Who's that beside Alf Ramsey?

 

The old line still rings true: the world is in a terrible state of chassis. All week long, Sky News beamed in urgent little snippets and features that served to confirm the decline of English football. That Wembley and those mythical towers stand now as a junkyard of lost glory is fitting, an appropriate metaphor for the doom-laden analysts called in to ponder precisely who, in this desperate hour, should lead England. Winston, where are you? After the grim fiasco against the Finns, Sky dispatched a camera crew to solicit views from the man on the street.

"Get the bloke wot won the World Cup for France in," pleaded one salty pundit.

"Arse 'n' Venga," snapped another.

That CVs from John E Foreigner are not only eligible but openly welcome highlights how desperate things have become. With whole legions of managers politely ruling themselves out of the equation, the gravity of the situation has deepened. Not so long ago, to manage England was the summit. Now, the throne is tainted: people are either afraid to take the job on or can simply see no way forward with the talent available. If the FA don't pull something out of the bag, Barry Fry will be installed as manager by no later than Friday week.

In this country, we have always enjoyed an unashamedly cheap laugh when England's soccer team inevitably slipped up. We would, perversely, admit to enjoy watching them progress through the early rounds of the major summer tournaments only because the pleasure of watching them stumble on the brink of a glorious revival was even more intoxicating. Some Irish folk would be hard pressed to decide which penalty attempt made them feel better about life: Dave O'Leary's or Chris Waddle's.

But this latest drama, this mini crisis of empire, is more unsettling: there is a sense of finality about it. You sit down and watch Barry Venison, with those mad glasses that simply don't sit right, and you wonder where it all went wrong. Barry's solution involved naming a team full of youngsters - Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, etc - and assuring the country that everything was all right. It was, he said, simply a matter of bringing in Terry Venables.

"I worked with Terry at the age of 30 and he gave me an education," he said. It was probably not the endorsement that EL Tel needs right now. But Barry, in his meandering and only vaguely comprehensible way, deeply cares about what is happening and his concern reflects that of the whole country.

Yet with all the words being spoken in the wake of the tragicomic departure of Kevin Keegan, no one has uttered the one that counts: reality. No one has said: let's wake up here and look at Nobby Stiles. Mature as he appeared in 1966, the Nobster is a shrivelled prune now. So is England.

Time has moved on, and those who present the television face of English football are caught in a vacuum of delusion and useless tradition. No one has said its time to start from scratch.

On Channel 4 on Saturday night, the highly objectionable Phil Jupitus ran a surprisingly good little nostalgia show featuring 1990. One of the defining moments of that year was, of course, England's near ascent towards the summit at the World Cup. We saw John Barnes singing "We're playin' for England" and Gazza's tears and that penalty, and it was hard not to admit, privately, that they were pretty unlucky that time. But at least they were going the right way. That cannot be said now.

England's demise contrasts starkly with our beautiful renaissance. "Now you're talking about a real national side," grinned Andy Townsend when Barry Venison, momentarily departing from his thesis on the path towards enlightenment, asked the old midfielder about "the Republic's"' form. Andy fairly gushed and declared that he had been following the green shirts closely and felt that we were close to the good times again.

"This could be their time and I really hope it is," he said, a touch wistfully.

The era of Chippy, Stapo and Dave was celebrated in the wonderfully named Who's that Standing Beside John Murphy? The True Lives documentary told the story behind a photograph taken of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Dave O'Leary and John Murphy as they embarked upon their apprenticeships at Arsenal. It was a beautifully conceived homage to a distinguished era in Irish soccer, and through the reminiscences of our four heroes managed to capture that smoky, flared-trouser, 1970s feel. The photo alone raised all sorts of questions. For instance, to achieve a knot in your tie so incredibly big . . . did you have to take some sort of course, or was it an art common to the decade? And how come all footage taken over those 10 years is dark and foreboding? Was there no sunshine?

As the four lads relived the old days, it became clear that not one of them felt the other was a barrel of laughs.

"He was a bit surly in his demeanour," said Brady of Murphy, which was a bit rich coming from old Chippy.

"A terrific footballer," marvelled O'Leary when asked about Brady, "but a grumpy sod."

It was brilliant stuff. One of the most enjoyable characters was Eileen Brady, Liam's mother, who summed up her son's career thus: "He was a class footballer. He had the brains. And his left foot."

There could be no better epitaph. And watching the file footage of Brady in his Juventus days, you couldn't but feel a heart thump of pride. He was a frontiersman, adored by soccer's true aesthetes. And he was ours.

John Murphy lasted six months at Arsenal before giving in to homesickness. He is representative of professional sport's oldest story: the kid who might have made it.

The end shot depicted Murphy walking the beach in Bray and reflecting along "what if" lines, but this wasn't a man haunted by a wrong life-move. Murphy enjoyed a long career as an Irish rugby international and is a successful business man. In his way, he is as enriched as Davo or Stapo or Brady. A lot has happened since they met at the Ambassador cinema and walked to the Garden of Remembrance to have their photo taken.