Herbert Chapman’s teams won six League Championships and two FA Cups in the days when that was all that a team could win. Yet he went into print to say that he felt league-style competition was ruining the game.
The pressure on a team to win, he argued, militated against the team’s ability to entertain and against its players’ opportunities to become better footballers.
Chapman was looking to start an argument. I don’t believe for a minute that he wanted the Football League dismantled after forty years in favour of an endless series of meaningless Harlem Globetrotters-style exhibition matches leavened with the odd Home International and Cup tie. In fact, it’s hard to see how football could have had the impact it had without the discipline and shape of league structures. And think – no more crunch games, no more miraculous escapes from relegation or last-gasp title-clinchers..
Nevertheless the same choice between “success now” and longer-term development faces every manager and coach. It’s on a slightly smaller scale, but it’s there nonetheless.
Arsene Wenger has rebuilt Arsenal over the last two to three seasons. The players coming in have required time to bed down, to find their feet, to get used to playing with each other. They’ve had that – but they had to manage it at the same time as securing the club’s financial position by finishing in the top four of the Premiership.
Billy Davies at Derby probably has a long-term vision for his side, and would love a run of say, 60 games, plus two or three transfer windows, to start pulling it together, whilst building a youth set-up at the same time. Some hope. Instead, he has no choice but to put a side together that has some chance of clawing its way out of relegation trouble. Unless the Derby board are unusually far-sighted, or, like Watford’s, happy to be a boomerang club, he can forget about having room to build for the long term.
The same problem exists further down the scale. Tony Cascarino has begun a footballing agony-uncle column in the Times, and here’s an exchange from his first post:
My coach keeps banging on about us “working on our shape” in training but half the lads can’t even trap a ball. What’s more important for us to concentrate on during training nights: teamwork or individual ball skills?
TC: Teamwork. You can practice ball skills all you like but if your natural talent is limited, there’s only so much improvement you can make. But the potential to improve tactically is huge. You see from the professional game how much of a difference being organised can make, even when a team is inferior. What’s most important of all is that you enjoy training and matches, because if what you’re doing seems like a chore, it’s not doing you much good. Structure training so it’s fun, whatever you do during it.
You can only nod at that. If I were called into a dressing-room and asked to “do something” about the team’s confidence, I’d reckon to take the best part of 3-6 months, working most days. But I’d be required, most probably, to have something to show within days or weeks. In 6 months, the team might be down, the manager gone, the board selling up.
Not every manager will succeed given unlimited time. It does seem to be something of a principle – the very best managers, the Steins, are able to organize instantly, getting improvements now, AND thus win time to build for the future AND know precisely how they were going to do it. Clough and Taylor went into Derby County with a blueprint for success (their phrase, and I don’t think it’s one made up in hindsight) but pulled something workable together in a couple of weeks.
Translated to England level, the task begins to look impossible. As England boss, organize is about all you have time to do. But the unique pressures of the situation, seen down many years in panicked English defending-deep, require something more. But how on earth do you provide it?
At club level, there are many ways in which you can take pressure off your players. You can grab the headlines. You can distract them, keep them laughing, keep them on their toes with the unexpected, and so on and so forth. Perhaps you can do it at international level. But no one’s succeeded for forty years.
Not even Terry Venables. Most of the Youtube coverage of Euro ’96 focusses on Gazza’s goal, Seaman’s penalty saves, the Holland match, and poor Gareth Southgate. There’s no clip of what England did after their early goal against Germany in the semi-final, but if you remember, we immediately sat back to defend on the edge of our area. With the inevitable results. It’s all too visible in the German equalizer here: