England’s unknown unknowns leave us clueless about their World Cup trajectory | Marina Hyde

I don’t know what is happening, but … I think I like it? I certainly like the fact that most England fans’ joy cheerfully acknowledges that it’ll probably go tits-up any minute

Nobody knows anything, runs William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood. Part of its appeal is the sheer range of trades to which it could be applied. Many people get up and go to work every day in places they regard as almost comically clueless and dysfunctional – and some of them may not even be journalists.

Nobody knows anything. One of Alex Ferguson’s best lines is so memorable because it acknowledges the decisive part of chaos in one of his most artfully strategised campaigns. “Football, bloody hell …”

Nobody knows anything about England’s trajectory this World Cup. Or do they? Depending on which chaos turns up, Gareth Southgate could turn out to be England’s Great Knower of Things – perhaps the last such individual in a nation hurtling towards highly systemised cluelessness in all other departments, especially government.

Or he might not. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, in a peroration for which he was unfairly maligned (even though he did turn separately out to have been unforgivably, homicidally clueless): “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (ITV not having Rumsfeld on their pundit panel is arguably the biggest miss of the tournament thus far.)

All of us are currently required to have pub conversations or internet discussions or write articles in which we mask our general cluelessness about what is going on with England. Some will be fortunate and have their takes retroactively lent credence by events which could quite as easily have gone the other way; others will simply deny they ever said them takes. Generally, the media’s relationship to any England side is much as Sybil Fawlty characterised Basil’s relationship to the hotel guests: “You never get it right, do you? You’re either crawling all over them, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some benzedrined puff adder.”

So yes, I do hope you didn’t make the hilarious mistake of thinking I have the first clue about where England are headed in the wake of their 6-1 win over Panama. I don’t know what is happening, but … I think I like it? Ask me again on Friday.

I certainly like the fact that most people’s joy cheerfully acknowledges that it’ll likely go tits-up and spill over into mindless recrimination any minute. Things may be totally precarious – but by God, at least they’re jolly. England’s current tournament status is a lot like Westley’s recollection of working for the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride (William Goldman again). Every night he’d be told: “Good night Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” A nation’s hopes are in much the same position. And as Westley points out: “It was a fine time for me.”

Well quite. I could even develop survivor guilt if this carries on much longer. Looking at the Argies’ dysfunction – nerves/mutiny rumours/emotional rollercoaster group games – is like getting on board a long-haul flight and seeing someone whose baby is having a meltdown, when you’ve been through that precise experience yourself in the past. You give them a sympathetic look that says “I’ve been there” – but mainly you feel a vast, exhilarating relief that it’s not you.

And, metaphorically speaking, England supporters have taken a lot of screaming babies on flights over the past few tournaments. It was only two years ago on Wednesday that England went out of the European Championship to Iceland – an event that was itself just four days after Britain went out of the EU to Nigel Farage.

That fateful night in Nice was just the latest in a long line of performances confirming the suspicion that to don the England shirt was to pull on a psychic pall. Players who performed brilliantly for their clubs were rendered hopeless by the garment. It seemed mad that we spent billions on aircraft carriers and whatnot, when the MoD should really just have done a procurement deal with Nike. In the event of World War III, the tactic would have simply been to drop payloads of England shirts on enemy troops and watch them go to pieces.

Yet now, this. Surely Gareth Southgate should be given an honorary doctorate in psychology from one of the better Viennese schools? Back in June 2016, you’d have looked at England, then looked at Brexit, and regarded the former as the slightly larger and more complex problem to solve. But what a turnaround – and don’t forget there was a whole Allardyce interregnum in there too.

Indeed, why have I yet to read an article this week suggesting how much better the Brexit process would have been handled if Gareth Southgate had been in charge of it? Come to think of it, why have I yet to write one? Whatever the reason for the oversight, I have absolute faith that it will surface somewhere in the delirious commentary landscape over the coming days. Should we beat Belgium, suggestions Southgate should at least consult to the Brexit process will become only semi-ironic; should we eventually make it past the quarters, the calls for Southgate to be seconded as Dexeu secretary will become formalised and deafening.

In the land of the clueless, someone who can get you to the quarters is king. Or to put it another way: Knowing something! Knowing something! Our kingdom for a man who knows something!


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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