I really don’t know. Do you?
England played on a Wednesday night, having had all of two days together, away from home and against one of the strongest teams in Euro 2008. And came away with a single goal defeat, France having had to depend on a penalty.
That sounds quite good, but England didn’t play well for much of the game. Unless, of course, that actually is as well as they can play, and one begins to wonder now if that is actually the case.
Win or lose, though, I’m thoroughly enjoying Fabio Capello, yet there are things that he’s doing that strike me as counter-productive. Let’s begin with the enjoyment.
John Terry being comprehensively hung out to dry. If the stories about his parking in a disabled bay are true – if the stories about his urinating over the bar in a night club are true – to say nothing of the others – then Capello has been instant karma. Terry’s “captaincy” was everything I don’t believe about the game: he was a fantasy figure for the press, a plastic Ingerland action man who, when you pulled his string, told you lies about what it had been like under Billy Wright, Kevin Keegan and Terry Butcher. The rousing team talks and the on-field shouting we were promised had no visible impact upon the team at all. Do you want to know why? It’s because they don’t work… (And what bull Terry talks anyway. I’ve taken to changing channel when he comes on.)
It crosses my mind that Capello might very well be teasing John Terry. Getting the other players to toss the captaincy around over his head as he jumps and chases for it: pulling him off in favour of Joleon Lescott. The whole Rio Ferdinand thing. The message seems to be, “get over yourself.” Or else, there’s no message and it’s all just vindictive. I’ll be happy either way.
Telling Beckham to play on. The English press deserve to have “DB” make it to 150 caps. Were I manager, I’d keep picking him, just to punish them for their little-Englander moment after the 2006 World Cup and its dire consequences. Don’t worry about 2010 David; make sure you’re fit for 2014. The press were out there again today, waving his obituaries. They’ll never get it, but until they never get it, they must be taught a lesson.
Not picking Sven’s rejects. Do you remember the outrage in 2006 when messers. Defoe, Bent, etc., were left behind in favour of Theo Walcott? So many English forwards “deserved to go” – Johnson’s another. Well, it’s now two years on, and not one of the players abandoned on the beach has done anything to suggest that their omission wasn’t entirely appropriate. The unlucky man of 2006, Dean Ashton, is, according to good sources, in receipt of assurances regarding his international future from Capello and Baldini. (The unlucky man of 2007 too; so many injuries, always it seems at the point where his international career is about to begin).
Reversing Steve McClaren’s reforms. The return of jackets and ties and proper shoes and decent eating habits. I can’t have been the only one to think that abandoning all of this was a bad idea. Sir Clive Woodward sought to make England rugby a glorious, elite experience, different and better for the players than their life with their clubs, so that players would aspire to England and do all they could to stay there. Much of Woodward’s work was dumped the minute he was gone – and look at the chaos and football-esque indecision in England rugby now. (At least they show signs of becoming aware of themselves now, but it’s about time).
But there are other things about Capello that I’m not so sure about.
Reading the team sheet out on the bus. This might be a temporary measure. Given the paucity of international players who are also English, Capello inherits Sven’s squad until either they all die of old age or young players begin to assert themselves. Given that Stuart Pearce turns out to have been born for the job of Under-21 England Coach (and he deserves to be that good at it), the latter is the more likely, but not yet. So Capello needs to use everything he can think of to differentiate what has gone before with what happens now. It has to become new and fresh again, albeit at cost. Because if you don’t know the team in advance, there’s less you can do to prepare, to become used to your team mates, to develop automatic understanding with them. As it is, the players are in the dark until the last minute, and have to maintain their training levels right up until they climb onto the Leyland Lion and growl off towards the Empire Stadium.
Picking players on form alone. This isn’t what’s happening, in actual fact. If it were, Nigel Reo-Coker would have played, as would Ashley Young. No: Capello is working his way through the limited number of players available to him in a methodical way, and his squads reflect that.
If he were to pick largely on form, I’d complain. England players aren’t together much, and need a “Club England” so that they can get used to each other and develop understanding. Constant chopping and changing helps no one but the press. And having to fight for your place, all of the time, creates too much pressure and fear – Capello himself has noticed that it’s fear, not lack of lumpen “passion”, that’s holding England back. There are a small number of English players who possess international quality and the ability to handle that pressure, but not enough to fill an XI, let alone a squad. There are more, of the type historically exemplified by a remarkable man named Geoff Thomas, who have the mental strength but not the actual ability. Once Rooney, Owen, Hargreaves, Crouch (ball to feet, please), Bentley and Beckham are in the squad, the remainder have to come from the skilful-but-less-assured group. (The only defender I’d put in that list is Gary Neville, who has spent his entire career on the verge of losing his United place to this or that expensive foreign player, but Neville is quite obviously unfit at the moment).
There’s one more thing. It’s almost certainly not the case, yet the thought crosses my mind. What if Capello is in the job for reasons other than the ones he gives?
It must be obvious to continental observers that our English players depend on technically superior French, Spanish and Portuguese players for much of their club success. And it must be obvious that we in England still don’t realize the extent of our problem. In ten years’ time, all will be well, if Arsene Wenger’s right about the quality of youth moving through the academies. But for now.. what if it’s all a big joke, an exercise to bring us down to size, to confront us, not with what we’ve lost, but with what we’ve never attempted seriously to obtain? What if Capello knows that we’re not good enough, whatever any manager does? What if Capello’s merely marching the players up to the top of the hill and down again in order to provide Beckham with caps and the rest of them with a humiliating experience? What if that’s what it’s all about: the regimented dining, the grown-up clothes, the teamsheet-on-the-bus routine, the unfamiliar formations, the squads with their golf-tournament-style “cut” and unpredictable manning?
It probably isn’t true, and Capello is probably serious about getting us to 2010. But if he is just here to spend his time in some extended, sophisticated, cynical exercise, in making the rosbifs dance to the bullets, then I hope he’s enjoying it. Because I certainly am.