Are You Ready to Return to the Years of Hurt, England?
Autumn, death and Luke Shaw’s redemption mark the nation’s latest therapy session.
So, here we all are again, then. As the giddy holiday romance of England’s tournament summer starts to congeal into nostalgia, all that visceral hope and heartbreak carted off in a Soho drug bus to the sausage factory of dreams, the nation offers a widow's smile and a bailiff's handshake to the season's first international break. This unloved ritual is so much a part of the early autumnal shift now that it almost feels like the trigger for the sun to depart and the leaves to fall, for the ice cream vans to devolve back into burger mobiles, for WH Smith's despotic Back 2 School sale, for Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” to be eased away from the Virgin Radio A-list because the memories – oh, what memories – are just too tender for its avidly comatose listenership of fathers seeking justice and depressed dental patients to bear. Yes, here it is: the bin of the year, when everything dies and the spiders come home. Autumn is a season that fits England like a favourite funeral suit.
Perhaps this is slightly unfair. Look a little closer and it's possible to detect something different about this year's club-game stymieing interlull, an outcry a tad less vociferous from several 100 million people who, just four games into this nascent Premier League campaign, all find themselves suddenly unhooked from the life-support drip-feed of data, schadenfreude and angst that powers modern football. First of all, we have the Nations League now, a totally new way of rigging international fortunes in the favour of the elite that makes less sense the more you try to understand it. More persuasively, there is the memory of what Gareth Southgate’s England did, or nearly didn’t fail to do, in Russia just a couple of months ago. When you get so close to something you’ve longed for so desperately, it makes sense that you’d want to hammer out the faults as quickly as possible, to take what worked and straight away make it better, future-proof it with new blood.
But Gareth didn’t do this. The crowd-pleaser in him could easily have gotten away with a merciless response to the public lust for succession-planning that has followed that semi-final defeat to Croatia, easing out the less fashionable members of the squad even as they were still toasting their achievements, tricking Danny Rose, Fabian Delph, Danny Welbeck and Eric Dier onto a craft beer pedibus and guiding it off a cliff. There is a school of thought that the best way to leave the traumas of the past behind is to hurtle as rapidly as possible into the future, or a vision of what the future might look like, at least, a vision that in England’s case seemed likely to contain little Phil Foden nutmegging the Ghost of ’66 and Will Hughes bursting into flames in the Qatari desert sun. But Gareth isn’t ready for that yet. He has spurned the advances of Jadon Sancho, prick-teased Ryan Sessegnon, left James Maddison hanging on a midnight read receipt. He has resisted the perfumed allure of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Instead, he has offered redemption to a crew of players caught weirdly in the gaps, men who were neither there on those humid nights of June and July, nor who possess the virgin qualities – small v – that best allow foolish hopes of better to bloom.
In a game that covets above all else shiny new things and the promise of gilded tomorrows, the embrace of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Alex McCarthy and James Tarkowski, alongside that aforementioned pedibus quartet, has been interpreted by some as an affront, by others a betrayal. These are seen as the Sega Saturns and Sony MiniDiscs of English football, rogue and unwanted also-ran hardware, players whose time feels like it's passed even before it's had a chance to arrive. This is unbearably harsh, of course – these are all richly talented and hard-working footballers, none of whom deserve to surrender lifelong ambitions – but international tournaments do weird things to our perception of time, distorting it like holidays in the interests of morale and self-preservation. If the World Cup of two months ago already feels like a distant dream, why should players who didn't even make the cut for it be part of our future?
The answer, in the case of Lallana and Shaw at least, is obvious: because injuries can eventually be vanquished, trauma overcome. The Guardian preview for the imminent games against Spain and Switzerland interrogated Shaw about his return to the national fold, leading with, “Luke Shaw will seek to revive his England career this week after admitting he almost lost his right leg as a result of complications from the horrific injury sustained while playing for Manchester United in the Champions League three years ago.” ‘Admit’ feels, on the face of it, an odd verb to use here, as if Shaw has done something he needs to be shy and ashamed about, owning up to a secret crush or having used the last of the office milk rather than explaining that he almost had a limb amputated because of some impetuous prick from PSV Eindhoven. But then you draw back and realise that it’s not us – the idiot mob – or the press he’s admitting it to, it’s his fellow pros and those around him in the set ups at Manchester United and Gareth’s England.
In another interview this week, the recently retired midfielder Steve Sidwell spoke eloquently about the need to maintain a pretence of painless bullishness in the hyper-competitive atmospheres of changing rooms, not just in the cold-water confines of Lynx Africa Sunday league shower shanties but in elite spaces that only men deemed good enough to represent the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea get to inhabit. “The year I’d had without playing because of injuries was tough,” he said, referring to a spell out due to back surgery and a broken ankle. “You feel disabled in a way because you can’t express the stuff you’ve done for 20 years. I’m lucky I’ve got a very strong family so I didn’t go down the road of depression. But sportsmen close to me have.
“You grow up not wanting to show weakness in a dressing room because the other players will have a different opinion of you. You don’t want to show the gaffer that either because you might not be selected. So you build up a front.” You don’t fear too much for Sidwell, a player who retired at the ripe age of 36 and feels anyway like one of those who’ll go on to make a great manager, purely because he seemed to spend so much of his playing days hiding in plain sight in the game’s upper reaches, a water carrier managed by Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho without a full international cap to his name. But when he talks about locking the bathroom door at home to finally let the tears flow for his vanishing career, you start to understand the anxiety that accompanies for all of us The End of Things, how a transition from one phase to the next can symbolise a loss of life and time.
In reality, there is still plenty of life and time for laurels to arrive for Shaw, a player about whom there is something endearingly and immutably English, who in his best moments resembles a tyre of cheese careening down a Gloucester hillside, or – as in the glow of his match-winning opening-night post-match chat with Sky – a barely legal Home Counties wingman coming up on his first Original Penguin Ibizan E. He has one of those versatile yet enduring faces, one you could just as easily imagine in A Clockwork Orange or Human Traffic, The Clash or Take That, Love Actually or Love Island. Most of all, he remains a player of immense promise, an ex-most expensive teenager of all time who seems hellbent on proving to Mourinho and the world at large that he is someone who can respond slowly to constant abuse, public humiliation and personal trauma. It’s reassuring in a way to know that even after the flushes of that World Cup run, supporting the England football team can still feel so viscerally like a kind of therapy, a familiar if sepia-tinged return for us and for Shaw and for Danny Welbeck’s Don Henley pedibus to the ongoing and impatient Years of Hurt.