From Sir Alex Ferguson to Allan Border, using sleights or insults for motivation is a common tactic, but rarely delivers the goods as England showed at Wembley

June 7, 2018. Shortly after watching England beat Sweden 2-0 to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, I witnessed a middle-aged woman, steaming with drink, stagger out of a provincial supermarket and nearly walk into a taxi. She steadied herself, pointed a finger at the driver and said, simply: “It’s comin’ ‘ome mate. You ‘eard!”

She was joking (I think, she was that hammered it was difficult to tell), but for a few weeks during the summer, as England exceeded expectations by not being an abject international embarrassment, the song she was quoting: “Football’s Coming Home,” first sung during Euro 96, once again became an unofficial national anthem.

The watching Croatians used it as motivation for the semi-final. Luka Modric accused England of “lacking respect” and five months down the line, in the build-up to this Sunday’s Nations League match at Wembley, Ivan Rakitic said the song helped fire them up.

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Yet the idea the song was triumphal is a myth. Manager Gareth Southgate pointed out it was “just a song” and the lyrics were full of realism and hope rather than triumphalism.

Croatia had manufactured a grievance, a tactic pioneered by the likes of Australian cricket captain Allan Border, who instructed Shane Warne to “pick a fight” if ever there was a lull in the action and, inevitably, Alex Ferguson, who famously needed someone to hate so he could stay motivated.

In the run in to the 2008-09 title, the Manchester United manager launched a calculated attack on his Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez.

“Arrogance is one thing,” Ferguson said, after their title rivals had beaten Blackburn 4-0. “You cannot forgive contempt, which is what he showed Sam Allardyce last weekend. When Liverpool scored their second goal he signaled as if the game was finished.”

All Benitez actually did was this:

But the British press corp, with barely a spine between them, lapped up the remarks and reported them as fact. The clip got the full Zapruder treatment and Blackburn boss Allardyce weighed in with the accusation that Benitez hadn’t even shared a drink with him after the game, as if not wanting to drink with “Big Sam” was somehow evidence of the mental instability that caused Liverpool’s challenge to implode (again).

In reality Liverpool’s form was barely affected. They took 16 points out of 18 following the Blackburn game, although they still finished four points short of United.

England cracked against Croatia to a lack of ideas

England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia was because the team simply ran out of energy and ideas in the second half. They were also, arguably, unlucky that Croatia’s extra-time winner wasn’t ruled out for dangerous play. The referee who allowed Mario Mandzukic’s goal to stand, Cuneyt Cakir, was the same referee who showed Luis Nani a straight red card for this to significantly greater outrage.

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The narrative that they blew it because of a song belongs in one of those sub-moronic NFL films, where a perceived slight turns into a key plot device, a classical music soundtrack builds the excitement, Bill Belichick yells: “Do your job! Do your job!” at his players and the Ed Harris voiceover cites this as evidence that Belichick is a genius.

On Sunday England came from behind to beat Croatia, cueing “absolute scenes” at Wembley.

The celebrations that greeted the final whistle are no doubt being stored by England’s rivals for use as a grievance in some some future tournament, but Kyle Walker put it into perspective, when he tweeted: “UEFA Nations League TM Group A4 winners. Still can’t believe it.”

He, too, was joking (I think). It doesn’t exactly make up for the once-in-a-generation disappointment of June but on the football field at least, England aren’t an abject international embarrassment. Let’s enjoy that while it lasts.

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