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Review: James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team”

Posted on 03 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Steve Bloomer: 19 goals in 23 England Appearances 1895-1907

The first edition of James Corbett’s “England Expects: A History of the England Football Team” has sat somewhere near my desk since about a fortnight after its initial publication. There hadn’t really been a proper full England history before. Of course, there’d been books about England managers – but that’s not quite the same thing, and in any event, by the time Ramsey was appointed, the first proper England manager as we know them, English international football was already 90 years old. So Corbett’s huge red hardback, which combined concise match reporting from the very start, concentrated on players and audience as much as managers, and in sharp, clean prose avoided all of the usual laddish clichees, was extremely welcome.

The second edition is a reillustrated, tightened-up paperback, and it gives a reader confidence when a photograph of Edwardian striking star Steve Bloomer is captioned author’s own collection. For James Corbett, the first half century of international football – 1870-1920 – isn’t the usual source of sneering fun, and his account has none of the usual sense that writers give of waiting for the real business to begin. So this is the best short account of the amateur-versus-professional controversy. The wealthy pioneers like Lord Kinnaird are proper sportsmen, not moustache-twiddling sexual obsessives. Snobbery is not the only reason keeping the Football Association out of FIFA. Professional league football is not the usual unmitigated triumph for the working man. Corbett lets the game grow in its own time and context, and that time and context are assuredly not ours.

Even non-fiction accounts, when done properly, fall into one or another of the seven plots, and there’s an enjoyable debate to be had about which one the England football team follows and at what speed. The usual unconscious pick of football writers is decline, fall, recovery, triumph! fall again, recovery, Gazzamania, and (insert blur of journalism to bring us “up to date”). Corbett avoids this. The inter-war period, badly filmed and so little-known to most fans, is closely covered without distracting references to past and future, making good use of what are actually fairly extensive primary autobiographical sources. The great England side of the war years and after – Lawton, Mannion, Matthews, Finney, Carter and co. – are recorded and celebrated for their own sake, not for that of Hungary and 1953.

Not that 1953 came out of the blue: Corbett incorporates it into a longer account of relative decline after the wartime side broke up, and remarks that the 6-3 defeat itself caused less upset amongst the game’s players and administrators than you might think. 1950-55 was one of a number of the fallow periods that England’s team have passed through – the 1920s, either side of Dixie Dean, was another, and so was 1975-80, and 1991-5. How would the Hungarians of ’53 gotten on against the Byrne-Edwards-Taylor England of 1957, or the Charlton-Greaves England of 1962? England’s recovery after the 1954 World Cup, in both club and international terms, was real enough, and Corbett’s chapter about those sunnier last years of the Winterbottom regime is headed by a fine meditative photo of Stanley Matthews besuited, new holder of the ballon d’or, gazing into the future from the sand dunes at Blackpool.

That future would be one in which England built three separate teams, in the space of twelve years, which were capable of frightening anyone, even the 1970 Brazilians. Three good sides – without revolutions in training, without changes to the league system (save the scrapping of the regional divisions in favour of a national Division Four), and without reform at the FA. Some things had changed: the ’57-58 pre-Munich side were the best nourished in history, thanks to rationing, and, thanks to education reforms and Walter Winterbottom, many of the ’66 and ’70 sides had received proper coaching in good conditions at school at the right age. But the biggest change of all was the ending of committee selection, partially under Winterbottom and finally under Ramsey. Corbett’s long, detailed examination of Ramsey’s construction of the ’66 side against strong and vocal opposition is the deserved highlight of the book. If you want to know what the verrou system is, you’ll have to buy a copy.

What follows ’66 is a kind of flatlining: the endless, exhausting efforts to do it again, to retrieve some footballing self-esteem, all while the game goes on about its own, quite separate business elsewhere. There are ways to make sense of this. It comes back to plot again: and Corbett, confronted by the triumph/disaster dichotomy that night/days its way out of the mouths of fans and journalists, opts instead for theme:

the insatiable burden of expectation facing our footballers and the way they have often been overwhelmed by it..shattered dreams and unyielding expectation (stretching from) origins among the mid-Victorians through to a modern era defined by money, massive egos and chronic underachievement(..) the monstrous expectation.. rears its head again and again and in so many different ways. There is, alas, no happy ending.

But there is happiness along the way. Hudson’s match in 1975 against West Germany; Keegan and Brooking’s attacking 2-0 Wembley win over Italy two years later; the vindication of Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer’s romp in the sunshine against Holland. Before that game, Terry Venables summed it up: “We are inclined to be a nation (which thinks) we are the worst team in the world or the best. Neither is true.”

The final chapters cover England’s progress during what will have been the period of James Corbett’s own writing career. Unlike many journalists, he’s resisted the temptation to place himself at the centre of events, appearing only when doing so adds an essential psychological point (Corbett’s meeting with Steve McClaren six months before the future Eredivisie winner’s England sacking for example). Nor, while writing about the unbearable expectations placed on England, does he overpromote the issue: what keeps us interested, in the end, isn’t expectation, he says, but something lighter and better: hope.

England Expects is fully footnoted and contains a comprehensive bibliography and is published by De Coubertin at £12.99.

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Alf Ramsey Picks The Team: Prologue

Posted on 21 December 2008 by JamesHamilton

He wasn’t first choice: that was Jimmy Adamson of Burnley. And when the job offer did come, he didn’t agree straightaway. Alf Ramsey had enough about him to negotiate, and, courtesy of those elocution lessons he always denied, the voice to do it with. In 1962, these words were not blindingly obvious:

I think an England manager must make up his mind what players he has and then find a rigid method for them to play to. If any player, no matter how clever an individual is not prepared to accept the discipline of the team’s method then I can see no advantage in selecting him.

The football conundrum is that it is a team game with all the room in the world for individual expression. The weight has to go somewhere. In England, with a traditional dribbling game, it went to the individual. In Scotland, with a traditional passing game, the team was more the thing. Ramsey hated Scots. But he thought like a Scot about England.

To get him, the FA had to change the habits of ninety years. No more selection committees. Ramsey was to be in total charge of tactics and team selection.

That was more than a change in manning and demarcation. It completely altered the cultural place of the England team in the national game. The selection committee, with Walter Winterbottom’s involvement, would try to put together a winning side, true. But an England shirt was also seen as a reward for service. And there was a pork barrel element to it too: committee members would favour players from their own clubs. All this would now stop, and something else take their place.

But Ramsey’s desire to pick the team himself didn’t make the complete sense in 1962 that it makes now. There was still very little football on television, and what there was was insufficient for tactical analysis or judgment of players or the spotting of new talent. The England manager would need a thousand scouting eyes. He’d need to attend matches as often as he could.

In 1962, with the maximum wage only just abolished, football club squads were far larger than they are today – probably at least twice the current size. They would be predominantly English. Furthermore, the retain-and-transfer system, which still had a year to live,  meant that a lot of top talent was trapped in the lower divisions. Picking the best squad from such a throng, let alone the best side, was a formidable task.

By 1962, too, the war babies were coming into England contention. They were the best fed generation before or since, and their crucial street football years had been clear of cars. Hungary aside, the South Americans, who’d sat out 1939-45, dominated post-War football. By 1966, England would have a new group ready to take them on. And what a group it was: between 1966 and 1972, the First Division had enough talent to carry seven different title winners, all of them memorable sides.

What’s more, this group were in receipt of better training and tactics that any previous English players. Ramsey himself had played in both the 1-0 defeat to the USA in 1950 and in the 6-3 Hungarian disaster. He wasn’t the only man in English football to spend the ’50s suffering from and obsessing over these experiences. Joe Mercer and Walter Winterbottom went into the schools to institute Jimmy Hogan-style skills training; Stanley Matthews pioneered modern playing kit; Don Revie brought Hungarian ideas to Manchester City. And the clever Scots, Busby and Shankly, had arrived.

By the end of the 1960s, the culture would have changed, and working class male talent went, successfully but with no track record, into music. But before the decade was out, England would send a team to the top of the world and bring it safely back again. Four times. Once before Ramsey, in 1961, Winterbottom’s last great side with the young Jimmy Greaves. In 1964, the year of Johnny Byrne. In ’66. And – it’s right by my calendar – 1970.

It was done despite a querulous press corps (“What’s it about, Alfie?”) and some spectacular condescension from television and middle class media. It ends, as we’ve seen, in endless remembrance, celebration and a lifetime of receiving lifetime awards.

Ramsey took over in May 1963. 1961 had been great, but better was to come.

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The Problems Facing Fabio Capello

Posted on 17 December 2007 by JamesHamilton

My own pleasure at the appointment of Fabio Capello to the England manager’s post is largely down to non-footballing reasons. In England, there’s a sense that football is an acceptable interest for men, but more cultural pasttimes are suspect. Not so for the gastronome aesthete Capello.

That’s not to argue that hinterland makes a manager. High intelligence does, as the careers of Busby, Stein, “Clough and Taylor” and Alex Ferguson demonstrate. But you don’t have to collect art or wine. That Capello does both is merely a refreshing change. It’s not one the British press are likely to understand or appreciate: it already has them looking over their shoulders at one another, giggling in that nervous, insecure way of boys in the crowd everywhere.

Nevertheless, if there is one thing I’d like Capello to do whilst he’s here, it’s to place football in its rightful place in our culture. Something so beautiful and thrilling does not deserve to be the strictly-guarded preserve of a more than averagely paranoid and insular wing of national life. But he won’t be here long enough. He’ll have to satisfy himself with winning.

It’s hard to tell whether there’s more or less opposition this time to the appointment of a foreign manager. As in 2000, there is general recognition that there’s no one of the required calibre here at the moment. There’s a reason for that: nothing is being done to create a cadre of top-level coaches. The pointless UEFA badges aside, there is no place of training for football management in the United Kingdom. Nor is there any especial call for one. I would like to see a member of the FA Executive urge a programme to create – not coaches to compete with the Europeans – but coaches far better than any in the world, coaches that foreign clubs and countries will compete for as they competed for the likes of Fred Pentland and Jimmy Hogan at the turn of the last century. Coaches with the creativity, imagination and management skills we see in other areas of British life. A Briton, Jonathan Ive, designed both the IMac and the IPod; we need to create the Ives of the football world and establish for ourselves an enduring lead over our rivals.

There is the usual talk about an English manager understanding the unique mentality of the English player. There is no evidence at all that anything of the sort is true – if the idea has any internal logic to it at all. It’s not an issue applied to any other part of British sporting life. Do British swimmers have a unique mentality? Or British rugby league players? Or British tennis players? Of course not: it’s just the thrashing about of an insular, paranoid outlook that has been outflanked by events year after year.

Nor should Capello’s appointment give English managers the idea that they cannot aspire to the top job. Because the real reason that they shouldn’t aspire to the top job is that they lack the ideas, the talent, the originality, the training and the courage. There are no English candidates coming through the ranks who look likely to change that. I almost wrote here, ‘where are our Steins, Busbys, Shanklys..’ before realising that I’d be listing a series of Scots. Yes, the Middleborough duo of Revie and “Clough-and-Taylor” might line up alongside Sir Bobby Robson and Joe Mercer as very good managers, but none of them are a Stein. This is an older problem than we give credit for.

Capello himself seems to be of the thinking that the English players have a mental block about the national side, which would explain their failure to reproduce their club form for England. If he’s right, then it’s a relatively straightforward problem to solve. But I don’t think that’s the whole of his thinking on the subject. It’s just a soundbite. This is just as well, as the idea doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

Which players, then, are failing to reproduce their club form for England? Not Micah Richards, or Ashley Cole, or David Beckham, or Michael Owen, or, recently, Wayne Rooney. Not Rio Ferdinand. Not Gareth Barry or Owen Hargreaves or Peter Crouch. Is Gerrard failing, or is what we see merely what Gerrard is when deprived of his Spanish midfield colleagues? Lampard might be: I suspect him, and others of his generation, of harbouring secret doubts as to the true extent of their ability. Is John Terry failing, or is he just a limited player unfortunate enough to be the object of tabloid fantasy, who want a British bulldog carrying the soul of a Churchill and get instead an unremarkable nightclub boy from the beerier end of the pedestrianized south-east?

I can’t help feeling that this generation of players is suffering from a lack of vision, not a lack of form. The group has been together for quite a long time. It is now six years and more since England destroyed Germany in Munich, and yet of that team Owen, Heskey, Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Owen Hargreaves and Sol Campbell have featured within the last twelve months. Jamie Carragher and Paul Scholes both played; both are supposed to be Capello targets.

That team saw the 2002 World Cup as perhaps a little early for them – but pencilled-in Euro 2004 as the tournament to attack. But Rooney was injured at the crucial moment, and the 2006 World Cup – which could have been merely the next opportunity to succeed – became at once both the team’s last chance to rescue themselves from their history and a nightmare arena in which the team would finally come apart.

With 2004 gone, and 2006 gone, and English football culture hiding itself behind a tattered passion-and-commitment screen, qualification for 2008 was just more punishment. Capello needs to bring an idea of what the England team is for, what its story is going to be. When Brian Clough signed Dave Mackay for Derby in the late 1960s, he did it by changing Mackay’s view of the future. Capello needs to do the same for England.

Will he do it with the same 2001-7 squad? England’s best recent performances only served to confirm Ericksson’s initial good judgement. Play Beckham; play Owen with a foil. If Scholes won’t play, Lampard plus Gerrard is about as good as you’re going to get. Defoe, Bent and co. fall short.

I wonder what Ericksson would do now?

At any rate, surely Capello can’t be as unfortunate as Ericksson with injuries. 2002: Gerrard, Neville, Beckham, Owen. 2004: Beckham again, Owen again, Rooney. 2006: Beckham again, Owen again, Rooney again, Neville again, Ashton.

My suspicion is that Capello is going to start out creating what Revie called “a right bastard” of a side. A Wimbledon with polish, that will go out confident of avoiding defeat and taking satisfaction in creating discomfort and distress in more cultured opponents. We are going to bite legs for about eighteen months, and then we’re going to plug in Rooney and Walcott and start scoring goals.

Let’s see if I’m right. And, isn’t it nice not to know what’s about to happen with England? It’s been a long time..

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England and the World Cup: A Longer View

Posted on 26 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

I’m not going to enter into any detailed analysis here, but these are some pointers as to why I think England have only one World Cup star on their shirts:

  • England’s best teams have almost always peaked outside World Cup years – the 46-48 side, the 60-61 team, and the 75-78 side that Revie never picked are just 3 examples.
  • Although the press and the fans prioritise World Cup success, the FA haven’t on the whole, preferring to see the England team as an enjoyable adjunct to the real business of maintaining the best grass-roots game in the world. Choosing the England manager has been a case of finding someone who will take care of far more than just the international side – one reason among others for the appointment of Bobby Robson and Ron Greenwood; similarly, the non-appointment of Brian Clough.
  • For the first half of the twentieth century – the half that gave Italy two of their three World Cups, and Uruguay one half of theirs – England were quite correct to focus on the Home Championship as their source of international competition. Between 1900 and 1920, other international matches – such as the Olympic tournaments – were far too one-sided. England, with a fully-fledged league system behind them, got into double figures frequently, and ended up sending an amateur team to the Olympics just to make things more competitive. Between 1920 and 1950, things were a little closer – but when Italy brought their “World Champions” to England, they resorted to thuggish tactics simply to keep England in sight. After the war, England became far more involved in international football, but before 1950 the story was much the same – easy victory. It’s forgotten that England’s defeats abroad – to Spain, for example – were defeats for what was almost certainly a badly hung-over team who were treating the trip as a holiday yet playing hyped-up super-motivated opposition for whom the game was the highlight of their lives.
  • What’s seen as England’s fallow period since 1970 was in fact very short – lasting perhaps from 1972 and the Netzer game at Wembley, to 1977 and the defeats to Italy. It’s a period coinciding with Ramsey’s decline and Revie’s failure to pick a team from perhaps the best generation of skilful, inspiring footballers England’s had since the War. The anxieties and lack of confidence that were born in that period are still with us today, and are reflected in the bizarre, Cassandra-esque reporting of international matches. I believe that England teams have, until Eriksson, played at 5-10% below their real ability as a consequence of this. By contrast, our success in European club football in the 1970s raised confidence and expectations to such a degree that a mediocre side such as the Aston Villa of 81-2, or the talent-limited Forest teams of 78-9, could expect to win European cups and do so, repeatedly.

It sounds strange to say it, but behind all of this is an unexpected truth: we have cared less than other countries about winning the World Cup. Mexico have gone home already, but their team had six months together to prepare; we negotiated an extra week. During tournaments, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing in the media, but the fact is that we can put up with not winning – and that’s why we don’t.

Four years ago, Clive Woodward decided that nothing was going to stand in the way of England’s rugby men winning the ultimate title, and that was the beginning of a quite extraordinary and utterly focussed effort that just – by the skin of the teeth – succeeded. Such was the mental energy expended that the side have since gone into colossal decline, and have no chance of defending their title next year. Likewise, the England cricket team won the Ashes through what appears now as a moment of decision – that it mattered at the ultimate level to win, and it mattered now. Since then… it’s all gone away. In both rugby and cricket teams, the vital players have been missing through injury almost ever since.

If England win – and they seem to have a similar outlook to the rugby and cricket teams – you can almost guarantee four years of total mediocrity afterwards. You can probably guarantee it anyway – Erickson’s successor has been chosen, not to win trophies, but to facilitate the development of a new generation of English coaches. It needs doing, but it’s not a goal shared by the press or the fans.

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The England Managerial Race: Sam Allardyce

Posted on 19 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

I make no bones about being depressed at the prospect of the next England manager. We have enjoyed five years of Sven Goran Erickson, during which the expectations we hang around the national team have risen spectacularly. Under him, we went into the 2004 European Championships pretty much expecting to win, and, Brazil aside, we’re doing the same for the 2006 World Cup (we were right then, and we’re right now). Although there’ve been criticisms of Sven – no loyalty, and his teams can’t get interested in matches against minnow sides – the facts are that we have always had enough playing talent over the years to compete with the best in the world, and now we’re actually doing so. And because I can’t see an English – even a British – coach to match Erickson at the moment, I think that all this is going to come to an abrupt end once the tournament in Germany is over.

Best of a bad bunch is Sam Allardyce. Allardyce is without any shadow of a doubt a great club manager, and were I him I’d be looking for one of the “big” club management roles now. There’s a more interesting than usual analysis of the Allardyce effect from the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson here:

It is five seasons since he dragged Bolton into the Premiership, and during that time the perception of Allardyce as the stereotypical English manager has shifted. ‘People respect Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho as foreign innovators who have brought new ideas,’ says a senior source at the FA. ‘Sam Allardyce has quietly been doing the same things for a long time. He’s not quite the classic throwing-cups-of-tea, old-school English manager you might think.’

Allardyce was one of the first managers to use ProZone, the computer system that tracks every physical detail of a player during a match. He is wired up to an earpiece during games and has consulted the expertise of Humphrey Walters, the business guru Sir Clive Woodward credits as being a big influence in England’s 2003 rugby union World Cup victory. The Bolton squad are offered massages, t’ai chi, yoga and Pilates. Some, though, wonder whether his approach is gimmicky and question why he has such a large backroom staff (17 at the last count).

‘There is a feeling at the club that it is all about him,’ says one first-team player. ‘He can treat players harshly and some of the top players feel he cannot add anything to their game. That is maybe why he needs so many people around him.’ The players are aware that many pundits question Bolton’s basic style – famously described by radio commentator Alan Green as ‘ugly football’. ‘In Europe we might struggle,’ the player adds, ‘because we can be attacked down the wings and in the final phase of a match.’

I view Sam’s large backroom staff favourably: it’s the sign of a man who knows where his own limits lie, and who knows how to overcome his own limits by building an effective team. Of the current candidates therefore, it’s no surprise that he’s the one with the superb record in reigniting the interest of top-name stars, to say nothing of integrating them into a proper team. Sven has treated England as a club, with a relatively fixed squad, and the result is a side familiar with itself and with its own culture. Sam’s done this at Bolton – it’s the context into which you have to place his loyalty to the likes of Kevin Davies. It may be he can do the same with England.

The “gimmicky” charge is a red herring. None of the top managers around at present are quite the geniuses they are sometimes flagged up as. Most of the “innovations” that have come into the game in England since 1990 are in the realm of the obvious – don’t get drunk, eat properly, don’t train stupidly. The rest are in the realm of the strange – popular sports injury specialist from Germany, Hans Muller-Wolfhart, would be treated very differently by the British press were he American.

Fans, though, seem to like Allardyce. He might be behind Martin O’Neill and Curbishley in the betting for the England job, but for many he is the popular choice. ‘Big Sam’ struck a chord with supporters when, a little more than two years ago, he remarked during a spat with Arsene Wenger that if his name was ‘Allardici’ his status would be the equal of that enjoyed by foreign coaches.

It’s been said. In truth, part of the status enjoyed by foreign coaches has come precisely because they aren’t English – because there’s been a widespread feeling for years, only beginning to fade now, that the English game has been, in Pete Davies’ phrase, “All Played Out”. It’s no use asking Sam to play the part of smooth, urbane operators such as Venables, Erickson or Wenger, for all that he’s probably the most intelligent of the group.

Instead, Sam could look to South America, where another hyperactive, gumchewing, thickset retro-manager has enjoyed considerable success. Luiz Filipe Scolari, World Cup Winner, European Championship Finalist and general old-fashioned manager is widely considered, although not by me, to have outfoxed Erickson twice. He’s been mentioned in the context of the England job. If Sam is serious about the step up to Lancaster Gate, he’d do well to play on this, because if he can’t be the English Sven, he could very well pass off as the English Scolari. But he needs to do it soon.

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