Everton and England: A Complicated Relationship

Many Blues fans have an increasingly indifferent attitude towards the England team, and not just because the media circus that surrounds it and the uninspiring management of Roy Hodgson. There's a history behind this ambivalence and there's more to it than just football.

The Italia '90 World Cup was something of a watershed in the history of the English game, if not wholly in a purely footballing sense, certainly in terms of the game's organisation and cultural standing. Emerging from a decade marred by hooliganism and stadium disasters that culminated in the carnage at Hillsborough in 1989, a team inspired by the leadership of Bobby Robson, the goals of Gary Lineker and the heart of Paul Gascoigne enjoyed a plucky run that ended in heroic failure against Germany in the semi-finals.

Enthusiasm for England and the game in general reached unprecedented highs on the back of that shared national experience, kickstarting a BSkyB-fuelled revolution that ushered in the Premier League and transformed the domestic game from a working-class obsession into a media-driven, mass-appeal millionnaire's playground.

While the Premier League behemoth continues its inexorable growth, hoovering up ever-increasing sums in broadcast revenue as the globe's most popular footballing product, the England national team is at another low ebb thanks to successive failures at the World Cup. Humiliation at the hands of Germany at the World Cup in South Africa four years ago was followed by yet more penalty-shootout agony at Euro2012 after a lacklustre quarter-final draw with Italy and the ignominy of England's failure to get out of the group stage for the first time under the current format in Brazil this year.

Whether or not the summer of 2014 proves to be the nadir for the time being, there is no question that interest in the national team has waned. Just 40,000 showed up for the recent friendly with Norway, far below what the levels, no doubt, that the Football Association would need as it seeks to pay off its huge investment in the new Wembley Stadium. The growing realisation that England have a long way to go to once again become major force in the world game, the unimaginative football served up by Roy Hodgson's team in Brazil this past summer, and the widening empathy gap between the country's wealthy stars and the people who support them have combined perhaps to drive people away from the Three Lions and, very probably, further into the arms of the clubs they support.

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Anecdotal evidence certainly seems to suggest that the nation's fans would opt for club over country every time and nowhere does that feeling feel more apparent than among Evertonians, many of whose feelings towards England go beyond mere Blue preference and run the gamut from disinterest and indifference to outright disdain for whole "Ingerlund" notion. It's part tribal, part social, part political and partly down to the Toffees' experience when it comes to selection and deployment of our players by the national team setup.

Being a port city, with the multitude of nationalities and cultures that became the ingredients for the Scouse makeup, it's unique accent, and its geographic position on the edge of the country, Liverpudlians as general rule have always felt like "outsiders" in England, with many of its residents feeling like they have more in common with Belfast, Glasgow or Dublin than London and the southeast.

Into that nationalistic gap was driven the wedge of socio-economic anger and tension brought on by the collapse of the local economy in the 1970s and 1980s and the Thatcher administration's battle with the Militant Tendency that threatened to cut Liverpool off entirely from the country and leave it, as one government official was quoted as saying, to "managed decline." If the people of Merseyside didn't feel disconnected from England before, many of them certainly did then as resentment mounted towards decision-makers in London from whom money needed to invest in and rebuild the city was not forthcoming.

The Hillsborough Disaster and the subsequent treatment of Liverpool FC's fans by the media only served to widen the schism and that disenchantment with Wapping – the modern incarnation of Fleet Street – bleeds through to the modern era where first a Capital-team bias and then a "big club" bias pervaded the England set-up; or, at the very least, the media's coverage of it. Their revelry in the antics of the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, David Beckham, post-Everton Wayne Rooney and their odious WAGs, anathema to the preference for class and dignity at Goodison, strikes Blues fans cold. Little wonder that there has been so little enthusiasm for supporting them during their weak campaigns on the international stage over the years.

The Everton experience with England as it pertains to players, meanwhile, has also done little to endear our fans to the national team. Viewed as a whole, it's largely been downhill since Ray Wilson helped lift the Jules Rimet trophy 48 years ago. Alan Ball, Brian Labone, Tommy Wright and Keith Newton would all be selected for the squad in 1970, one regarded by many as a better group than that which had won in 1966, but while all four Toffeemen would feature along the way, England's World Cup campaign that year was ended at the quarter-final stage by West Germany.

With Everton's fall from title-winning grace into the doldrums for the rest of that decade, it was Liverpool who suffered most during the 1970s by England's historic failure to qualify for four consecutive international tournaments. There would, of course, be no representatives from Goodison at the 1982 World Cup but by the time 1986 rolled around, Bobby Robson was spoiled for choice. While Trevor Steven, Gary Stevens, Peter Reid and Gary Lineker all made the plane to Mexico, however, the first two players were left on the bench as England struggled through their first two group matches but were finally introduced for the next two matches against Poland and Paraguay, both of which ended in handsome 3-0 wins. Evertonian ire that two key players from one of the best teams in Europe at the time were left out was vindicated.

"Could it be that the fans are just fed up with the over-hyped England team? We are constantly being told these are the best players in the world playing in the best league in the world. They earn in a week what some of use won't even earn in 10 years of work. Sometimes they don't even look like they want to be there."
Davey Edmondson, Bleacher Report contributor

Somehow there was no place in the England team of that era for one of the club's best players of the mid-1980s, Derek Mountfield. Incredibly, despite being a key member of Everton's 1985 team, Mountfield never earned a senior England cap and his successor, Dave Watson, was similarly overlooked. "Waggy" earned just 12 caps in his 15 years with the Toffees, a victim, no doubt, of the post-mortem on the country's abysmal showing at Euro '88 where they finished bottom of their group with three defeats. The likes of Mark Wright and Des Walker would be summoned for the World Cup in 1990 and come 1998 and 2002, Everton would be undergoing another downturn in fortunes.

Come Euro2004, an Everton player that the national team could not ignore had emerged. Wayne Rooney would enter the tournament with huge expectations on his young shoulders and he would respond with four goals until a metatarsal injury ended his tournament. Covetous eyes had locked in on the boy from Croxteth, though, and, thanks, in part, to his immersion in the England camp and the persuasive forces within it, he would not remain a Blue for long. Not for the first time, an Everton player had shone on the international stage and, like Lineker 18 years previously, was snapped up by a bigger club.

Thankfully, Everton's resurgence in recent years has made prying away the club's best English talent a lot more difficult. Indeed, an attempt by Arsenal to sign Phil Jagielka was rejected by then-boss David Moyes, while the same manager's advances for Leighton Baines once he had taken the helm at Manchester United were successfully rebuffed. It took current England manager Roy Hodgson time to warm to both players, though, as both were un-used squad members at Euro2012 and when he did deploy them in the World Cup in Brazil this year, the pair were left to shoulder much of the blame for the Three Lions' poor performances. Rather than focus on Hodgson's ineptitude and the folly of his team selection that left Baines badly exposed on the left flank, the press elected to throw their harsh light of criticism on the Everton fullback, conveniently ignoring his outstanding record playing in a more suitable system under Roberto Martinez at Goodison.

Then there was Hodgson's shoddy treatment of Ross Barkley, a player whom much of the country, mindful of how Germany's young guns had taken the tournament in South Africa by storm in 2010, was dying to see play. Instead, with an air that seemed almost childish and spiteful he refused, choosing to publicly admonish the 20 year-old for "losing the ball too much", conveniently overlooking the same youthful tendency of Raheem Sterling who started both of the ill-fated matches against Italy and Uruguay, to little effect. The whole episode left a sour taste in Evertonian mouths and left Blues fans wondering why we bother sending our players on international duty for England if they are going to be under-utilised, played out of position (as John Stones currently is despite his superb performances at centre half at club level), scape-goated... or all three! Hodgson's rigid attitude doesn't seem to have changed either – Barkley was given just four minutes in the recent friendly against Scotland and won't get another opportunity to show what he can do in England colours until 2015 at the earliest.

It's shame that there is much toxicity associated with England these days because playing for your country is supposed to be the highest honour for a player. Likewise, it should be a point of pride for supporters to have their club's players representing the national side and there undoubtedly still is, albeit pride tempered by the consistent hope that our boys make it back to Finch Farm without getting injured or having their reputations torn to shreds by the vultures in the press.

For all of the reasons laid out here, that club-versus-country battle will likely always be won by Everton; while we fans will always put 100% support behind an individual player in their quest for international recognition and success, that unequivocal support for the national team as a whole is unlikely to be as forthcoming, not least because the stakes are so high in the Premier League. (As if the emphasise the point, Baines had to withdraw from this month's internationals after suffering a hamstring injury in training.) That old question, what have you done for me lately comes to mind – in England's case with regard to the Blues... not much.