If in doubt, GET IT OUT! The English culture of pressure play

1098386 237x300 If in doubt, GET IT OUT! The English culture of pressure play“If in doubt, GET IT OUT!”

This is the catchphrase that constantly rang in my ears and haunted my thoughts as a young lad playing Sunday-league football in the late eighties and early nineties. The thought of my manager screaming it into my ear, his face a turnip of purple rage, would be enough to make my palms go moist and my legs a little shaky. What if it was me who made the telling mistake? What if it was me who lost the ball that led to us conceding a goal? What if it was me that got the hairdryer treatment? The thought was enough to make me desperately thump the ball as far as I could whenever we were in our own half and seemed to have had possession for a dangerous amount of time. If in doubt get it out.

My manager – let’s call him John Toby – had a footballing philosophy which was, and unfortunately still is, distinctly English. Forged, no doubt, from the harrowing experiences of his own youth, it decreed that the football was your enemy, which should be kept as far from your own half and preferably your own feet for as long as possible. It also decreed that anything more than two touches was ‘poncing around’ and that for a defender to play a short ball or – God forbid – take someone on near their own penalty area was a crime tantamount to insulting the Queen. It was a philosophy which could most neatly be summed up by that one aphorism – “If in doubt, get it out”.

There were other things too. There was the way that, if we lost the game, he would focus on one of us in the post-match rant until they cried. There was the way that, if we won, he would lift one of the mums onto his shoulder and pretend he was going to throw them into the showers. There was – probably most traumatising of all – the tittering and the muffled comments of “you stink” from the opposition throughout the match because of the Deep Heat he made us smother all over our legs.

But enough about my scarred childhood. My point is that although I’m sure most people had a happier experience of football than me, we all have a John Toby somewhere in our past. All English players have a dark, Freudian figure looming out of the depths of their memories screaming: “If in doubt, GET IT OUT!” or some similar mantra of panic.

Just look at the performance against Italy on Sunday. There were some twenty minutes in the first half when we passed it around nicely and kept the ball well. After that all the bad habits started to kick back in – inaccurate passing, poor first touches, long hoofs up field. What went wrong? Why couldn’t we maintain that style of play for more than twenty minutes?

Because of a fundamental fear instilled in us from early childhood, a primordial terror of being caught in possession; a fear, essentially, of some half-remembered John Toby giving us the hairdryer treatment.

If amateur players like me still remember that fear with a shudder, imagine what it must be like for the England players. They have a whole nation of potential John Tobys just waiting to scream into their faces about how shit they are at football as well as offering comments on what their wives get up to in their spare time. Apart from that, they have a veritable army of John Tobys equipped with cameras, watching their every move, waiting to capture their moment of shame for all eternity.

Then there are the John Tobys with microphones who will comment in real time to millions of viewers about how badly they are doing or ask them to explain in excruciating post-match interviews just why they made that mistake. Finally there are the John Tobys who will, in the next day’s papers, dissect and opine and whip all the other John Tobys of the nation into such a fury that a million red-faced, screaming manager-banshees must haunt these players’ every waking second. No wonder they revert to whacking the ball as far as they can the moment the slightest bit of pressure is turned on. It is the old English fail-safe of ‘get rid’. You can’t be blamed if you don’t have the ball. It is even perhaps the reason that under the ultimate pressure of penalties, so many English players opt to hit it as hard as is humanly possible, with the usual dire consequences. If in doubt, get it out.

So how can we turn things around? Is it even possible? Could we ever see an English team playing football like Spain? At one point on Sunday, in response to Guy Mowbray’s despairing question about why England kept coughing up possession, Mark Lawrenson gave the simple reply: “It’s in our DNA.” The John Smiths “ ‘ave it!” advert offers a similar analysis of English footballing genetics. Both views point to something unalterable in our very nature. But I disagree. I believe it is about nurture rather than nature.

We can unlearn the mistakes of the past. We can stop the cycle of footballing abuse passed on by all those John Tobys. The parents of the next generation of England players can all do their bit. I don’t have a son but if do in the future and if he decides to take up football, I am determined not to repeat the mistakes others made with me.

When I see him lose possession because he tried an over-ambitious trick or took on one too many players, I will fight the urge to channel John Toby and bellow in frustration. Instead of shouting: “If in doubt, GET IT OUT!” I will endeavour to suggest: “If in doubt, take another touch.” Or perhaps: “If in doubt, turn around and pass it to the player nearest you wearing the same-coloured shirt.”

It only takes one generation to break the chain of abuse. One generation and we could be playing football like Spain, ole-ing at every sublime pass and screaming in purple-faced rage at anyone who dares to just ‘get it out’.

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