Alan Shearer on life inside and outside the England bubble – Tension, criticism, darkness and light

I was asked by a mate this week what a 26-year-old Alan Shearer would have made of the 53-year-old me. Before anyone else says it, I’ll get in there first: what a slap-head old fart. Obviously. But the context here was professional. The context was England and the narrative that has built up around this tournament, about the manager, the players and pundits and the dividing lines between criticism and support and the white shirt we have all worn.

I know what my pal was getting at; he was asking how the younger me would have responded to potshots from old pros sitting on their comfy chairs in television studios. He was looking for a nibble because I park my backside on one of those chairs these days. I didn’t give him the satisfaction. Why? Because the younger me, even as he scrabbled for the hair restorer with a look of horror on his face, would have agreed with the older version. Honestly, I would.

As a player, I never minded criticism, whether individually or of my team, as long as it wasn’t personal. Please don’t mistake that for not caring. I cared alright. We didn’t have social media back then, but I devoured all the newspapers and I watched and listened to everything. If I played well, I revelled in the praise and if I didn’t, then I knew exactly what was coming, but I also used it as fuel. “OK then, I’ll f***ing show you.” That was my motivation.

I’ll tell you a funny story. I was on the receiving end from Gary Lineker in those days. I can remember him having a go at me for spending too much time outside the box — sound familiar? — and I can remember not enjoying it, but not because it was harsh or unfair or because he should have known better. I always said that I didn’t need anybody to tell me that I’d had a poor game or the team weren’t functioning because I always knew. I didn’t like it because Gary was right.

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Kane and Southgate know England have been struggling (James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

This has been the strangest part of the media cycle at the European Championship. England haven’t played well. Anybody disagree? Harry Kane doesn’t. “We’re struggling with and without the ball,” the captain said after the 1-1 draw with Denmark. Gareth Southgate doesn’t. Before Slovenia, he talked about a “reset”, which is something you only do — whether to your phone or your football team — when it isn’t working. Afterwards, Anthony Gordon said “it’s just not clicking”.

On the podcast we do together, Gary described England as “s***” against Denmark, which prompted a few headlines, although it was nothing that won’t have been said — in much fruitier language — in pubs up and down the country. When Harry was asked about it in a press conference, he suggested former players have a “responsibility” to “remember what it is like to wear the shirt”, but I don’t go along with that. Then again, I also wasn’t his audience.

Do you know something? Reverse our positions and I’d have probably said the same as Harry this week. As England captain, I most certainly did feel a responsibility and it was to protect my team as much as I could. I came out with some bulls*** in my time, not that it was untrue, but it was the party line, designed to foster togetherness, to set the tone. I was talking to them. So it was, “We’ll get better, we stick together, blah, blah blah.” It’s part of who you are and what you’re representing.

Teams, players and managers have done this for time immemorial. You circle the wagons. You try to boil a huge club or a big tournament or a massive game down to the size of your own dressing room. Nothing else matters. When managers come out after Premier League matches and rant about weird things to the point where they sound like raving lunatics, it’s not because logic has deserted them. Logic is irrelevant. What matters is the team.

Internally, it’s a different story. Internally, you always know and these England players will know now. You can’t tell me that Harry, Declan Rice or Jude Bellingham — incredible players who have done and are doing incredible things for their clubs — will be sitting down for a meal at the team hotel saying, “Oh yeah, didn’t we play really well the other day?” because they didn’t and they won’t be. If they’re talking about games at all, it’ll be about what they can do to improve.

My responsibility now is to tell it how it is. I go back to what Harry said about England’s pressing being poor, our passing being poor. As pundits, we’ve seen and articulated the same thing. Yes, we’ve analysed it in more depth, but that’s exactly what the squad will be doing behind the fences of their training ground. When England have barely stepped foot into opposition areas, when we haven’t played anywhere near our potential, what on earth are we meant to say?

Gareth is an old England team-mate of mine. He’s a friend. We shared some brilliant moments and some heartbreaking moments, not least at Euro 96. Those moments, that elation and despair, give you a history and bond that will last forever, but I can’t allow that to temper what I say and write. I’d be cheating readers, viewers, listeners, my employers. I’d flip it around. If England were brilliant, then I would be the first to shout it from the rooftops. But they haven’t been, so I can’t.

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Southgate and Shearer in the England bubble in 1996 (Brendan Monks/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

I go back to the point: as long as criticism isn’t personal — and it hasn’t been — then it’s fair. And the entire country has been critical, as far as I can tell.

Is this what Gareth means when he says that “the reaction to everything” is creating an “unusual environment” or an “incredible environment” that is “strange” and “different” and that the “players are feeling that”? Before the Slovenia game, he showed his squad images of other countries celebrating their qualification from the group stage and said “our world is different at the moment”, but is it?

We have a tendency to look only at ourselves, but we’re not alone in that. Speaking to Cesc Fabregas, a man who won the World Cup and two Euros with Spain, he says the attention and scrutiny is far worse in his country. “You think you have it bad…” he says. Thomas Hitzlsperger, who has been a pundit with us, too, says it’s no different in Germany. It isn’t some kind of English disease, we just get caught up in our own little bubble.

And these international camps truly are bubbles. You’re away from home and family, locked together with the same people in a strange version of reality where you’re special guests at one of the biggest parties on earth and yet completely removed. I sort of loved it, though. I always thought to myself it could be the biggest and best month of my life, an opportunity for us to become heroes, to be remembered. If only, eh? But surely that’s something to be embraced?

At the European Championship in 1992, Graham Taylor took the decision to ban all newspapers from our hotel. There were no mobile phones or tablets or the internet and so that was the manager’s attempt to block out the noise that was beginning to blare out around our team. It didn’t work because we finished bottom of our group. We didn’t read about how bad we were, but we didn’t need to. Our early flight home told the same, brutal story.

That approach would be impossible now because noise is everywhere. It’s on your phone. The televisions at England’s training camp will have every channel available, rolling news and sport. It’s online, it’s on social media. I have some sympathy for Gareth here because if everything feels negative, there’s a danger that negativity seeps into your soul and works its way into your legs, although, in that regard, it’s the same for everybody and in terms of omnipresence, its been this way for quite a while.

On the subject of Gareth, who was booed after Slovenia and had plastic glasses thrown towards him — unpleasant, unacceptable — I know what my response would be if I was an England player. I’d be rallying around him, in the same way he’d rallied around us. In private, you would have an honest exchange of views about what’s going wrong — there has to be openness and trust between players and manager — but when it’s done in the spirt of togetherness and unity, it can be a platform.

In 1996, Terry Venables was under pressure. As manager, he’d gone out on a limb to protect his players after our… er… chaotic and… er… well-lubricated pre-tournament trip to China and Hong Kong and that meant people were gunning for him. We got together and basically said, “Look, we owe this bloke one.” He was a brilliant man and he came out fighting for us, so we fought for him. It was the least we could do.

There was massive tension before our first game against Switzerland because of what had happened a couple of weeks earlier and it was a tension I felt inside because I hadn’t scored for England for two years. Our squad had some brilliant centre-forwards — Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler — all of whom would have been within their rights to be thinking, “Hang on a minute, he’s still starting matches?”

I scored against the Swiss, so that personal tension melted away and, in any case, it wasn’t a collective thing, we just knew it was there on the outside. There was no tension in the squad and no animosity between players or with Terry. We had a great team spirit. We were up late after every game, having a pint and a laugh and a sing-song. All it takes is one spark and at Euro 96 we had a cause. We had Terry, we had each other. We took it and ran with it, all the way to the semi-finals.

I don’t see that with this England team. Not yet, anyway. There’s been an edginess since the two friendly matches before it all started, a nervousness. Was that connected to the experienced players Gareth left out of his squad, to the youngsters he drafted in? Maybe. When Glenn Hoddle dropped Paul Gascoigne before the World Cup in 1998, you could feel that decision hanging in the air — life was definitely quieter — but it cleared. We didn’t dwell on it or whisper about it in corridors.

Gareth is normally on the money with what he says and how he says it. He’s been around a long time, he’s incredibly smart and he knows how to handle the media. I’ve been slightly surprised with some of his comments this time, whether it’s to do with the environment, his own position or when he talked about not having a “natural replacement for a Kalvin Phillips”, a player who has endured a rotten two years. It’s all felt a bit cryptic.

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There has been an uncertainty about England, but Palmer, Mainoo and Gordon brought new hope (Richard Pelham/Getty Images)

I don’t accept the notion that England are operating under intolerable pressure. The pressure in this case comes from being good. We’ve clambered back from that terrible low of losing to Iceland in 2016, we fell in love with England again, largely thanks to Gareth’s big reset and banishment of all that bluster — a proper reset — we’ve been to a semi-final and a final and now we’ve got the best players we’ve had for a long time, certainly in terms of depth of talent. The pressure is only to be worthy of that talent.

To my mind, the problem is two-fold. Firstly, England are unbalanced, particularly on the left side, where Kieran Trippier, a right-back, has been playing. He’s given everything, he’s not let anyone down, but it’s definitely not his best position.

The second part is stylistic. England’s football has not deviated very much under Gareth. Defensively, we’re really solid, really tight. We don’t give teams many opportunities to have shots at goal. That comes from the manager, but the other side of it is that we’ve been pretty awful in forward positions and that has to come from the manager, too. Each time we’ve scored we’ve gone backwards and that suggests to me a lack of confidence in what we’re doing. A lack of confidence is a killer.

The England shirt never felt heavy to me, but my legs sometimes did. Towards the end of Ruud Gullit’s spell at Newcastle United, I was s*** (yes, s***). In my first home game under Sir Bobby Robson, Gullit’s successor, I scored five Premier League goals. I was the same player and also totally different, with Sir Bobby turning me around and whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I got my first against Sheffield Wednesday and all of a sudden I’m feeling bright, I’m feeling alive. The best way I can describe it is like a light being switched on.

That darkness is stressful because you’re desperate to do well but you’re flailing around and desperate morphs into desperation. I know everybody in the England camp cares. That’s not an issue. I can’t tell you what’s going on there and I can’t tell you why most players have looked heavy-legged and sapped of energy, I can only tell you what I’ve seen in the matches. But everything feels better when you score, when you win and when the lights come back on.

As I said before, all it takes is one spark.

As players, as a manager, you’re constantly striving for positives. Gone are the days when teacups would be hurled in the dressing room — not least because they’re all sipping f***ing pickle juice — and instead of bawling at your full-back for drifting out of position and letting the winger cross for the goal you conceded, you’re asking what they could have done differently, what they could have done better.

I know what Gareth will be saying to his players now. He’ll refer to the group table, which shows that England finished top. He’ll point to the number of losses: zero. He’ll ask who else has been that special? Spain? Yeah, maybe. But not France, Germany, the Netherlands or Portugal. And if top and unbeaten is us being s***, then just imagine what we can do when we’re not s***. Just imagine what being good looks like. He’ll tell them to visualise it.

There were some little green shoots against Slovenia when Cole Palmer and Kobbie Mainoo came on and in the few minutes that Gordon played and teared across the pitch. I’ve no doubt there will be changes against Slovakia — another positive is how the draw has opened up — and, cruel though it might sound, perhaps the spark comes from (the brilliant) Phil Foden going home for the birth of his third child and Gareth maybe having to shake things around.

Football gets tough sometimes. It gets rocky. A career in the game is never plain sailing and all the other cliches, but the beauty is that for as long as you can pull on a pair of boots, you have the chance to prove people wrong. The 26-year-old me f***ing loved doing that, just as the 53-year-old me will be jumping on my comfy seat (and probably putting my back out) if Harry does the same on Sunday. Let’s take the handbrake off. And then, who knows? Here we go.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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