Monday 26 February 2018

Big Sam's a perfect fit for second-class England

Sam Allardyce: Underestimated Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Sam Allardyce: Underestimated Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Of the 17 England managers who preceded Sam Allardyce, only one reached an international tournament final in 66 years of trying. Obvious extrapolation: the problem lies with the players, culture and temperament of the English game more than the men who wear the radioactive tracksuit.

Allardyce's appointment marks a debunking of the England job - a downgrading, which is no bad thing, and no insult to 'Big Sam' himself. The job needed stripping of its mythical status, its ludicrous Messiah glow.

The best job in football? What a parody. Managing England is not even the best job in Britain. Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016. England, like the Titanic, broke on an iceberg.

Critics of the English FA's decision to appoint Allardyce, which was officially confirmed yesterday, will be a mixture of dreamers who think England need more sophistication and stereotypers who believe Allardyce is a throwback to England's industrial heritage, complete with bluff manner and long-ball CV.

This overestimates the England job and underestimates Allardyce.

First, managing England is not some sacred calling. It is not the pinnacle. It is an inflated salary that leads invariably to a dead end: most recently a last-16 defeat by Iceland, in a game that affirmed all the congenital flaws of the England set-up.

These have been on show pretty much continuously since 1966, in a 50-year loop in which the game's mother country has failed to reach a final, and has popped up in only two semis - in 1990 and 1996.

How anyone could look at this litany of false dawns and think any self-respecting A-list manager would be interested in anything beyond a lavish FA salary is a mystery of comic proportions.

There was nothing in England's Euro 2016 crucifixion or 2014 World Cup group stage crash to suggest the job is anything more than a ride up a cul-de-sac with a nice pay packet attached.

This is written from the perspective not of cynical commentators but of prospective candidates.

Try seeing it through their eyes. To imagine Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho kicking themselves for taking positions in Manchester when the England job might have been theirs is fantasy.

Guardiola will have to improve Raheem Sterling's touch and confidence anyway, at Manchester City - but why would he choose to do it in the service of a country with a 30pc England eligibility rate in the top division or a 50-year record of tournament blowouts?

For years, the conceit held that the FA must track down a managerial heavyweight and throw money at him. Big Phil Scolari, of Brazil, was one doomed pursuit. Big Sam is a much more realistic choice, given the probable indifference of Arsene Wenger.

In the last 20 years alone, the FA has tried the emotionalism and gung-ho of Kevin Keegan, the icy opportunism of Sven-Goran Eriksson, the austerity of Fabio Capello and the traditionalism of Roy Hodgson.

Each policy lurch has come to nothing. Each top-down effort to correct the previous error has led inexorably to the conclusion that the name of the England manager is a side issue to the disorder underneath.

A blatant weakness in the whole England cabaret is a refusal to address the challenge of tournament football, and why England are so bad at it. Again and again, they treat qualifiers and friendlies and championships as one big continuum, with disastrous results.

Wales and Iceland showed that tournaments are an art form of calculation and team spirit. England on the other hand just blunder into them with ego flying.

Soundings from a dozen former England players at a recent charity event produced one firm conclusion. Tournament football, they agreed, is about getting the best from the group of players thrown together by their shared nationality.

Any qualified coach can put on a training session, they agreed. Any competent selector can pick the best starting XI, they concurred. The rest is down to that branch of chemistry that marks out the best managers: the ability to peer into human nature and blend disparate personalities together in a common cause.

Chris Coleman has that talent and Allardyce has been doing this throughout his time in management. He will not bring some revolutionary tactical 'philosophy' to the role; nor, probably, will he conform to Dan Ashworth's religion of possession football.

Allardyce will want possession with purpose. Sometimes it may not be pretty. But England are hardly in a position to be taking up artistic positions.

Big Sam will recognise players' weaknesses and capitalise on their strengths. He will cultivate a winning mentality and expel the half-hearted.

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