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Monday, 5 September 2011

The Generation Game

"Frank Lampard never played for Milan... golden generation my arse."

*Disclaimer. Some or all of what follows may be completely fictional and not represent in any way, shape or form the beliefs of Magic Spongers.

When Spandau Ballet wrote their seminal hit ‘Gold’ in 1983 about the so-called golden generation of Trevor Francis, Tony Woodcock, Luther Blisset, Paul Mariner et al, the fanfare was short-lived as England failed to qualify for the European Championships a year later. Though the song would live on in chain pubs across the land on Saturday nights, the golden generation proved to be of pyrite persuasion, shining brightly in the April sun in a 2-0 victory over Hungary, before succumbing to the talents of Michael Laudrup and Jesper Olsen at Wembley in September ’84 and ultimately petering out.

Of course, Spandau Ballet were not the first band to eulogise about a national team. That honour goes to Shirley Bassey, who sang the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse-penned Goldfinger ostensibly for the James Bond film of the same name, but was, as Bassey would later confess, an ode to her beloved Wales. Her fatal error was, however, to confuse a golden generation with two good footballers (John Charles and Cliff Jones) and the Bassey-backed golden boys failed to qualify for every tournament they entered during the 60s.

Such confusion of notoriety with ability has long sustained the English and though the events of one afternoon in Bloemfontein, June 27 2010 led the Guardian’s Richard Williams to state: ‘There was no golden generation after all’, he was wrong. The widespread epitaphs for Goldenballs and his golden boys do not draw a line under this sorry saga.

Though the fading incarnation bid adieu in the weekend’s press might have been born from the mouth of Adam Crozier relatively recently, there is ALWAYS a golden generation. We had one in 1990. And again in 1996. And yet another from 2000 – until seemingly last Friday, when Frank Lampard was benched in Sofia. Which leads us to now. A ‘Croatia moment’ as we like to call it.

Bulgaria 0-3 England. Old heroes dispensed with, albeit through necessity rather than choice, and new ones forged amid the foreboding surrounds of the Vasil Levski stadium. The starting XI against the Bulgarians was: Hart, Smalling, Cahill, Terry, Cole, Walcott, Parker, Barry, Downing, Young, Rooney. Replace Terry with Jones and one of Parker and Barry for Wilshire and you have a new golden generation, the hallmark ‘injection of youth/talent’ that breeds optimism and gives rise to such terminology. It’s as if the old one never existed. And so let us here at Magic Spongers be the first to put a name to this team of world beaters: “The Platinum Pack.”

The similarities between The Platinum Pack and the last lot are stark: after a few wobbles, earn an impressive result in eastern Europe in the qualifiers to a major tournament, cue trumpeting of said team from perennial luminaries such as The Sun’s El Tel: “If you'd have said a year ago we would start in Bulgaria without Ferdinand, Lampard, Glen Johnson, Jack Wilshere, Steven Gerrard, Adam Johnson, Aaron Lennon, James Milner and Darren Bent, many Three Lions fans, including myself, would have feared the worst. But our display in Sofia shows how much Capello's squad has fattened up. England have always had a decent team, but now for the first time in a while it seems like we have a decent squad as well.” Pretty sure you were bigging up our chances last summer Terry? No? I must be mistaken.

Let us also bear in mind that England are not yet qualified. A win for Montenegro in Switzerland and victory over the English in Montenegro will leave Fabio Capello’s men second in the group on their head-to-head record. But no matter. ‘Rooney’s back’ trumpet John Terry and the Guardian’s Paul Wilson, who continues by praising Chris Smalling, saying that the “Manchester United defender's assured performance against Bulgaria illustrates a fresh outlook in the national camp”. The tell tale phrases are all here, including the assertion that ‘a wind of youthful change is blowing through the England ranks’, as well as the idle speculation, the context-free planning of the identities and positions of England’s next batch of as-yet unproven lions:

“With Jack Wilshere still to come back into contention and Scott Parker and Gareth Barry both performing well against Bulgaria there may not be an automatic return even for Steven Gerrard. On the other hand Chris Smalling's assured debut at right-back meant that England could keep defenders of the ability of Phil Jagielka, Micah Richards and Phil Jones in reserve, while Gary Cahill managed to mark his first England start with the opening goal.”

Disregarding the use of the phrase ‘ability’ and ‘Phil Jagielka’ in the same sentence, this is the kind of statement England could do without. No doubt the clamour for the Platinum Pack will rage away as the national team evolves, reaching fever pitch if the manager attempts pragmatism, helping nobody, a sort of inverse fight against the dying of the light as the press pack try desperately to snuff out the legacy of an era they had more than a little influence in cementing.

While the personnel changes might be refreshing, the outlook remains as stale as ever. Here’s the Mail’s Martin Samuel’s tuppence-worth: ‘This is a result that will be noted throughout Europe, despite the many flaws of the home team.’ He goes on to add: ‘So here we go again. Barring a dramatic failure to launch in the final two group games, England should qualify for the competition in Poland and Ukraine without suffering the tension of a play-off. And then the agony begins. We cross our fingers on the form and fitness of Rooney, and hope that players who look so fresh and positive now will not again limp into June gasping for breath and on a single good leg.’ Reading between the lines there, it appears we were crap in South Africa because we were tired. Odd, because I’m pretty sure that the final showcased five Premier League players: Nigel de Jong, Dirk Kuyt, Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres.

In this embryonic stage it is clear that the fault lies with the media and not the fans. Every single person I’ve spoken to about the win in Bulgaria has said the same thing. That England played well against a poor side. A good win, yes, but not much more to be read into it. Not when you consider the sides England will have to get past next summer if they want to win the thing. But it seems some strands of the media cannot help themselves. As if the mantra “build them up to knock them down” is now second nature. And it’s started already. Watch it cultivated finely come Wednesday morning if we wake up to victory over Wales being achieved.

It’s like… (sharp intake of breath)… owning an apple that you think is the absolute business. You cannot understand why you have never won Apple of the Year award despite always being one of the favourites at the international tournaments. On paper, the apple is the best. It is shiny and symmetrical. But every year, the Spanish and the Brazilian, the French and the Dutch apples dominate proceedings and the English apple ends up, in the cold light of day, looking more like a shop-soiled onion than the proud apple it had once been heralded.

You may be thinking that the English never learn? Not true. If it wasn’t for the Sol Campbell disallowed goal at France 98, we’d have won the World Cup. If it wasn’t for Ronaldo getting Rooney sent off in 2006, we’d have won that as well. And if the only man in the ground who didn’t see Frank Lampard’s shot cross the line last summer had have seen it, we’d have gone all the way there as well. In short, we’ve always had golden generations and we always will. And if it wasn’t for those pesky cheating foreigners, we’d have the silverware to show for it too.

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