Tag Archive | "capello"

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Low Expectations in the International Arena

Posted on 25 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Craig Levein

Interesting words from Craig Levein in the Scotsman:

He says he watched his first match at the helm like a scientist analysing matter through a microscope and he was baffled by what he saw. The lack of self-belief in the players was “strange”. He had expected players who are big performers at club level to walk out at Hampden, in front of their own fans, their heads held high, their chests puffed out. Instead, they seemed timid, shrinking within themselves and the shirts which had appeared to fit perfectly in the dressing room minutes earlier.

This echoes what Fabio Capello said in similar circumstances when taking England over two years ago. “Fatigue” seems to have overtaken “confidence” as the “expert” diagnosis on England, for the time being: it’ll be interesting to see how the Scottish dialogue shapes up as Levein gets through his first round of games.

In Levein’s mind things are that positive. The cynicism which seems to grow in the Scottish psyche as prevalently as the heather on the hills is kept at bay. He feels there is a change in the national mood. Instead of just moaning about what is wrong, he thinks there are a growing number of people keen to get together and actually do something constructive.

There has been a change in that direction, and it’s been good to see. And Scotland only thinks that it’s more cynical and defeatist than other countries.

Only in the job seven months and with a solitary game under his belt, he has not had enough time to gauge which players amongst the current first-team contenders get the biggest buzz from representing their country but he will. And if there are two people vying for the same position, then he would be inclined to give the nod to the one who values the cap the most.

“But the fact is, there shouldn’t be a situation like that. It should be the case that every player wants to play for Scotland and, you know, I think of people like Davie Narey, who probably went along to 80 Scotland gatherings and hardly played any games but he saw it as representing his country and he knew it was an honour and he would never have dreamed of saying ‘sod that’. And he was a top, top player.

Given that the pay gap between footballers in Scotland and Scots on average earnings is less than that between Premier League players and the English general public, Levein is saying something here that’s more interesting than a repeat of that old English control-freak canard about overpaid primadonnas. This is about low expectations.

At club level, it’s far more easy for a player to conceptualize some kind of success and to believe in it. That’s partly from necessity. The club pays the wages. But it’s also from experience: only clubs that are really trapped in a relegation spiral won’t win or draw some games along the line.

At international level, with so many fewer games, so much less continuity, and a different kind of “home advantage”, history, you might think, hangs much heavier on the players. Scotland go into qualifying tournaments leaden with previous all-so-nears. And a great deal else besides. England arrive at tournaments with an “experienced” team whose experience consists of fickle support, evisceration by the media at the first hint of failure, long years of their privacy being constantly and hideously violated, and the knowledge that anything short of a semi-final will leave them regarded as traitors to the nation.

Scottish fans – insofar as I’ve seen – don’t share the English view that high wages “should and therefore do” discount all questions of pressure, confidence, mental energy, tiredness and what happens to you after you’ve been subjected to the Premiership circus for ten or more of your more emotionally-vulnerable years. Only the Rangers-Celtic divide generates anything like the acutely personal and constant hatred that is directed at a large chunk of the England squad for a great deal of the time.

But at least England do have some unquestionably fine performances to draw upon – it’s been some time since Scotland enjoyed a comfortable victory over opponents at their own level to compare with England’s home and away wins against Croatia. Fighting rearguard wins over France, as experience has shown, are hugely cheering, good to look back on, and useless as measures of progress or builders of momentum.

Scotland have to find that momentum: no one wants to wait twenty years for the McLeish report to work whatever magic it has to offer. The mix of profound realism in Scotland about the quality of the players available, combined with Levein’s morale-boosting energy and excitement, makes this a good moment to start.

Long-term, though, it will take more than Levein to cure the ills. He talks openly about the amatuerishness of certain aspects of the SFA and having come from a club background he claims there are faults there as well. But he believes there is now a willingness to look into the mirror held up to them all by the Henry McLeish report and work together to improve the game.

And why not Scotland, after all? There’s nothing inevitable about decline and poor performance. But shifting low expectations is hard, harder even than an experienced, successful manager like Fabio Capello once thought. But Capello’s travails are an opportunity for Levein. Capello solved England’s self-inflicted qualification woes: now he is determined to repeat the trick and do the same at tournament level. If Levein can do likewise – that will be the standard he’ll have matched. It’s a target worth the shooting.

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England v Algeria: Not Fear, But F*** Off

Posted on 19 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

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.

Postscript:

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.

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Alf Ramsey Picks The Team: 1963

Posted on 29 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

By 1963, England’s top players would have been well used to foreign travel. They were familiar with the routine and experience of flying, so Ramsey’s first fixture shouldn’t have posed a problem just because it was an away friendly.

But it was an away friendly in Paris, that most unfriendly and unEnglish of cities. It smelt of drains. There were French cars in England of course, but not so many, and not carrying those alien licence plates. And the food, the bathrooms: you can travel a lot further, and feel a lot more familiar.

And the manager was new, and, it soon became clear, quite the xenophobe. He was young, too: nine years before, they’d turfed him out of the England team after that display against the Hungarians. Since then, all he’d done was Ipswich: and, as a look round the dressing room revealed, there were no Ipswich players here. Just the usual blokes, a little louder than usual, sitting a little closer together than usual.

Munich was almost exactly five years ago. Since then, England teams had been drawn from lesser sources than United. Great, gallumphing Wolverhampton Wanderers; ambitious, modern little Burnley; lucky champions Everton. And Spurs, a team of ex-pat Celts plus Smith and Greaves.

Bobby Moore was there, looking like he’d fallen out of a spaghetti western into Duncan Edwards’ boots. He was only 22, and his first England experience had been the 1962 World Cup. He’d been someone Winterbottom had been able to protect from the vagaries of the selection committee. Ramsey had seen him play, well, against Wales in November.

So Moore was in Paris, and it was a disaster, and England lost 5-2. Lose to the French first, said Ramsey’s ghost to the sleeping Capello, and then beat the Germans in a friendly. It’s what Ramsey did, at any rate, but first he got all kinds of things out of his system by losing to the Scots.

Nobby Stiles would say later than Alf Ramsey could get a man to feel like a giant. It was true, but the first player to feel the bad brylcreem roaring through his football veins was Jim Baxter. What was it between Baxter and Ramsey? Slim Jim would always turn it on for Alf, and in Ramsey’s second game, Gordon Banks’s debut, he’d scored twice before half time.

Then came the 1-1 against Brazil, then, as now, a good enough result. But it left England with what amounted to one point out of Ramsey’s first three matches. They’d scored four goals, but let in eight. No one had shone. There was no sign of the “system” of which Ramsey had spoken. Charlton and Greaves, once so prolific,  had done nothing.

England would play six more games before 1963 was out. They’d win them all. Charlton and Greaves would produce every single time. Between May and November, it would be played 6, won 6, for 28, against 8.

What happened? Greaves happened… a run of two goals in eight internationals was followed with one of eight goals in five. It would be his last real burst of scoring for England. He wouldn’t have Bobby Smith to play alongside after that. Smith had scored 13 goals in his fifteen internationals and he and Greaves scored 31 times in their 13 games together.

In the 4-0 win over Wales in October, Bobby Charlton’s goal took him to the all-time England scoring record, overtaking Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney with a total of 31. Greaves was on 25 by then, but although he’d end up with 44, not a single one of the additional goals would make a meaningful difference for England. Charlton’s would kick-start the World Cup, and he’d score more important goals in the ’68 European Championship.

But in November 1963, with only two full years to put together a team for the World Cup, Ramsey’s England was little more than Winterbottom’s, flywheeling on.  No new “system” and few new players. It would all change in  1964. Ramsey had been to watch West Ham, and he’d found a new centre-forward, one good enough to become a legend..

But if it was a matter of repeating the 9-3 heroics of 1961, Ramsey could claim to have fallen only one goal short, ending the year with an 8-3 against Northern Ireland. Will those of you in the Catholic seats clap your hands?

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Fabio Capello’s First Squad

Posted on 31 January 2008 by JamesHamilton

When Sven Goran Ericksson put out his first squad back in 2001, it sprang surprises, not least for Charlton’s Chris Powell. Powell was an effective left-back for England until Ashley Cole was ready (at the time, he was another surprise – too young, too inexperienced, it was thought by many). There are none in Capello’s first essay, just confirmation of dolour for Beckham and Robinson.

Beckham’s the victim of the US football season being out of sync with our own. Robinson, on the other hand, may be watching his entire career unravel. There have been comments made this year by former England keepers about the attitude of the new generation to training, learning and development – not complimentary ones, and although these comments haven’t been levelled at Robinson personally, nevertheless they give plenty of food for thought.

Robert Green can clearly forget all about England now, failing the absolute demise of every other English keeper. His omission, Beckham’s and Robinson’s aside, is Capello’s main departure from the Ericksson template. Otherwise, it’s clear that Capello’s brief time in England has led him to agree with the Swede: there really is only this core group of players who are up to international level, plus twenty or so hangers-on to this tasting menu of a squad.

Likewise Jermaine Defoe. It’s temperament with him – he combines his individual standoffishness with a reluctance to work on his game, with the result that his runs and positioning are no better now than they were when he was a teenage prodigy at West Ham.

I’m not surprised by Curtis Davies’s inclusion. His famous “pub footballer” interview, combined with some good recent performances, mark him out as someone with the right attitude to go with his talent. If he keeps this up, a long international career could await him. And, given the sheer number of Aston Villa selections, perhaps domestic trophies to boot. Martin O’Neill is building quietly, but it’s bearing fruit.

And it’s good to have Capello mention Walcott, Hart, Wheater and Lennon by name. Walcott and Lennon are on the verge of becoming for real what they have promised to be since 2006 – truly exciting, exceptional players, but both need a bit of luck at the moment. The boost of being singled out for mention will help them. Wheater surely won’t be out of the full squad for long, and there are rumoured to be others to follow from the excellent Middlesbrough youth set-up.

I saw Hart play against Sheffield United, and, comic disaster with balloons aside, he looks like a proper keeper. There’s a presence about him that wasn’t so evident with Robinson and Green. It’ll be interesting to see who of Kirkland, Carson and James get the nod against Switzerland.

Overall it’s a defensive squad, with more out-and-out defenders compared to midfielders than we saw under McClaren. Hargreaves or Barry will fight it out for the defensive midfield role, presumably behind Gerrard who looks as if he’ll pick up the armband in the absence of John Terry, unless Alex Ferguson’s proffering of Rio Ferdinand comes through.

There was talk of Michael Owen joining Beckham on the sidelines, but in the end, common sense won out. The doubts expressed about Owen mystify me: when he returned to the colours last year, it was to bring yet more goals. No other England forward does that so reliably.

It looks bad for Dean Ashton, though, who must – like Robert Green – be wondering what he has to do, what fates he has offended. But for injury, he’d have gone to the 2006 World Cup instead of either Walcott or Crouch. McClaren was on the verge of picking him, when injury came again. At one stage in 2005-6, he looked like a younger, more skilful version of Alan Shearer, an old style English centre forward but with subtlety.

Likewise Andy Johnson and Darren Bent. Neither has done anything since 2006 to contradict Ericksson’s judgement of them as, essentially, journeymen. Bent is injured at present, after having come so close to scoring against Croatia, but given what’s happened to Defoe, it will be interesting to see if he is picked when fit. England’s over for Johnson, the Kevin Phillips de nos jours.

Anyway, what do you think? Good squad, bad squad, meaningless? Who are the missing men? Do we learn anything significant about Capello’s ideas for England, or does that await the first of his actual elevens? Is Sol Campbell’s back injury the only reason for his absence, or is his England career over too?

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