Sunday 22 October 2017

Dion Fanning: Mann overboard as Hodgson faces another crisis of culture

Dion Fanning

On Thursday night, I found myself in a state of some despair. I was going to see a play and had just learned that it ran for nearly three hours with only one interval. The news did nothing to alter the deep despondency I experience whenever I go to the theatre, a feeling always compounded by a sense that there are a number of things I could be doing that would be more spiritually enriching, such as putting on a Waylon Jennings record, listening to Alec Baldwin interviewing Jerry Seinfeld, watching cricket highlights or lying semi-comatose on a sofa feeding Haribo sour mix to myself.

As it turned out, things were not as bad as I expected. Naturally, the audience collapsed in uncontrollable mirth at lines I would be ashamed to smile at in a press conference (and I speak as somebody who laughed louder than anyone when Martin O'Neill cracked wise about James McClean tweeting the Irish team last week).

As I grumbled loudly to my wife beforehand, I was aware that I sounded like Ross O'Carroll Kelly's father, a deeply insensitive fellow without a hinterland, unaware of the cultural importance of the theatre.

Theatre seems to trade on this reputation to its own detriment. If, for example, it is as easy to get a laugh in a West End theatre as it is in an Ireland press conference, there may nothing to make those involved think they should try harder.

Going to the theatre is seen as a good thing. We can feel pleased with ourselves and conceal our insecurity by muttering something about enjoying Brecht instead of wondering if they really should be keeping us up so late with their bad jokes.

Last week Roy Hodgson was asked by the German newspaper Bild to name three people he associated with Germany. Hodgson went for Franz Beckenbauer, Angela Merkel and Thomas Mann.

"I thought they might like the name of Thomas Mann so I slung it in there," he said on Monday. "I've read only two Thomas Mann novels in my life and I gave up one of them, Doctor Faustus, after 10 pages. It was too difficult for me."

Asking a man of Hodgson's generation to play a word association game involving Germany may well be a diplomatic minefield, and you probably can't even use the term minefield.

Yet the inclusion of Thomas Mann seemed to be a slightly self-conscious effort by Hodgson to play up to the image of himself that has caused so much delight in England, even if he was able to be self-deprecating last week about his inclusion of Mann.

Hodgeson may well be aware of the effect his reputation as football's literary man has on his people.

"Hodgson is also a man with a hinterland," a Guardian journalist wrote last month in a piece headlined 'Roy Hodgson can teach our politicians so much'. "He reads novels – and has been quoted as saying he likes the work of Milan Kundera, Martin Amis, John Updike and Stefan Zweig. (That's the Zweig who says, in his autobiography, that he always possessed a boundless indifference to sport)." When Hodgson stated that he had relaxed following England's qualification for the World Cup by reading Stoner, the John Williams novel currently enjoying a renaissance, there was much rejoicing.

Hodgson's sophistication would be great if his football teams reflected this cultural hinterland. Instead his sides are about as erudite as the lesser works of Dan Brown.

Yet it doesn't matter. He provides a counterpoint to the image of English football as brash and shallow, even if the reaction to his literary tastes is shallow in itself.

Gary Neville has been vocal on the need for England to embrace its identity, instead of hoping to copy whatever the Germans or the Spanish are doing.

When Germany arrived at Wembley last week, England wondered how they had got it all so right. Their club teams were the most admired in Europe and the national side not only travelled by tube, they had youth, talent and hope.

German clubs have demonstrably benefited from the drastic changes in German football over the past 12 years, but it remains to be seen if the German national side has as well. Germany will go to the World Cup as one of the favourites, something that has been more or less a constant for 50 years. England will go expecting to be knocked out in the last eight which has essentially been a constant since 1966 as well.

England's failings are usually placed at the door of the Premier League and Neville again wondered why only 26 per cent of players in the league were English. When there were more English players playing in England's top division, the England team was no better and the top division was worse.

England should probably be more concerned that only one of their players plays outside the Premier League and wonder if this reflects their insecurity, an insecurity that Neville recognises when he calls for the team to have an English identity.

In Wayne Rooney, they have a great player who could be their salvation if he wasn't being undermined by his own brashness that may mark an insecurity.

Rooney should be the England midfielder who makes everything happen. Yet he insists he is a striker. Rooney's unhappiness at being asked to play in midfield was, he says, the reason for his dissatisfaction at Manchester United last season. It was, he said, time to be more selfish.

When David Winner interviewed Rooney before the European Championships, Winner wanted to challenge the preconception of Rooney – "the self-made genius cast in the role of dullard".

Winner achieved that as Rooney outlined the thought that accompanied his talents. The interview revealed Rooney to be a true sophisticate. He is Little Richard as recalled by Greil Marcus – "the only artist on the set, the only one who disrupted an era." Despite in Rooney's case, presumably, never getting as far as abandoning the books of Thomas Mann.

If Hodgson could persuade Rooney that his future was in midfield, he would have achieved something of real cultural significance.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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