Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Update: Between writing and posting this the English FA seem to have announced that a 2013 home international tournament would be a one off to celebrate their 150th anniversary. Ah, well. Still think I'm right.

And so the home internationals might be on the verge of a return thanks to the money of Vauxhall. I'm tempted to run naked down Sauchiehall Street carrying a banner proclaiming this as nothing less than the second coming of British football.

Not because I have a particular emotional attachment to the home internationals. I don't. But the news has once again allowed Henry Winter to unleash the righteous indignation that he so enjoys. And Henry's indignation is a guaranteed way of awakening my inner contrariness.

Henry's argument is that the home internationals will send English football back to the dark ages. He's like the lady of the manor refusing to let her son play with the servant's children lest their bad manners rub off on him.

England won the World Cup when the home internationals were in full flow. English clubs - their team's stuffed full of English players - dominated the European Cup when the home internationals were played.

Indeed England's World Cup record is probably pretty much the same with or without the home internationals, that glorious Wembley day in 19-whatever aside. Whatever problems English footballers have in international competitions, the quality of their friendly opponents is not to blame.

The aesthetics of Ghana might appeal to Henry Winter, as if by some miracle of footballing osmosis the skill of the opposition will rub off on England, but does it thrill the fan? With Vauxhall leading the marketing charge, with Sky on board, I would imagine a home international tournament in 2013 sparking quite a bit of interest. When money talks, the FA listen.

Still, if the tournament is to be resurrected the arrogance of people like Henry will at least crank up the atmosphere.

And how should we Scots feel about these developments?

Can I admit to a certain ambivalence? I'm too young to remember the home internationals. What I think I have is a collective memory, a shared nostalgia, that we all have about a time when our football was, simply, better. The black and white footage, moving to colour in the age of Dalglish, of Scotland beating England fuels that memory.

It might also be misleading. Scottish football's miraculous purple patch in international football, five tournaments in 12 years from 1986, came after the home internationals had fallen by the wayside. If we are to accept Henry Winter's spurious argument then Vauxhall's idea is likely to harm Scotland more than our illustrious neighbours down south.

And maybe that is the case. Our habit, our curse perhaps, is to define ourselves too often not by our own achievements but by how we compare to our neighbours. A ruinous attitude, as many a little brother will tell you. Will the return of the home internationals not simply pander to that insularity, give rise to the feeling that it's alright to lose in the Czech Republic without playing a striker as long as we beat England at Hampden?

I don't think so. Football has changed. The home internationals will not return as an annual slogfest, I would imagine they will be played every two years at most. They'll offer the fans something that normal friendlies don't. Crucially, and this point seems to have not been lost on the English FA even as it sailed over Henry Winter's beautifully coiffured head, they will offer a decent simulation of a competitive tournament.

What have England got to gain from playing against Wales? Let's accept the snobbish premise of that question and look at how England often huff and puff against "lesser" nations in competitive internationals. Will they not learn more about coping with those situations against Wales in Cardiff than they would in a friendly against Ghana where a half empty Wembley is treated to the farcial sight of both managers making half a dozen changes?

I was at Hampden in 1999 when Paul Scholes proved too much for Scotland in the first-leg of the Euro 2000 qualifier play-off. The result was a disappointment but the day, from standing outside an off-licence drinking a can of lager and realising that the besuited man with the carry out next to me was Alex Totten to the atmosphere in the stadium, was memorable. There was a tangible reward at stake that day but I'm guessing these are games that don't need much to give them an edge.

Let's not kid ourselves that the reawakening of the home internationals is about anything other than money, cooked up in a marketing department and likely to make the already well-healed even richer.

But I can see benefits for all four home nations and their players that go beyond the spoils of a lucrative TV deal. A semi-regular home international tournament could also help kindle more interest in international football in Britain, something we badly need. Reimagined for the modern era this most traditional of football tournaments might just be a force for good in our game. Bring it on.

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