You are such an inbetweener

IT’S a remarkable book is Frank Skinner’s 2001 autobiography: what with the eye-watering personal revelations, the account of his alcoholism, the skew-whiff views on relationships, and the very funny tale of the Smethwick Telephone newspaper’s report on a woman from Rowley Regis who claimed to have encountered aliens.

Somewhere around page 108 (or, to be more precise, page 106), the author discusses his performance during a Skinner and Baddiel Unplanned live show. To Skinner, there are two kinds of show – shit or brilliant. And any show that isn’t brilliant is shit. He acknowledges that it’s a tough rule, but as a performer, he claims it keeps him on his toes.

It’s a rule that seems to apply equally when sitting in judgement of any of England’s sporting teams. We’re either world-beaters or world-class chumps. There’s no middle ground. If we’re not celebrating, we’re self-flagellating.

I can understand, therefore, why England’s footballers have been reluctant to get too excited despite what has been – so far – the smoothest World Cup qualification campaign the nation has ever faced. Six wins out of six will surely become seven out of seven when Andorra visit Wembley on Wednesday. That would leave England needing one win from their remaining three qualifiers to reach next year’s finals in South Africa.

Compare that to the jittery qualification runs of the last 25 years: the need to eke out nerve-jangling goalless draws in Poland (to reach Italia 90), in Italy (to reach France 98) and in Turkey (to reach Euro 2004); the need for a touch of David Beckham genius to draw at home to Greece and reach the 2002 World Cup; the Wembley defeat against Scotland which just failed to shut the passage to Euro 2000; the Wembley defeat against Croatia which shut the door on Euro 2008 and forced Steve McClaren into Dutch exile.

There’s been little of that this time. Sure, it took England 49 minutes to score against Andorra in Barcelona last September. And yes, Kazakhstan did manage to score a goal at Wembley the following month. (So let’s boo Ashley Cole, everyone! Booooo! There, do you feel better?) Yes, England needed a late goal from John Terry to beat Ukraine at Wembley in April. And it’s true that Kazakhstan nearly scored in the opening minutes in Almaty on Saturday evening, before England secured a comfortable 4-0 win.

You would have to be extermely churlish to find fault in the qualification campaign so far. But as there is no middle ground to occupy with England, we have to go to the other extreme. It’s Skinner’s theory in reverse: We’re not shit, so we must be brilliant.

And so, inevitably, the reports start to surface suggesting that England can win next summer’s World Cup. Today, for instance, there’s a newspaper article on Wayne Rooney, in which the Manchester United striker states, not unreasonably, that he would quite like to win the World Cup, preferably sooner rather than later.

“Wayne Rooney: England can win 2010 World Cup,” screams the headline.

Inevitably, there are also newspaper articles along the familar theme of: “This England coach we’ve got now is soooooo much better than the duffer we had before.”

In fairness, this time such a statement is at least true. But it’s still amusing to dip into the archives and find articles written in the late summer of 2006 insisting that Steve McClaren would be an improvement on Sven-Goran Eriksson.

(Mind you, I’m in no position to mock on this issue. In my journalistic career, I have written many an article insisting that a particular club’s current manager is a huge improvement on the last one, usually in the hope that it will smooth relations between myself and said club. Usually, the club just found something else to get upset with me about instead. C’est la vie.)

I’m just worried that, when the inevitable victory over Andorra comes this week, those of us who are English might start to get over-excited. I hope not, because the comedown if we fail to win the World Cup will, as usual, be huge. There will be talk of golden generations betrayed, of tactical ineptitude, of players bottling the big occasion. And it will all get rather silly.

If you want an example of such bathos, you only have to look at the way certain sections of the British media built up to last month’s Champions League final – when Manchester United’s win over Barcelona was seen as inevitable because, well, because the Premier League is the best in the world. And because Barcelona had only beaten Chelsea thanks to some referee from a country that Jamie Redknapp doesn’t know much about.

The simple fact is this. England have a very good international football team: better than that of most other countries. However, there are some other countries with international teams that are slightly better, such as Spain.

England’s team are, in my opinion, good enough to reach the quarter-finals of next summer’s World Cup, assuming they complete the job of qualifying. To get beyond that stage, they will need a little bit of luck and for two or three of their players to take their performances into the stratosphere. They will probably also need to win a penalty shoot-out at some stage. It can be done, lads.

That’s it. England are very good. They’re not brilliant. They’re not shit. They’re just very good. But very good might not be good enough for the critics in 12 months’ time.

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