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England’s past failures had nothing to do with the quality of talent but the country’s players battling each other more than opponents – all that has changed

The rot set in some time in the late 1990s. Cliques began to form. Chelsea’s Graeme Le Saux referred to “the United table,” Gary Neville spoke about Wembley’s “bitter” fans and Robbie Fowler allegedly called Neville a “tosser”.

By 2008 Jamie Carragher had gone completely off-message. “I was never in love with playing for England,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I confess: defeats wearing an England shirt never hurt me in the same way as losing with my club.”

This was an odd admission for two reasons. First you’d have thought the pain of losing with Liverpool would have been dulled by familiarity, given that his time at Anfield was essentially 17 years of mediocrity and one night in Istanbul.

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Second it went against the script. Playing for England, according to the myth, was the pinnacle of any player’s career. Missing in a shoot-out scarred Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle and Gareth Southgate for life, but for Carragher missing against Portugal was apparently less of an ordeal than one of Liverpool’s periodic FA Cup humiliations at the hands of Barnsley, Reading or Havant & Waterlooville.

Other members of the unironically-named golden generation have subsequently confessed. In a BT Sport discussion last year Rio Ferdinand, Frank “Lamps” Lampard and Steven “Stevie G” Gerrard all admitted that their dedication to the England cause didn’t extend to sharing anything with each other that might hinder their club’s chances. In short, they all put club before country.

Prior to this summer, the last time England reached a semi-final was at Euro 96, when there were no obvious inter-club tensions in the squad. Two years later Glenn Hoddle’s team for France 98 was full of emerging talent from Liverpool and Manchester United, but at a time when some of their players (specifically Fowler and Neville) were starting to believe they needed to hate each other almost as much as their fans did.

England fans turning on their idols

Ironically England’s exit from that tournament was blamed on David Beckham, a man whose subsequent efforts for England against Greece in 2001 incensed his club manager Alex Ferguson, who felt he was trying so hard it would effect his club performances.

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When Beckham was sent off against Argentina in the second round, he was scapegoated by a certain type of fan: white, middle-aged males with unsuccessful lives. Never mind that the decision to send him off was a moment of stupefying mis-judgement from the Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen, who deemed Diego Simeone’s initial assault less of a foul than Beckham’s retaliatory kick.

For Beckham’s first game back in England, the 1998 Charity Shield, a handful of Arsenal fans produced this banner.

It’s worth pausing here for a moment to ponder the creative process that went into this. Were they sitting in a pub, talking about the Falklands, when one of them had a eureka moment? “I know, why don’t we replace the letters h, a and m, with the word ‘scum’?”

“Brilliant!”

Some United fans meanwhile, gave up completely, singing “Ar-gen-tina” in a bid to incite opposing fans in places like Leicester where they knew it would get a reaction.

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By 2006 some of England’s players played like hostages who happened to be chained to the same radiator and in 2010 Fabio Capello approached the World Cup in South Africa like R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. To Capello all players were equally worthless and so they proved.

Sunday’s Nations League win over Croatia was reportedly the first time England had come from behind to win a competitive match they were trailing after 75 minutes, in 601 attempts. You could argue Southgate, unlike his predecessors, is lucky to have a team predominantly drawn from Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, two sides who have no real rivalry, but this theory collapses as soon as you see Jesse Lingaard celebrating with John Stones.

Southgate’s real coup was to make England’s players (and fans) care as much about a Nations League match as they did about Euro 96. And to make them play for each other in a way Gerrard, Lampard, Rio and “Carra” never did.

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