England's start to their South Africa 2010 campaign has been anything but pretty but the lesson from their past is that it is still too early to write off their prospects of making a telling impact on this FIFA World Cup™.
Fabio Capello's side have claimed only two points from their opening Group C fixtures against USA and Algeria and their display in the latter game on Friday was so underwhelming as to prompt one newspaper back home, the Independent, to describe it as "the nation's collective worst nightmare, a sleepwalking shambles."
Yet the fact is England have been here more than once before, as former Three Lions winger Chris Waddle can testify. He was a member of the squad that failed to score in their opening two outings at Mexico 1986 – picking up just a point – before Gary Lineker's hat-trick against Poland propelled them out of the group stage and on the path to the quarter-finals. By the time Italy 1990 came around, Waddle was a central figure in an England team that found themselves in an identical position after two games as they are now, having drawn with the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands. After beating Egypt 1-0, however, they eventually went all the way to the semi-finals and a penalty shoot-out defeat by West Germany.
Hence he is not writing off their prospects just yet, with Wednesday's must-win match with group leaders Slovenia to come. "It's typical England that they go to the final game," Waddle, working in South Africa for BBC Radio, told FIFA.com. "They've got a chance again because, no disrespect to Slovenia, they've scored three goals already but they do ship them. They are a nice side but they are not unbeatable, but we've got to find some confidence if we're going to win. It looks like the players are feeling the pressure and they've got to relax somehow. Whatever it takes they've got to get out on that pitch and relax and play like they play for their clubs.”
After England's 1-1 draw with the Irish in 1990, the Rome newspaper La Repubblica asked: "Is this all there is to England?" Friday's display against Algeria begged the same question and there is another notable parallel between then and now. Just as England's senior players in 1990 helped persuade Bobby Robson to switch to a sweeper system before their second game against the Dutch, so today's crop are pushing for Capello to field Wayne Rooney as a lone striker supported by Steven Gerrard and also to select Joe Cole on the left side of midfield. Monday's Daily Telegraph spoke of "the greatest challenge to an England manager's authority since Bryan Robson went to see Bobby Robson at Italia 90."
If England don't relax or play with confidence, unfortunately we could be going home
Rooney's frustration at his failure to make a mark on the tournament boiled over with his sarcastic remarks into a television camera as he left the pitch on Friday night. "Nice to see your own fans booing you," said the Manchester United forward, who later issued an apology. Waddle, who famously missed a penalty in England's shoot-out defeat, said: "We've got to somehow get the best out of Rooney and Gerrard and [Frank] Lampard who's had a quiet tournament as well. You've got to try and find the right balance – whether it is playing 4-5-1 with Rooney up front or playing 4-4-2 but whatever they play, they have to find some confidence. If they don't relax or play with confidence, unfortunately we could be going home."
Waddle's optimism is tempered by England's efforts so far. "The first game Gerrard was the pick of the bunch but as a team we haven't performed yet. With the players you want to perform, it is not happening. Against Holland [in the second game in 1990] we played well. It wasn't like we saw in these two games. I thought [the performance against] America was average and [Algeria] was very, very poor. How can you turn it around? When they've got nothing to lose it might suit them but Slovenia are not going to lie down."
Waddle is just hoping that, with the pressure on, England's key men rise to the occasion as in FIFA World Cups past. "If Slovenia get a draw they are through so the pressure is on England again. Somehow or another they have to forget about being England and the expectation and go out there and perform and get a result."