Hayley Wheeler: Should England have entered the Carling Nations Cup?
As the development of football gathered pace in the early 1880's the British Home Championships were created. It became the world's first ever international competition, fought out by the four home nations of the UK; England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Reminiscing on the old contest will evoke fond memories for some; the competitive nature of the friendly, and often bitter (England v Scotland) rivalries, the chance to see the national team do battle on a more regular occurrence, and the feeling that the UK was some sort of footballing private members club - the world's best need not apply. You won't get in.
Yet for others, the extinction of the famous cup is merely a relief. "Too much football and not enough time", is an opinion shared by many. In 1984 the demise of the historic competition was complete. As the rules and challenges of the competition advanced over the century of its existence, so did football on the global stage.
The World cup and European Championships came to the fore and began to overshadow the Home Internationals. Crowds began to diminish, with the exception of England v Scotland matches, and fixtures became too congested. Hooliganism also became a massive issue and civil unrest in Northern Ireland led to the 1980–81 competition being abandoned.
Since the championships came to an end, there have been a number of proposals to haul the competition from the abyss. Unsurprisingly, the English FA have been reluctant to champion the resurrection of the competition, with the Welsh, Scottish and Irish FAs all keen for it to make a come-back.
The Carling Nations Cup has now been established and will be contested by Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are many reasons to oppose the idea of England joining the Nations Cup, beginning with the already jam-packed fixtures from the Premier League, Carling Cup, FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and every other year, the European Championships or World Cup. Where on earth would the Home Internationals feature in all this?
Critics of the already demanding football season are calling for a winter break, not extra tournaments to add to the congestion. In the days of yore when the competition was an annual occurrence, it was crammed into the end of the domestic season. Nowadays, footballers are exhausted by then, and it's enough of a headache for the FA and the clubs to feature international qualifying and friendly matches.
In the inevitable World Cup and European Championships failure, the first scapegoat is, as always, the manager, before the FA receives the finger pointing treatment for not allowing the players adequate rest during the gruelling season. Could the FA justify the added games?
With all due respect - especially given England's futile efforts for many years - they desperately need to be testing themselves against the world's best; Spain, France, Argentina, Italy and Holland - not Wales, Scotland and Ireland. If England were to defeat the three home nations, it means very little - other than to give the long suffering England fans something to cheer about. Forget going on to conquer the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.
If we are to find any spare dates in the diary we need to prioritise the fixtures to maximise England's exposure to the highest possible standard of football. I think it is fair to say that the majority of teams around the world, at club and international level, raise their game against stronger opposition - great preparation for the real deal, for battles that really matter.
But what a pessimistic view that is. How often does the England manager say he is going to freshen up the team by bringing in some promising youngsters and yet when an important qualifier comes around we stick to our old regulars? Is it too much of a risk to play young, untried players in such important matches? I would say so.
Friendly games with less pressure are the perfect stage for debutants to make their mark and for the manager to experiment. However, friendlies are all well and good for a little experimenting, but when do we get to see the same team playing consistently together - long enough that will give them time to settle and gel. Rarely. We throw them into a competitive situation and expect results.
Perhaps the new Carling Nations Cup would be the perfect opportunity to have a team playing together in a competitive environment - with a small degree of experimentation – but ultimately solidifying a team ready for the major international championships. Clubs play pre-season tournaments for this very reason so perhaps international football must move with the times and adapt meet the demands and standards expected of them.
Who's to say that England actually are any better than Wales, Scotland or Ireland and could even defeat them? What more have we achieved than them other than qualifying for World Cups and sometimes the European Championshsips? As individuals England have a squad full of world class players, but as a collective unit they fall desperately short of the mark and England could do with losing their air of arrogance that surrounds them and eat a little Carling Nations Cup humble pie!
Let's face it, it would be nice for the fans to have something to cheer about, and if England could conquer the home nations it would give everyone a great confidence boost. But would players be available for the extra tournament?
The club versus country debate has become increasingly concerning. For the players, representing their country is the ultimate privilege. But the clubs are more frequently withdrawing their players for minor injuries or trivial reasons. Fabio Capello and Under-21 boss Stuart Pearce have both been hampered by withdrawals from this week's friendly matches, whether it is through the clubs cautious attitude or fatigue induced injuries.
I have always felt immense pride when players that I support get a call up to the national team - they become ambassadors for our clubs and I hope to see them shine as they do week in week out. However, I also fear that our players could become casualties of international football and unavailable for club duty.
When the clubs most valuable assets are at risk you can understand their apprehension. As Tottenham made its maiden voyage into the Champions league, two of their key players - Michael Dawson and Jermain Defoe picked up serious injuries, ruling them out for around 3 months and consequently missing out on what was the club's most important part of their calendar. Likewise for Arsenals Theo Walcott and Robin Van Persie.
Club football seems to have taken over from international football in terms of importance. As Stuart Pearce quite rightly pointed out; "If the National team underachieves there’s a clamour from 60 million people. If Manchester United doesn't win the title this year, there won't be a clamour of 60 million people".
So why do we prioritise club football? Is it because it has now become a financial circus - Russian Billionaires and Sheiks pouring hundreds of millions into the game instilling such intense fear into mangers to succeed they are willing to sacrifice their players international opportunities for the sake of the club. Or perhaps the premier league ought to take more responsibility in organising international breaks into the calendar at more convenient times and allow clubs to feel more comfortable at releasing their prized assets for international duty.
One thing is for sure, England will never realise their potential if international duties are thought of as a chore and play second fiddle to club affairs.
By Hayley Wheeler
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