Forget the monkey joke, Roy Hodgson has the players on his side thanks to a more relaxed, open attitude
What a week, two sensational England games, bookended by a row over football and immigration and a bizarre joke about monkeys. The less said about the latter the better, to my mind. Otherwise we're just, er, feeding the monkey. But for the record if I had been in the England dressing room at half-time I wouldn't have thought anything of it. In fact I'd have probably started talking about space dogs. It was the space dog who actually died, let's hope the monkey joke does, too.
As they say in one of my all-time favourite movies, Vanilla Sky, you don't know how sweet something is until you've tasted the sour. That sums up our industry. England's success is always accompanied by a little sourness. It was only five minutes ago that we were all obsessing over Joe Hart's poor form, and worrying whether England would be able to qualify for the World Cup. We thought Roy Hodgson's style of play was a bit boring. Suddenly we're eulogising over him because he picked Andros Townsend, who gave two electric performances on the wing.
The point is that the problem with England isn't always the football itself – it's our expectations. We want results, but we also want excitement. Week in, week out we watch flair players in the Premier League and expect to see the same thing from our national team. But England can't play that way. While we have Daniel Sturridge, we also have Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and James Milner who simply don't thrive off that kind of football. Even Wayne Rooney, who doesn't mind doing a few tricks, is more effective for England by keeping it simple.
But the public aren't happy with that. Watching England Under-21s at Ipswich on Tuesday I was surprised at how the crowd went crazy every time Wilfried Zaha did a trick. They loved it. England should have beaten Lithuania in double figures – the visitors were that bad – but all those stepovers slowed the game down. For me, a player like Zaha, with technical skill and ability in abundance, would be better off keeping it simple.
And that's why I'm happy with life under Hodgson. Granted, I was one of those players who originally would have liked to see Harry Redknapp get the job. I felt that Harry would draw the best out of his players, that he was the perfect antidote to the straitjacketed Fabio Capello regime which, by the end, had come to frustrate the team. But for me it is under Hodgson that England's long-term future looks brightest, and that's an opinion that grows match on match.
I first met the current England manager at St George's Park while studying for my A licence this summer. He was in the hotel bar with the coaching staff having a meeting. Hotel guests and players from the other England sides could wander in and out, and there was a relaxed feel – in stark contrast to the Capello days, when leaving the England wing of the Grove hotel and heading down to reception was like entering a no-go zone. I asked Roy if he would give me some advice on how to handle semi-professional players – he had managed at Malmö, and I was coaching with IBV in Iceland at the time – and he happily sat down with me for a chat. I know it is a cliché, but he came across as a very nice man.
I'm not the only one who thinks so. Over the past few months I've got a good sense of the players' mood under Hodgson. While Capello would have had all the players in on a Sunday afternoon for a match the following Saturday, things are very different with the current England regime. I spoke to one of the lads and said: "When are you meeting up for the England camp?" He said: "Tuesday." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I said: "I thought the game's on the Friday?" He said: "Yeah, it's a bit more of a leisurely system." And a popular one.
While I agree that we need to work out how to develop players such as Zaha and Ravel Morrison into world-class senior players for England, I'm not sure Jack Wilshere's criticism of the eligibility rules provides much insight into how to do so. Let's face it, it was 1966 when we last had the best team in the world, it's only been in the past 25 years that we've have the best league in the world. Why are we complaining? The subtext of the "foreigners" argument lies uncomfortably close – in my mind – to discussions around immigration. So, while I respect Jack's right to an opinion, I don't for one minute agree with him. My view is quite simply that if you're eligible and you want to play for the country, then fine. In all honesty, we should be glad to have you.
Does it really matter how recent a player is within the immigration cycle if he conforms to FA rules? We have a huge Polish community here, if a talented Polish player living here wanted to play for England why would we deny them? What about my co-pundit on BT Sport, Owen Hargreaves? He wouldn't have been considered eligible for England under Wilshere's rules because, despite having English parents, Owen was actually born in Canada. In fact he only came to live in this country at the age of 26 (when he signed for Manchester United) by which time he'd already played in a World Cup for England.
In defence of Jack, he's a young player and his words probably sounded worse than what he actually meant. Strewth, he plays for Arsenal where English players are in the minority. But I for one strongly believe that our national team should reflect our society, and we are a multicultural nation. Immigration has played a huge part in developing English football – from the Premier League to the national team. Without it we wouldn't have Andros Townsend lighting up our World Cup qualifying campaign, not to mention the scores of other first, second and third generation England players who have pulled on the national kit. I include myself in that picture – I'm half Jamaican, quarter Welsh, and born in England – and you've only got to look at the Under-21s squad to see how diverse the next generation of footballers are. Would we want to be without that talent? Not for a minute.
David James has donated his fee for this column to charity.