The Welsh Gull

Torquay United, the Football League and other stuff

Myths, Narratives and the England Job

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So much has been and will be written about the England manager’s job that it seems futile to even attempt to comment. However, on the other side of that, the mainstream media, particularly the tabloids and the likes of the BBC, want to dumb the debate down to extremes, framing the debate in a couple of different ways and turning it into a series of clichéd narratives, and as a result of that some important points are being missed, so I feel that it is worth posting my opinion on the whole farce, however small and insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of things.

At the time Capello’s resignation was announced, I was live on air on RaW Sport Midweek, pretending to be a football pundit. At the time, we just happened to be talking about the Italian, his comments about the FA’s intervention over John Terry, and the possibilities for the future. A number of us, including myself, commented that we didn’t think it would amount to much, that it would blow over and things would go on as normal, as usually happens with the storm-in-a-teacup disputes that continually surround the national team in the 21st century. However, at roughly 7:25 pm, my colleague Richard, who was sat next to me at the time while on his laptop, attracted my attention to the BBC rolling news ticker which said that he’d just resigned.

It was a rather stunned atmosphere in the studio. The gobs had been smacked. Certainly, for me, it was one of those moments where you have to do a double-take, thinking “is that what the screen really says?” It seemed all rather inconceivable that it could happen so quickly. We spent the rest of the show discussing potential future appointments and that grandiose but ultimately futile question of “what this means for England”.

The discussion as a whole has reaffirmed my belief that there are two main camps in this debate, largely centring on two distinct discourses, each with their own hardened beliefs to the point of a religious creed.

The first of these is the line usually pedalled by the more tabloid and mainstream sections of the media. This is that, at this moment in time, what the England national team needs is an Englishman, primarily an inspiring and passionate Englishman, who will rally the troops and will them on to glory, like something out of Space Jam, instead of stylistic and formation choices. The supporters of this discourse believe that Capello was too hard, cold and stubborn to succeed as England manager, and the players could never relate to him. They would, however, be able to relate to someone on their level, who can speak their language (in more ways than one), and an Englishman would be able to motivate them better.

The second discourse is the opposite of this – that England don’t need passion at all. They just need tactics. Tactics will solve everything. Ideas that they don’t care are largely made up – they always try hard regardless. They just need to be put in the right formation. Even if England’s players aren’t that good, clever use of tactics can overcome superior sides, and conversely, poor use of tactics can kill off a good side’s chances of winning. The supporters of this, a more intellectual line of thinking but still relatively mainstream, believe that where Capello went wrong was in persisting with 4-4-2, which is ancient history at the highest level. They would also consider anyone arguing that the next manager should be English to be xenophobic and not open-minded enough.

The truth is both sides are ultimately wrong. There are elements of truth in both parts. “Tactics” (read formations) are important, but not as vital as some make out – Manchester United reached the Champions League Final and won the Premier League last year playing 4-4-2. On the other side, it is probably true to say the players could probably relate to an English manager better, and an English manager would certainly relate to them better. Both sides are far too rigid in their beliefs.

The other issue to have surfaced lately, though, is that both sides are now supporting Harry Redknapp’s cause to become the next England manager. Previously, it was only the former discourse that would support his claims, but now it seems even the latter group, who would previously have dismissed him as not having the tactical nous to succeed, have manoeuvred behind him. However, again, I believe both are wrong. To explain why requires a history lesson. It might be worth skipping to the bottom at this point if you don’t have 10-15 minutes spare to read it all right now.

16 years ago, Terry Venables announced he was quitting as England manager after Euro 96, after being dogged by further allegations of corruption and various other financial misdemeanours. Venables had entered the job under a similar cloud – the FA were indeed reluctant to appoint him for that reason, but were effectively forced to due to the lack of a credible alternative candidate. They would later regret it when the media did some more digging into El Tel’s past (no doubt linked to disappointing results in the warm-up games for the tournament), with further allegations about paying bungs, which would later be dismissed. The pressure eventually forced him out before having ever managed the team in a tournament.

But this isn’t just a subtle hint about a certain contender for the job’s history as a bit of a wide-boy, or however you want to put it, and why it might be a futile appointment. The story goes on. At Euro 96, there were flashes of technical brilliance from the side. The game against the Netherlands will be forever remembered as the day England simply outplayed the most stylish national team in Europe. Gascoigne was an inch or two away from putting them into a winnable final. Venables might not have had the best club record after leaving the England job, and he might have stupidly paid £400,000 to sign Torquay’s second string goalkeeper while at Palace, but he was a canny tactician – England played 4-4-2 but it was fluid, with Sheringham dropping off Shearer but Gazza arriving from the midfield to further support his fellow Geordie, and Ince holding it together in the middle, flanked by McManaman and the under-appreciated Darren Anderton.

After the tournament, Venables was replaced by Glenn Hoddle, the man who had brought Total Football to Wiltshire with Messrs Ling, Bodin, Moncur and Summerbee. But Hoddle was a cold, calculating pragmatist, which didn’t go down well with the fans who were already missing the loveable old Cockney geezer. The football seemed to be more results-driven than anything, and when the results didn’t come, he was moved on to make way for the Keegan, another loveable old figure from days of yore, who wanted to bring his brand of exciting no-holds-barred football with which he had thrown away the Premier League title a few years previously. Tactics? They don’t matter. Just go for it. Just chuck them in a 3-5-2 and see if it works. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t.

Then came the big one. Out went Kev after the embarrassing defeat to Germany in the final game at the old Wemburley. In came the foreigner. But not just any old foreigner. England needed some sense of discipline. They needed coherence. They needed tactics. So they plucked for a Swedish bloke who had won a couple of things for Lazio. And for a while it seemed to be working. Considering the injuries England had – Gerrard and Gary Neville being the main two, and Beckham wasn’t fit even though he did play – to get to the quarter-finals and narrowly lose out to Brazil was actually quite an achievement. They were unlucky in 2004 too – I know we all talk about penalties and how England aren’t good at them and that they should be better, but that is obscuring the larger point that England were quite close to going through, which particularly in this case and 1998 has been overlooked. The fact is England nearly beat France and nearly beat future finalists and hosts Portugal – however, the one thing you could say is that we didn’t, and that was down to Sven’s biggest flaw: his substitutions, which were far too negative.

But then after that, everything started getting a bit out of hand. It just wasn’t quite enough to appease the fans, who weren’t happy just being a quarter-final nation, even though that is probably about what they were capable of in the circumstances, i.e. the teams they were playing. I think Sven went at the right time. It was all starting to run out of steam. A fresh approach was needed. So the FA plumped for his assistant. Yeah, really wise choice that was.

To be fair to Scheaschick Schteve, he was a bit more adventurous with his formation, and he probably was let down by his players as much as anything. But he bottled dropping the experienced players, which must have had a massive impact on his authority over the team. It was primarily his fault England didn’t qualify for Euro 2008. Good manager though he may be (much better than he gets credit for in the aftermath of it all), he just wasn’t the right man for the job. So it was back to square 2001 again – England needed a foreigner who would bring tactics and discipline. They needed a winner. So Capello it was.

All the while, the FA failed to realise that they were once again throwing money at a problem that wasn’t going away, chopping and changing approaches, with little stability, largely at the behest of the media. Every time they hired a disciplinarian or tactician, soon there would be calls from the tabloids for someone more passionate and emotive, even when it wasn’t a foreign manager at the time – don’t let the media have you believe that all Englishmen are more passionate about the England team than all foreigners, because that’s a myth. And then every time they hired a more passionate manager, there would quickly be calls from the tabloids for a disciplinarian or tactician. The media have kept building these reactionary arguments time and again, exploiting popular opinion like a bunch of mad propagandists, in order to put pressure on whoever the manager is. Look at the bigger picture, over a long term period, and you’ll see how ridiculous it looks.

To grasp this debate properly, you need to abandon all these preconceived ideas that are based on little more than fictional caricatures of a media with Tall Poppy Syndrome. For one, there’s Capello, a massively misunderstood figure at this moment in time. The statistics paint a picture far different to the one the media has done ever since the World Cup. The fact is he has the highest win percentage of any England manager ever – higher than Venables, higher than Sven, higher than Robson, higher even than Ramsey. Further to that, his last two wins came against the number 1 side in the world and reigning World and European Champions, and a side that England hadn’t beaten since the 1960s.

I am caught in the middle of the debate to a certain extent, though, because clearly Fabio, for all the success he had in actual matches, hasn’t done a brilliant job. He has evidently annoyed a lot of people – and regardless of how good you can manage the players, part of the skill of management is managing the other staff and media around you. He invited the pressure on himself by not taking some of these roles seriously. He allowed the media to paint him into the stern stubborn foreigner by being stern and stubborn. Plus the performances in the World Cup weren’t really acceptable, though I do believe that in part he was let down by his players, and also by the fact that they were simply too tired after a long hard season.

There are clearly good points and bad points. I don’t think you can simply paint it into a failure or a success – it’s far too complex for that. The farce of his resignation just adds to that – it may be officially about the captaincy, and he does have a point that the FA interfering with the team without telling him is pretty poor regardless of what John Terry has or hasn’t done, but I don’t think he would have resigned just because of that. Simply put, I don’t think he would have resigned if he thought England had a genuinely good chance of winning Euro 2012 with him in charge because he’s a winner, and that’s the crux of it. He probably doesn’t want his reputation sullied even further by more months of continuing, largely unjustified tabloid criticism and another tournament in which England will be unfairly deemed to have underachieved. It’s just not worth the hassle, even if he is getting paid loads.

Which brings me onto my main point – England isn’t working. The managers aren’t necessarily the problem – well, maybe Keegan. There is something, or are some things, fundamentally wrong with the national team set up. And while a lot of focus has been on the players, I don’t think it’s necessarily down to their lack of ability either.

Within this binary debate between the two camps, the Passionates and the Tactickers, there are a number of other mini-debates, one of which is the debate about how good the players are. One side, usually associated with the Passionates, says they’re brilliant, because the Premier League is the Best League In The World, and the reason that England have failed is the manager. The other side, usually associated with the Tactickers, say they’re not all that great, because if they were, they’d have had more success internationally. I don’t buy either of these arguments. Granted, there are some average players hanging around the fringes of the team – you could say that England lack depth, as opposed to a country like Spain. However, you could say the same about a number of different nations at the moment – the Dutch spring to mind.

But England do have a number of brilliant players, and have done for years – Gerrard almost single-handedly won Liverpool the Champions League; Rio Ferdinand was one of the best defenders in the world at his peak and is also a Champions League-winning captain; Lampard and Terry, in their prime, were part of an outstanding Chelsea team; Rooney, in the right mood and position, can blow teams away, as he showed on Sunday against Chelsea; Hart is one of, if not the best young goalkeeper in Europe today; Barry is a formidable holding midfielder; Ashley Young has improved tremendously; the much-despised Ashley Cole has been consistently one of the best left backs in the world in the last 10 years; Jack Wilshere is very promising. And so on.

While the whole idea of a “Golden Generation” has been largely dismissed by most quarters, using the wonderful benefits of hindsight (mainly out of sheer shame for propagating the very idea, it seems), the fact is that midway through the 2000s, England must have had, and did have, one of the best teams in the world. I don’t believe the players were overrated at all. I know they are/were good because I saw it with my very own two eyes.

So I don’t believe it’s the lack of talent that’s the reason why England have failed. Personally, I believe that it’s fatigue – the lack of a winter break is stymieing their most talented players, because by the end of the season, they are too tired to continue playing the style of football they know best to the best of their abilities. The evidence is there. The stats show there are more injuries in leagues without winter breaks. England have suffered before tournaments with injuries to key players. Gerrard, the England captain at the last World Cup, for Christ’s sake, said of Euro 2004, a tournament where England actually did OK, that they just felt too tired. What more do you want? He’s not a rocket scientist but he knows what he’s talking about – the guy knows when he’s been through a long season.

But no, better to just find a well-known face and pin the blame on him, instead of the faceless FA, who refuse to follow where other nations have already gone. Germany, Spain, Italy – all successful at international level in recent years, and all have a winter break. But they are foreigners so they obviously don’t know what they’re doing, even if they are winning things and England aren’t. It’s OK, ‘cos England will win in the end anyway.

Of course, this combination of massive fatigue and a media out to get the manager regardless of who they are, also means that whoever takes the England job this time is almost certainly doomed to “failure”. Whoever takes the job will be forced to control a team of players who through no fault of their own are simply not capable of playing to their capabilities, and will then be shot down for that, for the crime of picking the best available team. It’s an almost Orwellian state of affairs where dreams are being destroyed in order to continue making and destroying them. With every appointment, the England manager is becoming increasingly vilified. Can it get any worse?

So, you may now be asking what this has to do with my original argument that Harry Redknapp should not get the job. It’s not an easy one to explain given that if/when he takes the job, he will fail in the eyes of most observers. That is guaranteed. But there are different degrees of failure – Sven’s failure was less of a failure than Schteve’s failure, for instance.

My personal opinion is that I don’t think Redknapp has the tactical nous to deal with it, mainly because I think he is a massively overrated manager. Take his time at Spurs, for instance. You’d be a fool to deny that he has done a good job, of course, but the groundwork was already in place before he arrived. The real hero, in my eyes, is Martin Jol, the man who brought in Bale, Lennon, Dawson, Assou-Ekotto and Berbatov, who would be sold to give Harry the funds necessary to further improve the team. Jol took Spurs to 5th in the Premier League for two seasons in a row – looking at the bigger picture in hindsight, his sacking seems ludicrous. Juande Ramos must also take some credit – it is easily forgotten that he took Spurs to 11th in the season he took over, a respectable achievement considering where he picked them up, and won them a trophy. He also bought Luka Modric – yes, he, the vilified Ramos, not the transfer genius Harry.

Transfers may be largely a moot point when it comes to international football, but it just goes to show how the myth and legend of the man has been constructed over the years, giving him credit for things he didn’t do. His wheeling and dealing in general has been over-stated – Portsmouth and Spurs were/are rich clubs, and there are as many flops out there as golden eggs. Even the signing of Rafael van der Vaart, his best move as Spurs manager, was presented to him on a plate on deadline day – it’s not as if he had to sniff around for that one (pun intended – yes, I know he can’t smell anything).

Tactically, he might have overseen the destruction of the two Milan teams in the Champions League last year, but let’s not forget some of the other results – the thumping by Real Madrid last year, or the thumpings by Manchesters United and City this season. I know that if you dig hard enough in someone’s record, you will always find a bad signing or a bad result, but it works both ways – if you can’t point at the bad examples, you can’t really point at the good ones with much conviction either. They’re both outliers.

Ultimately, you have to ask the question – what exactly has he won? One FA Cup. And the final was against Cardiff City of the Championship. I could even make the excuse that that was with a team built with a nicely primed bank account too, with the likes of Sol Campbell and David James bought. But it’s better to point out that even with that money, and the money he has had at Spurs, that’s all he has won – there have been seasons where he hasn’t won anything despite having money available. It is a relevant question.

Great man manager he may be – and I’m not saying he isn’t a good manager full stop; he’s clearly a capable club manager – but I am simply not convinced he is qualified or capable of doing a good job. He seems to me more of a Keegan than a Hoddle. The reason the media are supporting him is because he fits into their narrative – the need for more passion, emotion and commitment. But if he is going to come in and play high tempo passing football, verging on the gung-ho, it will not work at a tournament for the same reason I explained earlier – the players will simply be too knackered to do it.

Plus, we cannot just think about how England are going to play. There are plenty of other teams out there playing a similar style of football, only better. I would hazard a guess that if Redknapp had been in charge for the friendly against Spain last year, England would not have won. Yes, his style of football works for Spurs in the Premier League and occasionally in Europe against slower teams, but in international football? A team like Spain would wipe England off the face of the footballing Earth, just like Real did to Spurs last year. Could a Redknapp England adapt to a situation like that to try and grind out a win as we did in that game? I doubt it. A draw at most. But in a tournament, that means penalties.

The Spain game should be a model for how England should go forward from here. Pragmatism is the key – adapting your tactics from game to game. International football, let’s whisper it, is absolutely shit at the moment – it’s boring as hell to watch, because the teams are playing more pragmatic styles of football. If England try going all out attack, they will not come out of it with any glory.

This is why I believe Alan Pardew would have been the best man for the job if he was interested. His Newcastle side this year have shown adaptability. It is a side that is built from the back. A lot of people, including myself, were surprising when he allowed Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton leave – looking back now, with Newcastle challenging for a European spot, you can’t argue with that. He would also bring the thing that England need most of all right now – a coherent vision of how to play football. There has been far too much instability in recent years – the next England manager needs to do what Klinsmann and Loew did with Germany: knock it all down and start again from scratch.

The problem, aside from the fact that he has now said he doesn’t want the job, is that he is an English Capello – cold, calculating, not a man of the people. Note the howls of derision when he was given the Newcastle job to begin with. At the moment, they want a man of the people. They want Redknapp.

And so, given that England will going to fail whoever’s in charge, I can’t help but feel that that’s what they should be given. It will almost certainly be the wrong choice, but if you give it a try and it’s shown to be the wrong choice, they can’t really argue back. Only problem is, they probably will anyway, guided as ever by the idiots of the tabloid media, the ones who created this mess to begin with.

England, quite literally, simply can’t win.


Written by James Bennett

February 9, 2012 at 18:01

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