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England Manager – The Poisoned Chalice?

It’s surprising there are ever any applicants. The immutable, inescapable pressure and surveillance that accompanies the post of England manager would presumably be enough to deter every sane man alive; having witnessed the vilification endured by previous employees as England continually fall short, it is difficult to visualize a realistic occasion when the position could ever seem desirable. The colossal salary, though undoubtedly appealing, can increasingly be acquired by high-profile foreigners elsewhere, as wealthy investors spring up in Russia, Paris and the Middle East. The honour traditionally associated with English bosses managing their homeland’s football team, meanwhile, is preponderated by the impact that failure would have on said coaches’ reputations: in no other job could a La Liga, Champions League and 7-time Serie A winner be recast as a defective, incompetent asinine throughout an entire nation. Steve McClaren, moreover, has yet to recover from his tempestuous 16 months in the job, subsequent success at FC Twente nullified by disappointing spells at Wolfsburg and Nottingham Forest.

England were so abject in the World Cup two summers ago that the conventional post-tournament cycle was broken for the first time in decades. A scapegoat, habitually identified and formalized by the time the players have boarded the plane home, was not forthcoming; only the most blinkered and ardent of fans genuinely believed Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the last 16 defeat to Germany caused England’s exit. There was no Hand of God, no cheating Portuguese winkers, no hard luck penalty shootouts. The denunciation of Fabio Capello was copious, yet for once it was acknowledged that the problem ran deeper. As our brave warriors laboured through the group stage, having been out-passed by Slovenia and out-thought by Algeria, it was finally plain to see: England are not as good as we all think they are.

The inquest was comprehensive, the scrutiny thorough. Having handed Capello a new contract before a ball had been kicked in South Africa, the FA were compelled to stick with him. The realisation that the Italian was here to stay was an important part of the rehabilitation, allowing the rumination to turn to other, greater factors in England’s failings. The unique intensity of the Premier League may contribute to its standing as the most watched league in the world, but the impact on its participants is debilitating, and its style progressively incompatible with the possession-based, technical game extensively exhibited elsewhere in Europe and on the international stage. “In England, it is impossible to be patient” says José Mourinho.  The crowd expect more here: win the first tackle then get it forward quickly. The customary groan from spectators if the ball is retained via a pass back to the goalkeeper is unique to these shores, as is the coercion on strikers to ignore team shape and chase down everything, or else be accused of not putting in enough effort. “If you watch Liverpool, Carragher wins the ball, boots it into the stands and the fans applaud and roar” explains Xavi Hernández, the heart of the Spanish national team, brilliantly highlighting the conspicuous disparity in footballing culture. “They’d never applaud that here”.

Perhaps, therefore, a successful national side is unattainable whilst concurrently preserving the consuetudes of English football. It is interesting that the national team has been prioritised recently, often at the expense of the domestic game. The Elite Player Performance Plan, for example, is designed to give Premier League outfits the pick of young talent from academies across the country, and has been advertised as a necessary advancement in English player development. The relatively smooth legislative passage of the plan does not tell the whole story, though: the measure is fiercely opposed by Football League clubs worried about the potentially devastating impact it could have on their own youth programmes, with many admitting that maintaining their academies will no longer be economical. Top-tier powerhouses will be able to stockpile players, acquiring them for predetermined and often unrepresentative sums; not only is this contemptible elitism which could feasibly destroy lower-league clubs, it misses the point entirely. English players often lack the technical ability of their international counterparts because of how they are coached, not where. The already superfluous emphasis on size, strength and pace is exacerbated by the current structural arrangement which sees eleven-a-side football introduced to eleven year old children. Such an illogical provision encourages the accentuation of corporeality: the tallest players are automatically selected as defenders, instructed to kick the ball long for the nippy little forwards to chase. Plans are afoot to postpone the commencement of full-size matches until competitors reach 13, though this does not solve another fundamental difference in attitudes: elsewhere on the continent, and most prominently at Barcelona, youth team performances take precedence over results. Youngsters are encouraged to caress the ball, to embrace the Catalans’ mantra of pass and move. “Some youth academies worry about winning”, says that man Xavi again, “We worry about education”. The English environment renders such an approach impossible: winning is what matters, at every level.

Regardless of the reflective mood that followed the 2010 World Cup, the turn towards self-examination and internal perusal will not be permanent. England may be in transition, but they won’t be forever, and at some point tournament winning expectation will return. The reduction in Wayne Rooney’s suspension, the friendly defeat of Spain and the avoidance of Euro 2012’s group of death have all prompted slight reassessments of England’s chances, murmurings that success in the summer is not totally out of the question. History suggests that it is, however: England are yet to defeat a major footballing nation in the knockout stages of a tournament held abroad. Notwithstanding what happens this summer in Eastern Europe, it is likely we will be sold a bright new era of hope and promise as Capello’s replacement takes over, a feeling that will be magnified if Moldova and Ukraine are beaten as qualification for Brazil 2014 begins, as well as a de.

No matter how frequently England flounder, attention will always turn to the credentials of the man in charge: a convenient scapegoat, a trite but ready-made target. This is not to say that England managers have been faultless – Kevin Keegan was tactically naïve at times, Graham Taylor did undervalue England’s few creative players, and even Sir Alf Ramsey made discernible mistakes in failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup – yet it is disingenuous to focus exclusively on the coach’s deficiencies. No personality, no playing style will ever be correct: Sven-Göran Eriksson, initially praised for his hands-off, relaxed attitude, was later castigated for a languid touchline style, whilst Capello’s antithetical modus operandi centred on discipline and respect also earned him early commendation before it was decided that the very same features were flawed, with England’s World Cup stars delineated as smothered and bored as a result of the Italian’s strictness and rigidity. Managers, each of contrasting backgrounds and identities, come and go and England still fail to win, yet the blame is persistently affixed to the men in the hot seat.

The FA’s insistence that Capello’s successor will be English could be considered an admirable, idealistic promotion of purer days gone by, when international football actually meant the best of ours against the best of theirs. The stance, though, is more likely to be conditioned by the widespread disparagement of the 65-year-old’s communication skills, with Capello still irritatingly inept at the language of his adopted country. It is dangerous to eliminate such a large amount of prospective candidates in this way, however: not only are multiple coaches excluded instantly, but inordinate focus is given to nationality and, by extension, the individual employee who, whilst obviously important, is not the key determinant in the side’s continued shortcomings. At this stage, Harry Redknapp and Roy Hodgson appear to be the leading candidates to take over, though the charges of tax evasion levelled against the Tottenham Hotspur boss remain an intriguing subplot, whilst Hodgson, the current manager of West Bromwich Albion, has admitted that he would only consider the job if he had the backing of the fans. The selection pool could thus get smaller still, and in a business where job consideration is predominantly based on performance in the preceding couple of years, any abatement could be significant. Had the FA dispensed of Capello after the disappointment in Africa, Hodgson would surely already be in charge, largely due to Fulham’s incredible run to the Europa League final in 2010. Luiz Felipe Scolari, furthermore, was the preferred choice when Eriksson’s tenure came to an end; Chelsea needed only seven months to realise his coaching methods were somewhat rudimentary, and the Brazilian’s next job was at Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan.

It is absurd to expect the head of any organisation to oversee immediate success when the infrastructure below him is so relatively inadequate, yet it is hard to envisage any manager – even one with the strong media relationship that Redknapp enjoys – entirely escaping criticism unless England reach at least the semi-final stage of a major tournament on foreign soil for the first time since Sir Bobby Robson’s side were defeated by West Germany in 1990. England possesses 32,000 fewer UEFA-qualified coaches than the Germans, a footballing culture that discourages equanimity and remains suspicious of talent, and a youth system excessively focused on competitiveness and physical attributes, issues that cannot be readily rectified by one man controlling a handful of senior players for a couple of days every few months. The foundations must be rebuilt before England can realistically hope to compete with the world’s best, and the new manager will be desperate to bring an end to the multitudinous years of hurt.

Greg Lea

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