British football can choose, if it likes. But there are only two options. Either determine to develop the most skilled young players in the world, and the most intelligent, groundbreaking tactics. Or go for that heady, nostalgic, quick fix, with its underpinning of panic and fear.
Slaven Bilic, the university-educated manager of Croatia, thinks we’re going for the second:
I don’t understand why you played Austria four days before such a crucial game. I thought it was disrespectful. You don’t play Austria away before a proper game, the key game. But we didn’t beat you because you didn’t respect us. We beat you because we are better. In the games, the qualification, we were a better team than England. End of story. We were better and we still are.
So it was, and yet it turns out not to have been humiliation enough. Capello got the England job just in time. Were the selection process to begin again now, the little-Engerlanders would win the day, and we’d be off around the passion-and-commitment mulberry bush all over again. Capello always did have to win every game at a canter to keep the purblind off his back, but now that Keegan has returned to Newcastle, his early months are going to be all that harder. Let’s hope that he really doesn’t care about the press.
Make no bones about it – Newcastle are going to throw the kitchen sink at the opposition for the rest of the season. The bottom four are quite bad enough to stave off any thought of relegation, and with Arsenal up next in the FA Cup, that competition’s gone. It will look quite good, although not “good” as we define the word for Arsene Wenger’s beautiful team. It will look English, in the way a steam preservation railway looks English. It will look like revival.
In the summer, Keegan will be out looking for defenders again, but already the voices will be raised about how if this kind of thing can work for Newcastle, why can’t it work for England, who are playing “like Italians”..
Let’s be quite clear about this. Keegan’s reappointment at Newcastle is a terrible, terrible idea. I can’t imagine what Ashley and Mort were thinking – unless, and this is all too possible, they were thinking that he was the only man capable of contemplating taking the job on.
There is no evidence that the new owners of Newcastle have any idea at all about turning the club into an institution capable of winning trophies. They have just fired the one member of their staff who did. And replaced him with someone who, by his own admission, hasn’t seen even a Premiership match in a number of years. And then asked him to decide whether or not to have the club’s big hero, a man with no coaching or management experience and no unusual insight into the game, as his no. 2.
And look at Newcastle’s shopping list. Jermaine Defoe, Wes Brown, Wayne Bridge, Shaun Wright-Phillips. All well-known names, all not quite the best in their positions. Arsene Wenger’s first signings for Arsenal were men you’d never heard of. You know about Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit now. Nor had you heard of Thierry Henry – at least, you hadn’t heard of the version that Wenger managed to produce. Had Chelsea not moved first, perhaps Nikolas Anelka would have been on the list. Whose protegee was he again?
No, Newcastle can only say that Keegan has arrived to bring back the good old days. The “M” word is flying about. When you hear “Messiah” on someone’s lips, it means they’ve let go of all reason, and they have a mob at their back. Who want past glories restored.. although it’s 51 years now since Jackie Milburn left, and in another ten years no one at St James’ Park on a Sunday afternoon televised match will have seen him play. Newcastle are the first Premier League fans to be nostalgic about a team that won nothing beyond what would now be called the Championship.
For anyone not a Newcastle fan, and I’m married to one, it’s hard not to be reminded of the passion-and-commitment rubbish that was flying around in the weeks before Steve McClaren’s appointment as England manager. It’s there again, around Newcastle. But this time, there is no question whatsoever of “a manager who understands English players” because Newcastle can’t survive on England players alone.
Keegan’s almost successful 95-6 team was, as most Premiership sides were then, heavily native. Harper, Hughes, Warren Barton, John Beresford, Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, David Batty, Rob Lee, Paul Kitson, Peter Beardsley, Keith Gillespie – not all English, of course, but all British. Only Pavel Srnicek in goal (who was at Newcastle before Keegan and, but for Allardyce, would have been there to welcome him back), David Ginola, and that epitome of blood-and-thunder football, Faustino Asprilla, came from non-Anglophone countries.
It won’t be like that now. Newcastle’s current squad is still more British than most, but, Owen aside, they aren’t of the required quality. To win titles and cups requires world class players. Last season, Chelsea won the League Cup and the FA Cup – and in the latter, they beat title winners Manchester United in the final. In terms of depth and strength, Newcastle are nowhere near this level. Neither are another side managed by an ex-England manager, Manchester City. But at least Ericksson spent his “time off” energetically scouting Europe for the “good unknowns” – the likes of Elano.
What’s more, Ericksson is blessed with the ability to restore confidence in players. Darius Vassell is returning to something like his old self. Michael Ball is thinking of an England return, at least to the squad, after squandering the bulk of his career. And, before Sven, who’d heard of Joe Hart or Michael Johnson outside of City? We know who they are now.
When Keegan himself left City in 2005, Danny Mills is alleged to have brought champagne to the training ground:
“I felt training under Kevin wasn’t up to the standard it should have been. The quality was poor. There were lots of little things I felt needed to be put right. Discipline could also be a bit lax.
Michael Owen, a better player by far than Danny Mills, was inspired by Keegan when Special K was in charge of England, and four years later, wrote:
He seemed the complete package. But if it was for some players, it wasn’t for me. I assume the manager had conveyed to his staff what he thought of me and plainly it wasn’t complimentary. I felt I was being singled out… there was so much pressure on him he needed a scapegoat – as soon as he said one negative thing about me it led to another one and then it became a habit. Looking back on the Keegan era, one main feature stands out for me. It made me question my footballing ability for the first time in my life. And, yes, it scarred me. I used to go into games believing that the opposition was scared of me and that nothing could get in my way. That feeling, that belief, evaporated at times when I played under Keegan. Certainly it was a dark phase in my career. It made me more sensitive and self-protective.
And Rob Lee has pointed out that, whereas players of his generation idolized Keegan, young men of today do not.
Keegan’s reappointment displays every single error of the kind that has held English football back for so long:
- The inspirational manager: “Belief” quickly evaporates if it isn’t based on reality. Arsene Wenger really does know what he’s doing. So, evidently, does Alex Ferguson. So does Sam Allardyce, and I put his obvious lack of real regret at being out of Newcastle down to his realization that he wasn’t working with grown-ups but wealthy kids who think they’ve bought a train set. Keegan’s appointment confirms that suspicion.
- Restoring old glories: As has been rehearsed ad infinitum in the recent football press, you can’t go back. Successful second stints are so rare, and none have led to FA Cups or League titles. Where is the evidence that Keegan can buck this trend?
- Passion and commitment: Passion and commitment loses to skill and strategy nine times out of ten. And it just isn’t a unique attribute of British football. Passion and commitment just aren’t standout features of British football – saying that is like asserting that King Arthur still has an active role in domestic politics. Let Slaven Bilic tell you about British football:
I saw you at the European Championship in 2004 and your team was brilliant,” he said. “Should have beaten France, easily beat Switzerland, slaughtered Croatia and you play Portugal in the quarter-finals and you are leading 1-0. And then Wayne Rooney gets injured. And you sit back. And you have been sitting back ever since.
2002-4 was a rare period when England did not sit back: I’ve been screaming at television screens since the late ’70s watching it happen again and again.
Our players do NOT have more passion and commitment than foreign players. And it’s not the manager’s fault. And, as for the British fans.. get over yourselves.
Bilic also has this to say, about the influence of the league: he’s echoing Herbert Chapman..
…if you have the best league in Europe, there’s the danger that you won’t have a great national team. For the best league in the world you need the best players in the world – and that makes it a problem for you. I read something in FourFourTwo about the Arsenal team that won the FA Youth Cup. People said they were going to be a great team but they all had to leave to play football. Justin Hoyte is one of the few still there. There’s no way that would happen in Croatia. I didn’t play Modric and Corluka because they played for my Under-21s. I did it because they played regularly for Dinamo Zagreb, against Arsenal and in the Uefa Cup.
To sum up, I prophesy that Newcastle fans will enjoy the rest of the season – the team will attack constantly for the remaining 16 games, and will win some of them impressively. Over the summer, there will be a lack of signings of the quality required to challenge the top four, and some significant players will leak complaints to the media. Pressure will mount in the new season, as the club will have something to play for again. But the team just isn’t good enough, and neither are the tactics, and the league position will mimic that of the last few years.
I don’t want to look any further than that as it’s all too depressing and stupid. Bilic says it better than I can:
With you English, you always have to find excuses. Rather than saying you weren’t very good, the easiest thing was to blame McClaren. The whole story became, ‘It’s all due to McClaren; if we’d had Capello we’d have been top’. Everyone, including the players, did that.
So England, and so Newcastle.