There was a strong sense of deja vu as England's U21s crashed out of the European Championships. How many times have we been here? Many have long since lost count of England's disappointments. The 3-1 defeat to Italy condemned England to their third consecutive group stage exit in the European Championships. Gareth Southgate's team also suffered the ultimate humiliation of finishing bottom of the group with a minus two goal difference.
There was such opportunism before this tournament. The general conscientious was that England were going to the Euros with one of their strongest teams in years. However, not for the first time, it has gone horribly wrong. Naturally the finger will be pointed at the manager, but maybe it's time to accept that we just aren't good enough. At U21 and senior level we've had some fine players but they simply do not perform for their country.
Such a decline, for the nation that gave the world the game, is painful. No matter how many times we face disappointment the next one still hurts. That is because we all cling to the hope that one day we will do it, that this year will be our year.
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This is what makes each group stage exit and each penalty shootout heartache all the more devastating. We refuse to accept that we are not good enough, live in hope only to be disappointed time after time. Perhaps it is time to accept that England as a footballing nation is falling further and further behind. Our teams may perform well in qualification campaigns but the reality is that the future looks bleak for the England national team and there can be no hiding it this time.
LACK OF PRIDE
The fact that England's 1966 World Cup triumph still weighs so heavily on the shoulders of the current generation shows how much England have underachieved over the last 49 years. We've had good teams over that time period, with some of the finest players to ever play the game but ultimately they have all failed to emulate the heroes of 66. However there was a time when England fans could at least be proud in defeat.
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The 1990 World Cup saw England reach the semi-finals, the furthest they have been since they last won it. That night in Turin will live long in the memories of England fans, this was a night when we could be proud of our national team. England were the better team for much of the game but West Germany took the lead in the 60th minute. However England were not phased by this and forced an equaliser through Gary Lineker. The defining moment of that semi-final came in the 99th minute of extra-time when Paul Gascoigne picked up his second yellow card of the tournament, ruling him out of the World Cup final if England made it. The image of Gazza crying on the pitch, epitomises the pride that England's fans and players had that night. This was a young man who genuinely cared about football more than his pay packet. It is passion like this that you will rarely see in this era.
England would go on to lose the game 4-3 on penalties with Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missing. England were out, but this was no humiliation this was a heroic exit. The nation could be proud of how the team had performed that night. Eleven players had given there are all and lost, that's football. Losing is acceptable, but it's how you do it that really matters. The Italia 90 team could walk off that pitch with their heads held high, even in defeat. However when this current crop of players walk off the field they are too often doing so in humiliation. Too many of our players show a lack of passion and they are too willing to accept defeat.
We don't demand a team that wins the World Cup, we want one that comes home with it's dignity intact. The team is crying out for players who share the passion and pride of the fans. You look at the current generation and think, how many of them really care about their country? The reality is that most are probably more concerned with the financial gain they get from playing the game.
FAILINGS AT YOUTH LEVEL
While our senior team is consistently failing at major tournaments it is also clear that our youth system in this country is simply not working as it should do. Is the U21s team not supposed to supply players for the senior team? That is the purpose of the U21s, to give players experience of international football so they can go on to have successful careers with the senior team. However our system is so flawed that it's almost laughable.
Germany have displayed the importance of the U21s. Six of the players who started the 2009 European U21 Championships Final went on to feature for the victorious Germany team at last summer's World Cup. England fans may not like to admit it, but we should look at Germany as a footballing nation and aspire to be more like them. They have displayed the value of the U21 team and showed that it can be successfully used as a breeding ground.
Too many of our U21s are not making the jump to the senior team. Some will say they are not good enough, however the reality is that there are few players in the current senior team who perform consistently for their country, so why not give the youngsters a chance? What is strikingly clear is that the U21 set up is failing as a supply route to the senior team and if it's not doing this then what is the point of having it?
Of the eleven that started the European Championship final in 2009 only four have won caps for the senior team. Theo Walcott is the only player from those four who features regularly for his country. This perfectly sums up our current situation. In comparison ten of Germany's starting eleven have gone on to win caps at senior international level. You look at the class of 2015 and wonder, how many of those players are ever going to make it?
While the main responsibility of the U21s should be to produce players for the senior team, success at tournament level would give the country a huge boost. The nation needs to feel proud of their football again and an U21 tournament victory would go a long way to doing this. It would at least give England fans a reason to be optimistic about the future. Sadly, our U21s are performing as bad as the seniors at tournament level, because time after time we shoot ourselves in the foot. The likes of Jack Wilshire, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling could have gone to the current tournament but instead we decide that they are better of playing in friendlies and qualifiers against obscure nations we've barely even heard of.
It's high time we took our our best players to these tournaments, so we can stand a chance of winning. The argument is that you have to stay loyal to the players that got you there, but the truth is loyalty will only get you so far in football. If we had taken some of our more experienced players then we could have put up more of a fight at the tournament, who know we might even have won it. Imagine the boost that would have given us as a footballing nation moving forward.
The players should take much of the blame for England's disappointments. However you do also need to look at the people in charge of our teams. Gareth Southgate's team selections in the Euros have been questionable, to leave players with Premier League experience such as Ward-Prowse and Loftus-Cheek on the bench in big games is certainly a strange call. Southgate has again talked about being 'loyal' to players when the truth is our best players should be in the starting eleven.
An unwillingness to make bold decisions was displayed during this tournament, especially in the defeat to Italy. Neither Harry Kane or Danny Ings performed to the best of their ability but they both played the full 90 minutes. Consider that England had Benik Afobe on the bench, a striker who scored 32 goals last season. Fair enough the Wolves forward has been playing in a lower division but throwing on a striker would have been a positive move nonetheless. It's frustrating when we take players to tournaments only to leave them on the bench.
Things are little better at the top. Roy Hodgson's team are unbeaten in qualification for Euro 2016 but we haven't progressed since last year's World Cup, if anything we have gone backwards. An unbeaten record in qualification is positive, but let's not forget we've been here before. It's an endless cycle with England play well in qualification, get knocked out, repeat. The only way we are going to escape this cycle is if we have a manger who will make the tough decisions and doesn't just play to the media.
Although England have been successful since the World Cup, some of the managerial decisions made by the man in charge have been frustrating. Late last year he called up Saido Berahino to the England squad only to leave him on the bench in both games. Earlier this month he did the same to 18 goal Charlie Austin. This is the most annoying thing about the current manager, he still doesn't give enough players a chance. Fair enough, he's handed debuts to the likes of Jamie Vardy, but there is still at definite reluctance there, almost a fear of the unknown.
Too often players from the big clubs get special treatment. Players shouldn't be selected on the basis of who they play for at club level, they should be picked based on ability. It's becoming increasingly apparent that good players are missing out because inferior players who play for bigger clubs are getting the nod ahead of them. This is wrong on every level. Take Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne, widely regarded as two of the best full-backs in the country however they cannot hold down a regular spot in the England team. The question is why? If Hodgson was truly selecting his teams based on ability then the likes of Kieran Gibbs and Phil Jones would not be starting ahead of the Southampton pair. I wonder how much game time Clyne and Bertrand would be getting if they played for Liverpool or Manchester United.
We are in desperate need for a manager who thinks outside the box. The cautiousness and sometimes ignorance of the Hodgson era is dragging England down quickly. He should be allowed to continue until the Euros next year but after that tournament the FA really need to consider whether he's what's best for England long-term. Unless we have a miraculous turn around in fortune during that tournament, then the answer will surely be no. There is no manager out there who can turn England into world beaters over night, but there must surely be someone who will make the kinds of bold decisions that the team is in desperate need of.