Thursday 14 December 2017

Clinging to grand delusions

Eamonn Sweeney

That lovable old rogue Enoch Powell, who'd surely have been tickled pink by the circumstances leading to Fabio Capello's resignation, once observed that "all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure." You could say the same about all England football managers.

Because, ever since Alf Ramsey was booted out by the FA after England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup, almost every one of his successors has been regarded as a failure, the exception being Terry Venables who had the good fortune to be "cut off in midstream at a happy juncture" after the 1996 European Championships.

There have been disastrous failures like Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren, wacko failures like Kevin Keegan and Glenn Hoddle, honourable failures like Sven-Goran Eriksson and Ron Greenwood and even partial successes such as Venables and Bobby Robson. But even that last pair must be judged as having come up short because, in the words of journalist Martin Samuel, "the sneering obituaries written for Capello reveal the reality of managing England. Win a World Cup or sling your hook."

There's one slight problem with this attitude. It's insane. Because becoming England manager is like being the boss of a dating agency who must facilitate the romantic ambitions of a toothless 60-year-old bachelor with questionable personal hygiene. "Find me a supermodel," says the client. The boss is about to laugh in the poor deluded bastard's face. But then he sees the money.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica probably hit the nail on the head last week when observing: "The English could not stand him any longer and he could not stand the English any more. A politically correct excuse was needed to terminate a marriage which has never been consummated, and the Terry case, with its racist undertone, was perfect."

In reality, Capello never had a chance of winning a major tournament with England because it's an impossible task. Let's examine the evidence since Alf Ramsey's departure, shall we? It shows failure after failure with the only two bright spots being a World Cup semi-final spot in 1990 and a place in the last four of Euro '96. Fair enough, we'll count them as serious achievements.

So where do these two semi-final spots place England in the hierarchy of European football? Well, the first thing we notice is that talking about rivalry between Germany and England is as silly as talking about the rivalry between Kilkenny and Wexford hurlers or between Usain Bolt and Paul Hession. Like England, Germany, or their previous Western incarnation, have been beaten semi-finalists in major tournaments twice since 1974. But they've also won two World Cups and two European Championships and reached the finals of those competitions on another six occasions. Germany inhabit an entirely different footballing universe from England.

Italy have also reached two semi-finals during the same period. But they've managed two World Cup victories and four other major final appearances on top of that. France have one World Cup and two European Championship victories, a losing final appearance and three semi-final losses. Holland have their Euro '88 victory, three appearances in World Cup finals and five other last-four placings. These are the only European countries who are entitled to go to every tournament expecting to figure in the shake-up.

Maybe England come just after the big four? Afraid not. Spain are next on the ladder. They may have taken their time getting going but they have bagged a World Cup and European Championship. Are England sixth? Nope. You'd have to reserve the next slots for countries who've actually won tournaments. Like the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia, one European Championship win and a final and semi-final appearance to boot. Or Denmark, a Euro win and a semi-final slot. Or even Greece, European champions in 2004. All more serious footballing nations at international level than England.

Well surely England make the top ten? Sorry, you have to reserve a spot for Portugal, European finalists in 2000, major semi-finalists on another four occasions. Like England, USSR/Russia and Belgium both made the semis on two occasions. But unlike England they managed to make it to a final, Belgium in the 1980 European Championships and Russia in the same tournament eight years later.

England do make the top dozen, sharing a spot with Sweden, Poland and Turkey, who have also reached a couple of semi-finals each. And that's the level we're talking about. England are not Germany or Italy or Holland, but Sweden. They're a turkey who thinks he's an eagle.

Every England manager faces an impossible task. It was no different for Capello. When I was young, we were always told that the eureka moment for English football was their 6-3 drubbing at Wembley by Hungary in 1953. Up to that they thought that they led the world game, simply because they'd invented it. The drubbing by the Mighty Magyars awakened them to their real standing and laid the foundations for the reappraisal which was richly rewarded in 1966.

The problem these days is that England suffer one eureka moment after another and seem to learn nothing from them. The hubris of the 1950s has returned in spades and the gap between hype and reality has grown to North Korean proportions. Capello couldn't cope with that because nobody could.

Now it's Harry Redknapp's turn for the hot seat. His accession will no doubt be greeted with an outburst of patriotic fervour from papers who approach football matters with all the calm judgement and logic of an Alsatian fed on Red Bull and vodka. Guys who hailed the FA's wisdom in enlisting the continental nous of Eriksson and Capello will now proclaim the virtues of the bulldog spirit. Until Harry finds he can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear and the clamour for Guus Hiddink begins. To be succeeded in turn by the campaign for Alan Shearer. And so on.

There is a tremendous amount of glee to be derived from Redknapp's emergence as the 'people's favourite' for the job. Because the very papers currently extolling the discreet charm of the man from Poplar would have been preparing to give

Harry both barrels if he'd been convicted in Southwark Crown Court last week. The articles describing him as a barrow boy who embodied everything that was sleazy about professional football were all ready to go. But Harry won his case and pundits, who've never hidden their disdain for the 'wheeler dealer,' will have to fake a little respect. At least till the European Championships are over.

Meanwhile, the delusion continues. Rio Ferdinand, in the style of Simpsons newscaster Kent Brockman welcoming our new insect overlords, tweeted his support for a Redknapp appointment. "I think we need an English manager now, we don't need anything else lost in translation," declared the Sage of Peckham. Quite right too. After all, when Capello told Rio, "play like a world-class centre-back," the Manchester United man thought he said, "play like a worn-out clown and jackass at centre-back." That's what must have happened, innit? Rio, like many of his team-mates, is still confusing the size of his wages with his standing in the world game.

Redknapp may well turn out to be a better fit for the job than Capello. His management career after all has been largely concerned with trying to get the best out of average players. And all that time spent with clubs like Portsmouth, West Ham and Southampton may be no bad preparation for taking charge of a team which, in international terms, closely resembles those perpetual strugglers.

Doubters may point out that Capello had ten major trophies under his belt when he took the England job, while in three decades of management Redknapp has won just a single trophy.

Still, it's one more than England have managed.

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport