No one’s a prophet in their own.. and, once again, England’s press have watched England in a manner reserved just for England. During the 2006 World Cup, I tried watching other teams play with that English press attitude, and found it an enlightening experience. Even in that extraordinary Argentina-Serbia game, the striped side put passes astray, failed to read each other’s movements, went for the hopeful long ball, showed inexcusable defensive lapses, played a dodgy keeper and generally behaved like a work in progress, not like that thing of legend, the complete team who put in the complete performance.
IÂ don’t think that everÂ happens. Even SpainÂ in the Europeans earlier this year, who brightened my life and probably yours,Â requiredÂ managerialÂ intervention, went through stretchesÂ of comedy andÂ incompetence, showed indisciplineÂ andÂ mental fragility and an overdependence on Fabregas. The 1982 Brazilians had no defence. The French side of 1998 had no strikers – Henry was a shadowÂ on the wing. ThereÂ is always something to criticise, always some way toÂ improve even the unimprovable. The greatest ever England side, the 46-48 Franklin-Matthews-Finney-Lawton group had, as their modern-day counterparts do, a dud “traditional” skipper. Every England skipper you can remember had great England games, except two: Billy Wright and John Terry.
When Fabio Capello was appointed, I felt that here at last was a More Than Mind Games manager, and after four competitive games, all won, with a goal difference of +13, using, for the mostÂ part, the same players that Capello’s predecessor had plumped for, I feel deeply complacent about England, and deeplyÂ comfortable. There isÂ the sense that this is now being taken care of. One can take rest from ceaseless vigil, relax, doÂ other things, read books and play records, spend long eveningsÂ in Hector’s talking about privateÂ librariesÂ in the Scottish Enlightenment.
Although, not entirely. BecauseÂ there was quite a lotÂ ofÂ that feeling about Scotland under Walter Smith and Ally McCoist, a sense thatÂ the adultsÂ had arrived and everything would be all right now. Until Rangers came calling.. Scotland played well against Norway, better than they were given credit for, yet there is that oldÂ insecurity back again, that fragility and vulnerability.
TheÂ match against Italy at HampdenÂ inÂ the snow was the crucialÂ one, where it all changed back. IÂ heard theÂ commentators saying, pre-match, that the Italians wouldn’t copeÂ with the combination of cold, Scottish passion, and the crowd. They don’t like it up ’em! TheyÂ don’t want it as much as we do! And “Flower of Scotland” was roaredÂ out by a bearded singer and we were told thatÂ the Italians looked apprehensive.
It was as though,Â having gotten so far through actual talent, effort, tactics and the roll ofÂ the ball, Scotland had lost faithÂ in allÂ that and hoped to be sweptÂ into the EurosÂ on a tide of bullshit. The television pictures told the story:Â the Italians, lined up for the anthems, looked calm, almost amused. It was the Scots who looked cold, who were hopping from foot to foot or chewing furiouslyÂ on mental gum.
The Italians scoredÂ in the first minute. And this half Scot, driving home with BBC Five Live lit upÂ on the dashboard, couldn’t help butÂ laugh. Instant Karma: a Michael Owen with the crisps moment.
Scotland found themselves again, laterÂ in the game. Just like they found themselves against Iceland and Norway: withÂ the roll ofÂ the ball, that wouldÂ have been six points, not four. There’s a team there, just as with England, and Burley keeps trying to bring itÂ out. I think he’ll succeed: he’s done it before, withÂ lesser players than those he has to call upon now.
Capello’s done it:Â this is probably as well as that group of English players are capableÂ of playing. With the additional fiveÂ percent that the English always seem to find against the best opposition (e.g. Trevor Sinclair’s career-definingÂ performance against Argentina in 2002) this isÂ once again a squad that everyone might fear. I think a big partÂ of it is simply Capello’s own straightforward belief that he is a goodÂ manager and that his methods work. Steve McClaren was and is too curious, tooÂ willing to learn and find newer, better ways toÂ have that confidenceÂ in what he is doing now.
InÂ the psychotherapy world, the best performers were always the dull,Â incuriousÂ ones who’dÂ learnedÂ one way andÂ applied it with the subtlety of knockingÂ in a hammer with a nail,Â not theÂ ones who kept upÂ withÂ the literature. Those alwaysÂ had the fear – and the hope – of finding that new research would disprove their current thinking and remake it along new lines,Â in the process rendering their previous practice – what? wrong?Â invalid? Â Unjustifiable?
If there’sÂ one thing I’veÂ learned about footballÂ in the 3 years of writing this blog, it’s that being right isÂ only partÂ ofÂ the picture, and that when it comes toÂ management, being wrongÂ in the right way can work better. Capello is an intellectual Italian who loves fine art and wine, but he seemsÂ to understand the truth behind those no-nonsense John Smiths ads too, no doubt without everÂ having seen them. AmongstÂ the European candidates for South Africa 2010, only Spain also retain a 100% record. But they’veÂ only scored ten goals to England’s fourteen,Â and thoseÂ in a group of, byÂ comparison, consummate ease. And they stillÂ have a double-header against Turkey to get past. With Ukraine stillÂ in the offing, I don’t agree with RooneyÂ that England are through with theirÂ hardest fixtures.
Past twoÂ of the three, though, and with flying colours. So I’m calm. And off to do something else.