambert living the England dream|
Unfortunately it was easy to write off Rickie Lambert’s international prospects before he even stepped over the white line at Wembley. We’d seen it all before with Kevin Davies, Jay Bothroyd, and Bobby Zamora to name but a few in recent times; strikers playing for England and being found out, never to feature again. But as Lambert crashed home a 70th minute header with his first touch as an England International everything changed, Lambert had delivered for his country and had achieved his dream in truly memorable style. He was the happiest man on earth as he wheeled away across the Wembley turf; you could see in his face that this was the stuff of fairy-tale. Here was a man who had only been a Premier League striker for a year following a career labouring in the lower leagues with Blackpool, Macclesfield, Stockport, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers before being signed for Southampton in 2009. A late bloomer perhaps or maybe a victim of English clubs over-reliance of foreign imports, Lambert had certainly arrived at this moment the hard way. "I have been dreaming of that all my life, it means so much," he said after the game ended with his goal the winner. "I was trying to play it cool this week but deep down I wanted to scream. It was brilliant”. This is exactly what it should be like for all players who play and score for their country. The Southampton striker had grown up dreaming of such a moment; he’d never dreamt of fortune and fame, just playing football and maybe, just maybe one day scoring for England at Wembley. Such passion and enthusiasm for the game is sadly reduced in the modern world of mega-rich Prima Donna footballers. But Rickie Lambert’s emergence may well have come at the perfect time for English International Football. With support for the national team in great need of a boost, the working-class hero from Kirkby may well be the perfect catalyst. The England fans can relate to him, he is one of them, a normal lad who was worked and grafted to get to where he is, never having had anything handed to him. He represents the people, like England strikers of old, playing out their dreams wearing the three lions. Support for Lambert, with everyone talking with intrigue and amazement about his journey to the international stage, can only be good for England.
The New Roy of the Rovers?
Less than a month on from the Scotland game and Rickie Lambert is lining up for his first England start, amidst a striker “crisis”, singing the national anthem in front of the nation ahead of a World Cup Qualifier at Wembley. Lambert leads the line superbly against Moldova, scoring a real striker’s goal from point blank range before twice assisting strike partner Danny Welbeck in a comfortable 4-0 victory. Suddenly the striker is right at home, an England international leading the charge. And now on the eve of a huge night in Kiev, 28 months on from playing in League One, Lambert has the hopes of his nation resting on his shoulders. Much must be done to improve England's international fortunes in the short and long term, but if Rickie Lambert can fire England towards the World Cup, a nation’s faith in International football will surely be close to being fully restored.