The creeping realisation of what England actually are 3

The tumbleweed blew around the carpark, the wind howled through the empty concourses and the turnstiles stood eerily still…

Okay, so maybe the attendance at England against Norway wasn’t quite that sparse and maybe 40,000 watching supporters doesn’t quite constitute a ghost town, but Wembley felt as cavernous and despondent as it has for decades last night and something in the water of English football seems to be changing for the worse.

The first international of the new season always has this feel to it, the fans’ resentment at seeing their newly-returned Premier League take away for two weeks always creates a certain resentment.  This wasn’t just a frustration, though, and nor was it a garden-variety sulk about an international break; England are rejecting England.

The national team ordinarily exists in a swirl of hype and failure at its tournaments has nearly always been explained away by faux-injustice or outside interference.  Not this time though; there’s no hard-luck story from Brazil, only an unusual acceptance of where England actually are within the hierarchy.  Talk of new cycles or eras is redundant and the fans appear finally wise to the confidence tricks the team has played on them before.  Nobody expects anything whatsoever from this England team.

How very unlike us.

England have become non-competitive at a really inopportune moment.  Compared to ten or twenty years ago, the average fan’s overall awareness of the game is more complete.  The Premier League’s vice-like grip on this country’s footballing attention is as firm as ever, but the translucent light within which the competition used to dwell has faded.  English clubs have become progressively less prominent in both European competitions and it has become obvious to all but the most hard-headed that this domestic league owes its status entirely to foreign players.  That may not be a new reality, but it’s one the public is finally catching up with: a strong Premier League doesn’t necessarily facilitate a competitive England side.

There’s another force at work here, though, and that’s the growing awareness of other leagues.  Sky Sports have been showing Spanish football for many years now, but the entry of ESPN and then BT Sport into the broadcasting market has diversified the output.  On any given weekend a viewer can see as many games from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and now Holland as he or she can from the Premier League.  Without trying to suggest that any of those competitions rival English football in their ability to attract a British-based audience, their visibility has certainly broadened the generic supporter’s viewing habits.

The by-product is obvious: the marketing rhetoric that used to accompany the Premier League is no longer swallowed whole and it’s digested in a far more cynical way.  The ‘best league in the world’ moniker which Sky artificially bestowed on the competition now draws as many rolled-eyes as it does nods of agreement.  It’s like breaking free from the clutches of a cult: the provision of choice stops people from simply accepting what they’re told.

As ridiculous as it sounds in retrospect, our perception of the Premier League facilitated the reputation of the England team for many years.  It was assumed by an unhealthy majority that just because a player was prominent on Saturdays and Sundays, he should also thrive on international Tuesdays and Wednesdays - and if he didn’t, it was because of unfavourable circumstances of one form or another.   If Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard or Wayne Rooney were the poster-children of ‘the best league in the world’ and they were also lining-up alongside each other in the England team, how could the national side fail?

Some will contest that now and some will try to deflect those accusations of naivety, but that attitude was prevalent for a long time and it was responsible for a substantial percentage of the expectation that has surrounded England over the last twenty years.

When fans watched England stumble past Norway last night, they didn’t just put it down to an off-night or an uncharacteristically resilient opponent, they started making comparisons.  Rather than blindly accepting that Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere will eventually measure up to their domestic profile, they’re asking why this country isn’t producing a Xavi Hernandez or an Andrea Pirlo. Instead of assuming that high-paced, intense football will always prevail, even supporters tattooed with the cross of St George are bemoaning the absence of a coherent tactical system and a set of players who can adequately retain possession.

The audience, gradually, is getting smarter and the more context they’re able to place England within, the more their frustration with the side is going to grow.  Indifference is an obvious symptom of that process.  There’s no anger, there are no bilious calls to phone-ins or venomous social media posts, there’s just a fog of apathy.

Those empty seats at Wembley may have been due to hefty ticket-prices and post-World Cup ennui, but the facetiousness which now accompanies almost everything England do is the product of something far less short-term and this creeping realisation threatens to cast the side in an unflattering light for years to come.