Tony Gillan: Why England are no substitute for Sunderland - despite their Nations League penalty heroics

England will be no substitute for Sunderland this summer
England will be no substitute for Sunderland this summer

Thousands of readers have contacted us to suggest that Oscar Wilde is too rarely quoted in our football columns. So let’s put this right.

Wilde had a healthy aversion to the false sentiment that Charles Dickens sometimes smeared like treacle over his novels.

Oscar said: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

I thought of this last Thursday When the England men’s team generously donated two goals to Holland. Laughing at misfortune is the English thing to do.

This wasn’t merely because they were only eliminated from the Nations League, a sort of international Checkatrade Trophy. It was part of a general apathy towards the national side that becomes more widespread.

I’m not trying to be cool or fashionable; two traits I have long since abandoned hope of attaining. I am genuinely indifferent. You can’t feign indifference while watching a football match any more than you can feign passion.

I do love this country. It’s just that I don’t care much about its footy team.

Please understand. England is my international team and I want them to win. However, I’m not particularly upset when they don’t.

I will admit to a soupçon of excitement when they reached the World Cup semi-final. However, it took me about a minute to recover from the disappointment of losing it. Certainly, it felt as nothing compared to Sunderland’s play-off defeat in May.

The appeal of England is limited outside London. This, of course, is a sweeping generalisation that by no means always applies.

But London football fans often actually care more about their national team than their clubs; and can develop chips on shoulders about those who don’t share this view.

The city of Sunderland was energised when England played in the 2018 World Cup. But that had more to do with the starring roles of two of their own: Jordans Pickford and Henderson.

There are reasons for Sunderland fans to even resent the national set-up and FA. Discriminating squad selections against their players has regularly proved irksome.

It’s admittedly rare that SAFC has players worthy of England caps. Today’s third tier contingent has little more chance of a call-up than I do.

But what about when Sunderland aren’t so low? How many of their 608 Premier League games were watched by England managers?

Darren Bent’s 24 PL goals in 2009-10 didn’t admit him to the South Africa World Cup. He played indifferently in sweltering heat against Brazil during a pointless friendly in Doha seven months before the tournament. So that was that: overlooked in favour of the lumbering Emile Heskey, who scored seven international goals in only 11 years.

At the 2000 European Championships, Kevin Phillips didn’t play a single minute, despite being Europe’s top scorer. England were eliminated at the group stage.

But it goes back tortoise years. Brian Clough, with 54 Sunderland goals in 64 games in the 1960s, never represented England during that time.

Len Shackleton, England’s most gifted player of the 1950s, received five caps. As 1930s Sunderland players, goal machines Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney won the league and the FA Cup, but received only five and one cap respectively.

Nor is this wrong-club-syndrome unique to Sunderland. Andros Townsend played better for Newcastle than he did for Tottenham where he rarely started a game. Yet his move from Spurs to Tyneside “coincided” with the end of his international career.

Making England even less appealing are boring football, jingoistic half-wits following them, and the FA’s unconscionable treatment of Sunderland Ladies.

I might cheer when England score. But not loudly.