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..