Four years ago, the press wanted an English manager who understood English players and the English culture. They got one. It didn’t work. Then they wanted the players’ backsides (so arrogant! so wealthy! so.. what that bloke just said!) given a kicking. A disciplinarian – all Capello will now be remembered as – was duly imported, at great expense.
It seemed to “work” for a while. And the sadistic wing of English football journalism thrilled to tales of enforced mealtimes, restricted conjugality and millionaires scrambling for the approval of “Mr Capello.” All that’s forgotten now.
Truth to tell, the press were already tiring of Capello, and the tide had turned against him before the match against the USA. Such was the atmosphere amongst the splendid gentlemen of our broadsheets and redtops that only a series of Croatia-like results could have kept them at bay. I think this difficult start to the World Cup, combined with British reporters’ bleating, churlish desire for more “access” to the manager (and they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them) has most likely ended his tenure.
I have no sympathy with press turnabouts, nor with “fans” who complain about the money they’ve spent to go to South Africa. The latter at least still have the money to spend – they are English, not Icelandic, Greek or Irish or Spanish – and they are, after all, still on holiday. But there is something happening here, with England, and if I’m right, it’s something we’ve not seen with the international team for a decade. I think the players are on psychological strike.
There are three separate but interlinked components to this.
The first is the very discipline and distance that brought England to South Africa in such good style. For Capello, the players-as-pawns strategy is a given. It’s what he’s always done. The principal advantage to the players is its simplicity: as a player,you are to focus on getting your game right, you are responsible for that, and, by and large, your shirt depends on it. During qualifying, English players always had something to play for: it was quite clear what they had to achieve. But I suspect that, unlike the manager, the players saw all this work and discipline as something with a natural end-point. The prize on offer to them was qualification and a recovery of pride after the McClaren debacle, then, that achieved, a place in the squad. And, with a place in the squad achieved, the proper work could begin. The real business of the World Cup would get underway with a squad secure in the knowledge that they had won their coach’s esteem and trust.
It didn’t work that way. The squad arrived in South Africa to find nothing had changed between themselves and their coach. In a sense, the prize wasn’t the World Cup, not at first: what they wanted was the trust of Fabio Capello. But it wasn’t granted them, nor will it be, that trust: the players understand this at an intuitive level. Despite qualifying so well, what they felt was meant to be punishment for the sins of the McClaren era grinds on, with no sign of an end.
The second is best summed up as “Robert Green.” My heart sank when I heard that he’d been dropped. Dropped, indeed, after a week of what amounted to psychological torture from the management team, made worse by gruesome press coverage. Reflect on the patient years Green has spent, never complaining, in working his way up to the no. 1 spot, reflect on the moral courage with which he faced up to what happened last week, reflect on the betrayal of one of the genuinely good guys of an England squad not overloaded with them. (Do all top managers have a goalkeeping blind spot? Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger do, and so it would seem does Capello). I suspect that, to the England squad, Green isn’t a pawn or a keeper needing to prove himself all over again at this climax of his career, but a mate and a colleague, and one who is being ripped apart in public to no purpose, abandoned and humiliated. It could be them next. After Green, what safety and solidarity can there be for this England squad?
The third point relates to the press. When it comes to the hacks, Capello is not Mourinho, or Ferguson, or Wenger, or Clough: he does not seem to see the need to shield his players from the worst of the criticism. The sudden, press-driven intimacy of a World Cup, with every player the subject of remorseless speculation and destabilising criticism, changes the nature of what Capello calls “the group.” It’s no longer something you fight to get into: it’s where you are, inescapably, wagons circled. The dropped – Green, Milner – can’t escape back to their clubs. The underperforming – Rooney – find themselves trapped in the searchlights, ripped by offensive fire. This morning, had Mourinho taken the job, the Special One would be in the most almightly contrived battle with FIFA or the FA, and those searchlights, that fire, would be his and his alone. I say this with reluctance, but I think Capello is using the players as human shields for himself, and David James’ interview, in which England’s fair-minded, intelligent and articulate veteran could scarcely keep the note of contempt out of his voice, shows the result.
All of a sudden, England’s an unhappy camp, and last night’s body language said it as loudly as did the performance. As had some of the comments made by players in the run-up: Terry and Gerrard have lapsed back into McClaren-era declarations that the team can play better than this, into promises that the team know what they have to do, into flat predictions that the next game will put it all right. That tells me that something has fractured: that the trust and belief are gone.
It’s as if only by downing tools as a team, without actually sacrificing the game altogether, could the England squad communicate the depth of their unhappiness to the manager. That’s how I read Rooney’s parting comments:
“Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is … for fuck’s sake.”
There’s been no loyal support, not since arriving, not from the fans, from whom it is no longer expected, and not from the manager. Rooney’s come in for criticism for this, but he’s absolutely right. The time for punishment for the past has been over since the squad was announced. Yet it’s gone on regardless, and fan narcissism doesn’t help.
Cast your minds back to the qualification games for the 2000 European Championships. Glenn Hoddle had made an excellent start as England manager. A side built around Adams, Ince and Shearer had come home early from the World Cup, but on the back of the best all-round set of performances since 1970. The young Manchester United midfield were bedding in, Michael Owen had arrived, and the future looked bright. But, a couple of lacklustre games into Euro 200o qualifying, Hoddle rowed with Alan Shearer, saying “Tell me why you are producing performances like this.”
Shearer replied: “Have you ever thought the problem might be you?”
It’s not pressure. It’s not nerves. It’s not fear. It’s a message to Capello, and it reads f*** off.
All of the above is speculative to a large degree, and were England to go in at half-time 2-0 up over Slovakia, my guess is that a great deal will be forgiven and forgotten. What I mean is: we’ll know by then.