Fifty years of hurt. To narrow half a century down to just one emotion -- hope, dejection, despair, indifference or indignation, to suggest a few -- would have been a tricky task for whoever decided to start counting the years of underachievement. In picking apart the anatomy of England's consistent failures since 1966, the year they won the World Cup, there are several recurring themes: penalty shootouts, qualification crises, refereeing injustice, agonising misses and England simply being outclassed.
Managers have come and gone, often cruelly. Generations of players have failed to deliver on their much-vaunted promises, but one man has borne witness to all of them. With two dozen major tournaments under his belt, with England and without, commentator Barry Davies is well placed to reflect on the hows, whys and oh-god-not-agains.
A tragic trajectory: England and penalty shootouts
Stadio delle Alpi, Turin. World Cup. July 4, 1990. 10.33 p.m. local time.
Already ashen and clearly wishing to be anywhere else than a World Cup semifinal shootout, Chris Waddle cuts the figure of a man who just wants it over and done with as quickly as possible. On paper, Stuart Pearce was the least likely Englishman to miss a penalty, but he's busy experiencing that sinking feeling after his effort slammed against the legs of Bodo Illgner.
Waddle's run-up, back swing and connection all scream, "This is going in Row Z." It would have made it, were it not for the running track snaking behind the goal.
Nothing in football is more oversimplified and overthought than the penalty kick, let alone one taken by an Englishman in the summer of an even-numbered year. It took until 1990 for its mind-melting and heartbreaking qualities to be forcibly encoded into the DNA of the England national team. That defeat was the birth, and perhaps the epitome, of their enduring penalty predicament. A capable and yet powerless goalkeeper (Peter Shilton guessed the right way every time but couldn't propel his 40-year-old self quickly enough) was faced with an impossibly ice-cool opponent (West Germany's four penalties were immaculate). The template was set. England were well on their way to a 29-23 aggregate defeat in penalty shootouts at major tournaments.
The deflating Euro '96 failure from 12 yards introduced a new feature: the meek, goalkeeper-friendly penalty by an otherwise robust performer. After five of the most authoritative penalties we're ever likely to see from an England team, Gareth Southgate found himself next in line at Wembley.
"As a commentator, and I'm sure as a fan as well, you just get a feeling about someone as they step up," Davies said. Southgate's lapse would be joined by similarly unconvincing efforts by Paul Ince and David Batty (France '98) and Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Jamie Carragher (Germany 2006) in uniting the nation in a hindsight-enhanced plea of "why didn't you just belt it?"
This was only England's second mental collapse in a penalty shootout, and the novelty was even extended to a quaint Pizza Hut commercial featuring Pearce, Waddle and Southgate. But novelty would give way to the sheer mundane inevitability of English penalty misery at a handful of crucial moments thereafter, no matter what they tried.
Davies wrote in his autobiography: "Hoddle once told me the secret of how to practise them. 'We work the goalkeepers by taking the penalties from 10 yards and then make the takers shoot from 14. So it looks a little easier when it happens for real.' What a good idea, I thought; I was therefore a bit surprised when I heard the story that, in 1998, England hadn't practised for what turned out to be the decisive moments."
The enduring, looming spectre of the shootout -- not a code ever likely to be cracked, it seems -- means that it has become part and parcel of every England manager's tournament agenda. After yet another failed test of nerve at Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson will again field the biennial questions from the press about whether his players will practise penalties amid the same tired pondering about whether the pressure can truly be replicated on the training ground. Perhaps that's the true cost of Waddle's wobble 26 years ago.
Before the first hurdle: England's unqualified failures
Wembley Stadium, London. World Cup qualifying. October 17, 1973. 8.59 p.m. local time.
"Hunter's got to make that ... and he's lost it!"
Thirty-six shots to Poland's two. 26 corners. Six efforts either against the woodwork or cleared off the Polish line, and a string of increasingly preposterous saves by goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski. If that wasn't football's dictionary definition of "it wasn't their night," a missed tackle by a man who went by the nickname of "Bites Yer Legs" (Norman Hunter) really was the cherry on top of England's humble pie.
With his lower limbs intact, Grzegorz Lato skipped down the left wing, drifted inside and laid the ball smoothly into Jan Domarski's unbroken stride, and there was time and space for one last humiliation as his well-struck but saveable shot skidded beneath England's No. 1 to make it 1-0.
"Shilton was textbook, but he turned the page too slowly," Davies recalled in his autobiography. Alan Clarke netted a penalty to make it 1-1 but England missed out on the World Cup and Poland would go on to be a consistent irritation to at least seven more qualification campaigns, as much of an English tradition as metatarsal fractures, makeshift left-wingers and James Milner.
"We'd always been at World Cups, there was just an expectation we would qualify," says Davies about that night, although he could easily be describing any other doomed England attempt. "And, in the end, they rather fell over each other."
Each decade that has passed since 1966 has had at least one iconic tournament taking place without England to make up the numbers. Their profligacy against Poland shut the door on the 1974 World Cup. The national stadium would chant, "What a load of rubbish," as a 0-0 draw with Greece helped extinguish any hopes of joining the Euro '84 party. A despairing Graham Taylor and his bleak rabble of a squad were immortalised in a TV documentary charting an occasionally slapstick attempt to be part of the USA '94 tournament. Most recently, Steve McClaren grimaced from beneath his umbrella as a Euro 2008-bound Croatia sunk an aquaplaning Scott Carson & Co. on a dreadful Wembley pitch.
Thanks in part to a bloated Euro 2016 finals format that welcomes almost half of UEFA's member nations, England strolled through a qualification process that was more like a procession this time. What does that mean for the championship itself? Expectations are low after two disjointed and dispiriting showings in a row in Brazil and Poland-Ukraine.
Cynically, there remains an unwavering sense that England habitually wilt when faced with their first serious opposition in a major tournament, which serves to reassert their natural place in the international football food chain.
By a whistle: England vs. the referees
Estadio da Luz, Lisbon. Euros. June 24, 2004. 9:33 p.m. local time.
After 90 energy-sapping, nerve-fraying minutes, England have a free-kick. Nothing stirs an English footballing heart than a chance to deliver the ball directly into the penalty area. David Beckham does so, inch-perfectly, and Sol Campbell rises highest to crash a header against the Portugal crossbar up into the Lisbon sky.
Swiss referee Urs Meier has no idea that he's a blow of a whistle and an overnight tabloid print run away from 16,000 angry emails written by Englishmen, none of whom wish to avail themselves of his domestic appliance retail business.
As the ball drops back under the bar and Campbell takes advantage of John Terry's assault on goalkeeper Ricardo to nod home, Meier is about to earn himself some notoriety. A UK supermarket would announce the offer for a free eye test for any Swiss nationals, and a budget airline cancelled its route to Zurich "as a mark of respect to our lads." England's perceived football injustices were already an obsession, but now they had become something worse: a commodity.
That disallowed goal, one that would surely have edged England through at Portugal's expense, was a cruel carbon copy for Campbell. Six summers previously, Kim Milton Nielsen denied him a goal vs. Argentina because Alan Shearer had committed a similar foul. Nielsen wouldn't receive the digital barrage of Meier in 2004, although he admitted with more than a little bewilderment that "letters addressed to 'World Cup referee, Denmark' got to me."
Where Meier was forced into hiding, Nielsen had a withering put-down that rather accurately tapped in to perennial English anxiety: "My message to those fans is to start from zero. There is Euro 2000 and another World Cup to look ahead to. You can't live in the past. Live for the future."
Are England the sorest losers in international football? "They're certainly the most practiced!" Davies exclaims.
Shot to the heart: England and the agonising miss
Wembley Stadium, London. Euros. June 26, 1996. 9.44 p.m. local time.
"Gascoigne!" cries Davies on the BBC, in his occasionally semi-operatic way. "Urgh, I don't be-lieve it." ITV's commentary duo of Brian Moore and Kevin Keegan let out a horrified "OH!" in perfect unison. Somewhere in the same Wembley gantry, Martin Tyler manages to form as much as a "GASCOI..." before his voice shatters into a thousand pieces.
Thanks to the enduring memories of the summer of '96 -- the "dentist's chair"; Skinner & Baddiel; England 4, Netherlands 1; Pearce's penalty redemption; Southgate's heartbreak -- the 98th minute of the hosts' European Championship semifinal with Germany is curiously buried.
For once, the spectre of the much-maligned Golden Goal didn't usher both sides into their respective shells as extra time began. Three minutes in, with England committing no fewer than six men forward, David Platt set Steve McManaman into offside trap-defying space down the right. Darren Anderton's outstretched, unmarked arms pleaded for a cut-back; when it came, the ball was a yard behind him. Anderton dug out a shot of hope rather than intent, but the ball pinged back off the post and back into the eternally grateful gloves of the initially stranded Andreas Kopke.
That ought to have been that: Germany would regroup in defence, England would consider that their one and only chance to snatch it and extra time would dissolve into a mutually agreed stay of execution.
Sweaty palms met anxious faces on Terry Venables' bench in a perfect tableau of footballing agony, but that wasn't to be the end. There was time for Stefan Kuntz to plant a disallowed header into the top corner at the other end -- "gooooodness me, the country's pulse must be beyond natural science!" said an incredulous Davies, breathing a long sigh on behalf of 24 million TV viewers -- before the ball unexpectedly broke to Teddy Sheringham in the German half.
Paul Gascoigne makes an instant beeline for the margins of the penalty area while McManaman offers himself for the safe, short pass. Sheringham ignores either option and clips a perfectly weighted ball to Alan Shearer, who has drifted out to the right. A Marco van Basten-esque volley seems a momentary temptation, but instead he guides the ball back across Kopke's six-yard box. As it bobbles through, the hesitating Gascoigne tears himself away from the clutches of Steffen Freund. The ball is surely reachable, but Gascoigne's lunge is too late. His left leg unfurls itself almost in slow-motion, missing its target by centimetres. The ball zips to safety while England's talisman lies face down on the goal line.
By that time, England had already established something of a fine tradition in agonising waywardness at crucial moments. Jeff Astle's sidefoot past a Brazilian post in 1970 had an eerie calm about it. Kevin Keegan, fighting back from a back injury and playing his last game in a national team shirt, contrived to turn a header wide of an open goal against Spain in 1982. In 1986, another overlooked moment: Substitute John Barnes got at the Argentinian defence -- "Go on, run at them," implored Davies on the BBC -- to plant a cross on to the head of Gary Lineker at the far post, barely a yard out.
Penalty shootouts have their own self-contained pain, but the instinctively dramatic aspect to an agonising miss is quite another matter.
Left standing still: England's refusal to learn new tricks
Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein, South Africa. World Cup. June 27, 2010. 5.26 p.m. local time.
Philipp Lahm sweeps the ball upfield, and a 21-year-old Mesut Ozil has 10 yards to make up on Gareth Barry. Within a few seconds, Ozil has the freedom of the final third and Barry, the embodiment of England's glaring inadequacy, is trailing in his wake. A simple pass into the galloping Thomas Muller is enough for Germany to score a fourth goal, the salt in a gaping wound.
The England side has received, and ignored, many footballing lessons in its history, but none was more chastening than the refresher course dished out by Joachim Low's dynamic Germans at the 2010 World Cup. Perfecting a quick, decisive and forward-facing brand over which Englishmen had always assumed copyright, Ozil and Muller reduced Fabio Capello's huffing-and-puffing team to rubble.
The blow to the English footballing ego was considerable. An ostensibly ruthless style of football -- constantly looking for a killer ball when a survival one is all that's needed -- is at the heart of both the traditional pre-tournament optimism and the subsequent post-exit soul-searching. Davies believes English football is almost a "victim of its own rich history," having codified the game in 1863 and then spent much of the next century-and-a-half trailing behind innovators from South America and central Europe. Even though it did all come together in 1966, he recalls a thoughtful recent observation by Glenn Hoddle: "We took a step back and admired ourselves... and stood still."
As well as lagging behind in football's tactical and technical evolutionary cycle, England have simply been undone by moments of savvy and nous. Ronaldo's wink to the Portugal bench in 2006, as a fully combusted Wayne Rooney was directed toward an early bath after stamping on Ricardo Carvalho, said a thousand words. Argentina's geometric art installation of a free kick in 1998 demonstrated some imagination under pressure of which England could only dream, as did Andrea Pirlo's impossibly cool Panenka over the head of a humbled Joe Hart at Euro 2012.
After all of those wake-up calls, are England in 2016 more aware of their shortcomings? Crucially, are they also more willing to learn and adopt their methods?
The latest manifestation of England's tendency to look back rather than forward is the selection dilemma surrounding Rooney. "I hope he goes with Vardy and Kane, the players in form," Davies says, "and not try to affect the balance of the team." The emergence of Kane and the arrogance of youth in Dele Alli, plus the blunt force of Vardy, suggests they could stamp their authority when it matters in France.
England have suffered from a chronic identity crisis since 1966, and at one of the lower points in the last half-century, after a dismal Euro '92, Graham Taylor perhaps said it best: "We have become trapped between our traditional game and the feeling that, at international level, we should play a more refined style."
That remains as true as ever for England. Struggling to move forward and still looking back over their shoulders, they remain 50 years inert.