After you, I insist

England's apologetic performance on the pitch could just be in keeping with our history, says Gary Day

July 8, 2010

There are many theories about why England are out of the World Cup. One is that they're crap. My own is that they suffer from a surfeit of politeness. As soon as they got the ball and saw a German running towards them, they said, "Oh, I'm sorry old chap, did you want it? Here you are then." And when the Germans headed towards the goal there were cries of "Make way there! This chap's trying to shoot for goodness' sake. Oh, I say. Well done, sir! Jolly good shot." And was it me, or did Matthew Upson apologise when he scored?

This is a very English trait. Or at least it used to be. You don't hear the phrase "manners maketh man" any more. So perhaps there is another reason for England's unwatchable awfulness as soon as they are required to play football instead of advertise Pringles. A commentator in one of last week's newspapers suggested that, unlike other teams, the English have no sense of national identity and that's why they lack direction on the pitch.

It's an interesting thesis. All the same, a strong sense of national identity didn't stop France and Italy from coming home early. In fact, it may have contributed to their exit from the competition. They played badly because they couldn't bear to be away from home.

Still, the state of English football is so dire that we should be prepared to consider any solution, even if that means dressing the team as St George and the opposition as dragons. Or if that is a little extreme, then Fabio should make his overpaid, underperforming squad watch some television. He could start with The Secrets of Westminster Abbey: A Time Team Special (Channel 4, Monday 28 June, 8pm). The title raised all kinds of expectations. Just like those experts who said England could win the World Cup or Andy Murray could win Wimbledon.

What possible secrets could the Abbey hold? The key to sporting success? How to reduce the deficit without destroying people's lives? We edged forward on our seats. The camera took us into the inner sanctum. We held our breath. The moment of unveiling had come. At first it was difficult to make out the shape before us. But gradually a small man emerged from the shadows to tell us that the Abbey was possibly Britain's most historic building. Was this the secret? That for all these years it had been the hiding place of Tony Robinson?

But not just me, Tony might have added modestly. Here you could also find the bones of Edward the Confessor, whose name was an improvement on that of his father Ethelred the Unready. With titles like that handed down the generations, it's no wonder that English stars fail to shine. And that's without taking into account Edward's tendency to duck difficult issues by delegating his power and taking refuge in his beloved minster.

Joanna Huntington from the University of Lincoln was on hand to tell us about this pale-skinned king. But the enormous crucifix round her neck suggested that she knew things about Tony that were hidden from the rest of us. She kept it pointed firmly at him as she described how Edward cured "a particularly unfortunate lumpy lady", a phrase worthy of being engraved on stone.

No less thought-provoking were some inlaid letters in the recently uncovered Cosmati pavement in front of the High Altar. "They seem to spell a message from another time that we can't read," sighed Tony. An expert, Professor Lindy Grant, was brought in to enlighten us. "It's about the end of time," she said, cheerfully. The central piece was beautiful, a rose dissolving in milk.

An X-ray of a portrait of Elizabeth showed a very different face from the one we can see with the naked eye. Older, heavier, her light going out. Yet this was the woman whose words steeled the English army to resist the Armada. If only she could have given a team talk to the England players as they prepared to face Germany.

Would Fabio's lads be bored by all this? They should take note. Tony concluded by telling us that the Abbey was a monument to the English love of ceremony and tradition, of order and continuity. An observation that may explain England's failure to win anything, ever.

Never mind, we've got Cliff Richard to cheer us up (An Audience with Cliff Richard (ITV3, Wednesday 30 June, 8pm). He's old enough to have sung at Edward's coronation. And both share what Joanna, with another of her eccentric expressions, called "increasing virginity". Various celebrities paid Cliff court, which he graciously accepted. Maybe Fabio should try him at the centre of the English defence. It's hard to see how any forward could keep possession of the ball or indeed himself once Cliff belts out a chorus of Bachelor Boy.

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