Wednesday, 14 July 2010

England's Number One

50% off-topic, so, on second thoughts, not suitable for Minus.

A scene from Armando Ianucci’s satirical comedy The Thick Of It keeps drifting into my mind. Hapless minister Hugh Abbott is being accused of hypocrisy for owning a second home in London while championing a bill to free up homes in the capital for key workers. Spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, needing to disassociate the party from the press outcry, leans on him to resign and walk away with some dignity. Abbott is at a loss to comprehend why this is happening to him – ‘It’s a flat! I haven’t raped someone!’ - and rails ‘Ministers should be cloned aged 45, with no genitals, no past, no flats…’

Was someone in the party listening? The Labour leadership contest is being contested between four test-tube babies – interchangeable, forty-ish, bland-looking men with no track records. Well – strictly speaking they do have track records, and were involved in many of the unpopular activities of the last Government, but they aren’t keen for punters to make this association. One of the most depressing sights at the recent candidate hustings was a squirming Ed Balls insisting that he had tried very hard to reverse Ministry policy with regard to the detention of child asylum seekers, but had ‘lost the argument’. Nobody believes that this happened, not even Balls himself, but it is revealing that he apparently sees pleading impotence as his strongest play at this point in time. The others are equally keen to distance themselves from the administration that they were raised in. Blogger Madam Miaow drily described them as ‘four amnesiacs in suits’.

Miliband senior seems to have been heir apparent for so long solely because he appears young, fresh-faced, and isn’t too closely associated with the New Labour project. Tony Parsons wrote in a Mirror editorial in 2008 ‘I like David Milliband. He seems very smart and he looks very clean’, which is the kind of incisive commentary you’d expect from someone’s grandmother, but may have stumbled across the truth all the same. Trying to assess David Miliband’s political character is impossible - his public statements are strings of carefully modified Olestra, without enough substance, texture, to even disagree with. Even if he did say anything of substance, he has the schizophrenic’s ability to distance himself from his own past words. His entire persona is frictionless - nothing (scandal, praise, criticism, accomplishments) clings to him. About all you can say about him is that… well… he looks clean. Clean as in hygienic, and clean as in untainted.

So here we are - left with the four most senior figures in the Labour Party who can plausibly disassociate themselves from the Party’s past actions (even if nobody but the Big Other believes them). Between them they have shown no steady political principles bar the ability to align themselves with power, and their most impressive skill is the basic self-preservation to avoid getting too publicly involved in either a coup or a scandal. They are the four improbable candidates left standing after all of the impossible ones have been ruled out.

…which, in turn, put me in mind of Joe Hart.

Hart has played eighty-six top-level matches in his club career, plus a total of 133 minutes in an England jersey, none of which was competitive play. How has he moved up through the ranks so quickly, so effortlessly, to become England’s number-one-in-waiting?

English goalkeepers once had a reputation for being rock solid, the kind of big implacable men who‘d occupy the heavy jersey from one decade to the next without changing their expression, much less their hairstyle. Nowadays it’s a job with the life expectancy of a green recruit in a special-missions squad from a war comic - the kind of unit where the sheer level of attrition means you become a Sergeant overnight and a Captain by the end of the week, if only you can avoid getting picked off by the enemy.

Robert Green misjudged the spin of a fast-moving ball and is now unlikely to be picked for England again. Scott Carson did more or less the same thing, and was never picked again. Paul Robinson misjudged Gary Neville’s backpass - surprisingly he was picked again, a few times, but was dumped at the end of the unsuccessful campaign. David Seaman misjudged the loft on Ronaldinho’s chip and, after over eight years as England’s first choice, knew that it was time to step down. (Misjudgement- that telling phrase, so often used by scandal-hit politicians…)

At a time when English goalkeeping talent is apparently at a premium, it is strange that we seem so keen to abandon young goalkeepers after one brief audition. Adopted-and-discarded players like Paul Robinson and Chris Kirkland (who was only picked once - it feels like he was around the squad for years) are in excellent form for their clubs, but know that it’s virtually impossible for them to earn a recall to the England squad. The same will doubtless be true of Robert Green, another not-quite to add to our growing list. To think of these players as washed up is bizarre - our outgoing ‘keeper, David James, wasn’t capped until he was 27, and didn’t become number one for another five years after that.

We weren’t always so harsh. Alan Rough’s few televised errors gave him (and any Scottish candidate for decades to come) the label of dodgy keeper, but he still got to enjoy a long and generally successful career. Peter Shilton let in a soft goal against Poland in 1973, and bore some of the blame for England’s failure to qualify for Germany, but wasn’t immediately dropped in favour of Ray Clemence. Shilton played for England for another seventeen years, outlasting three managers along the way. Where is the patience now?

Is the difference that today we live our lives in the television studio, where mistakes are almost certain to be caught on the Sky cameras, and the BBC show us endless repeats of the slip from all angles while Alan Hansen groans ‘he’s got to do better there’ ? Is it that these players really, genuinely lose confidence in the England jersey and, if we were to recall Paul Robinson, he’d spend the whole game trapped in a horrifying flashback, seeing a slow-motion vision of Gary Neville bearing down while the goals rained in behind him? I think it’s related to the lazily selective memory that had pundits dismissing Forlan’s talent and accomplishments based on one poor season he’d endured ten years ago - a reductive kind of stupidity that has us remember a person by the single most resounding association, whether or not that happens to be a good representation of a whole career. Brown? Bigotgate. Useless. Green? USA. Useless.

We praise our fresh-faced, spotless young goalkeepers until they’re foolish enough to make a mistake, at which point we dump them and go looking for someone even younger still. Hart is about to become our number one because he is the last candidate untainted by a public failure.

Perhaps all of this is unfair on Hart - but I can’t help wondering whether, by the time 2014 comes around, we’ll have a goalkeeper plucked from the U16 squad, because he’ll the most experienced keeper who hasn’t (yet) made a major televised howler. It’s not really so much more implausible than Ed Miliband being in charge of the country.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Balls was probably the most embarrassing, especially on the subject of immigration. You get the feeling he doesn't believe his own position but it's his USP whch he seems to think fits with the zeitgeist as manufactured by the press.

    Thanks for the link.