England's team: a national parable

The best-selling sports video in England at the moment is titled "Do I Not Like That." The sports section of The Independent on Sunday newspaper contains a column called "Do I Not Like That." On t.v. a few weeks ago, the hosts of a satirical soccer program wore t-shirts bearing the phrase "Do I Not Like That." A recent c.d. release on the hip Too Pure label is titled "Pop (Do We Not Like That?)." In a t.v. advertisement for the yellow pages, a middle-aged, slightly nerdish man exclaims, "Do I not like orange!" when offered a choice of colors for the goods he wants to order. The nerdish man is Graham Taylor, until recently the coach of England's national soccer team, and it is he who has single-handedly popularized this peculiar locution.

We first heard it during a devastating fly-on-the-wall T.V. documentary about England's dismal attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. (It is this documentary, retitled and extended, that has proved so popular on video.) England is playing Poland in a vital qualifying match in Katowice, and an English defender makes a crucial mistake; Taylor only just has time to utter his immortal line before Poland scores one of the goals that prevented England from taking part in the Cup. For some reason, it was all anybody could talk about the next day; perhaps the program itself was so bewildering, and so ineffably depressing (our failure to qualify for the Cup finals inspired considerable national introspection), that a weird and clumsy piece of phrasemaking offered us something to cling on to.

Taylor owes much of his career to Elton John, who for some years was the owner of Watford, his hometown team in the North London suburbs. Watford was a moribund minor league club when John bought it; he appointed Taylor, then enjoying some modest success with another lower-division team, almost as soon as he took over. With John's money and Taylor's coaching Watford rose through the divisions of the English football league, in 1983 finishing as high as third in the First Division, before John bailed out and Taylor moved on to Aston Villa. Taylor did O.K. there, too; he once again took a team that was struggling in the Second Division and coaxed it into the First, where it finished as championship runner-up in 1990.

Taylor's detractors--who at presstime include everybody in England, with the possible exception of Mrs. Taylor (although, come to think of it, she has been conspicuously quiet)--will point out that he was always the wrong man for the job of national coach, that his talent was best exhibited when he had to make the best of a bad job. Nobody was surprised by the appointment, however. Taylor's rivals were all too colorful, too flashy, too uncontrollable for a position that is regarded by the English soccer establishment as essentially diplomatic in character. In any case, the three best coaches in English soccer are Scottish.

If our football team had been going through one of its frequent periods of apparently terminal decline, Taylor might have been just the ticket, especially in the short term. But, in fact, England was playing its best football in twenty years: in the 1990 World Cup we finished fourth, and we were desperately unlucky to lose on a penalty shoot-out to West Germany in a thrilling semifinal. Taylor soon put a stop to all that, however. One of his first acts as coach was to drop midfielder Paul Gascoigne, British soccer's first authentic genius since George Best, and replace him with Aston Villa's Gordon Cowans, an aging journeyman who never played for England again. And that was just the beginning: tactics were changed with bewildering frequency, players were played out of position and Taylor stuck with old favorites from his former teams for much too long.

Within months the tabloid press started slaughtering him. When England lost badly to an average Swedish team in the 1992 European Championship, The Sun, Britain's most popular newspaper, printed the headline "SWEDES 2 TURNIPS 1"; the accompanying illustration depicted Taylor's face superimposed over the relevant root vegetable. Another catastrophic loss, to the United States in a friendly match last summer, sent newspapers into an apoplexy of rage and bile--one printed an old-fashioned Western "WANTED" poster, showing a cartoon of Taylor riddled with bullets. It was vicious stuff, and Taylor soon began to feel the strain: after one game he was reduced to quoting Buddy Holly songs to explain his mood.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, Taylor started to resemble Prime Minister John Major. A nerdish man, with no qualifications for the big job, promoted above his station through a fortuitous and probably unrepeatable set of circumstances. Where have we heard that before? Frequently, as they each became more and more beleaguered, the two men would appear on the front pages together, the one apparently imitating the plight of the other, although it was difficult to tell who was deeper in the mire. And it is not too fanciful to suggest that many of Major's difficulties come from the same source as Taylor's: both share a deep suspicion of ideas emanating from Europe.

Taylor is what is known here as a "long-ball" man. He believes that the best way to play football is the traditional English way: namely, the defenders and the midfielders kick the ball very hard into the air, and a forward chases after it. In truth, it is not a terribly sophisticated tactic, and none of the other soccer nations plays this way anymore; perhaps not entirely coincidentally, they qualify for tournaments--hell, sometimes they even win the things. (England has failed to qualify for three of the last six World Cups, and it hasn't won anything for nearly thirty years.) Taylor doesn't see it that way, however, and neither did the ancient, reactionary clowns at the Football Association who appointed him. There was a much better candidate for the job, Terry Venables, a man with European experience and a reputation as a sophisticated tactician, but his ideas (and, to be fair, a number of questionable business dealings) were too much for English football's governing body. You could exchange the whole of the Football Association for the whole of the Conservative government, and it would take years before anybody noticed.

When England's attempt to get to the '94 Cup finally ground to a catastrophic halt (we even managed to go a goal down to the tiny Republic of San Marino), Taylor resigned, and the nation celebrated. Venables was given the job, and a couple of weeks ago his new team beat Greece, one of the qualifiers for usa '94, 5-0; the Greek coach observed that if England were playing in the World Cup, we would be one of the favorites. Meanwhile, we have returned to what we do best: celebrating failure. What other nation would have rushed out to buy a video showing in grisly detail how its team failed ignominiously? After four years as a turnip, Taylor is now a cult figure, a metaphor for all the cheerful, clueless, jingoistic know-nothings who characterize England. Maybe there is hope for John Major yet.

Nick Hornby is the author of Fever Pitch: A Fan's Life (Penguin).