Sport World Cup 2018

Thursday 23 May 2019

Cordial press relations may soon turn to friendly fire for Southgate


Gareth Southgate. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA
Gareth Southgate. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA

Tommy Conlon

England no longer expects, apparently, because bitter and prolonged experience has finally forced them to accept their fallen place in the world of football.

But this recently-acquired pessimism may turn out to be short-lived and skin deep. After all, some 21 million people watched their opening World Cup match with Tunisia last Monday night, between television and online. It was the most-watched TV programme of the year. The audience peaked at 18.3 million during the closing minutes, when Harry Kane's stoppage-time winner had them roaring from Cumbria to Cornwall. The average audience was 13.7 million. The water-cooler moment of the year was supposed to be the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last month. But the average audience for the royal extravaganza was a mere 11.5 million.

So if England no longer expects, it certainly remains enthusiastic. If the team beat Panama today, they should qualify for the round of 16 knock-out games. At which point it will be hard to tell the difference between enthusiasm and expectation. The national side has had a makeover under Gareth Southgate, the manager who in his own career learned the price of the hubris that surrounded his generation of England players. It was trauma piled upon trauma as the public serially disowned them and a voracious newspaper industry tore them apart.

Southgate has preached humility and openness and empathy with his young players. His basic message is that England are a modest power on the international stage, with much to be modest about. He is by all accounts a sensitive, thoughtful man. Last year he described the professional football culture as "a shitty, horrible world".

Most of his predecessors discovered just how horrible it can become. Last Sunday the BBC broadcast a new documentary on the subject, entitled Managing England: The Impossible Job.

It began, as these things do, with Alf Ramsey and 1966. Every manager and every team since has struggled to escape the shadow of that golden summer. The subsequent decades have been a tragicomic opera of dismal performances, magnificent outrage, bad karma and absurd controversies. At the heart of it all has been a profound yearning to return to that Valhalla, that shining city on a hill.

Fabio Capello, the Italian grandee, was one of those tasked with becoming the next Moses. He steered them to the 2010 World Cup finals. But then, he says in the film, "Il fantasma ritorna". The ghost returns. "This never-ending '66." And strange things happen to players in the broiling pressure of the ultimate tournament. "The shirt of the national team weighs down heavily on [their] shoulders." Cut to Rob Green, the England 'keeper, fumbling a long-range shot into the net against the USA in South Africa. "I was convinced that this was a very good team," recalls Capello. "Then we get to the World Cup and there's that ghost, smothering you with its white tentacles."

After Ramsey ('63-'74) came Don Revie and his infamous dossiers on the opposition. Even more infamously, he buggered off to the Middle East in '77, lavishly enriched, unlamented at home. An interview with Kevin Keegan in 1982 is plucked from the archives. He hadn't much use for Revie's exhaustive homework. "Meself and Mick Channon played cards a lot," recalls Mighty Mouse, in full luxuriant bubble-perm, "and we used to use the backs of the (dossiers) for keeping the scores of the cards on."

Ron Greenwood ('77-'82) replaced Revie, Bobby Robson replaced Greenwood. It was Bobby's misfortune, says Henry Winter, the veteran football correspondent, to get "caught up in the crosshairs" of a vicious circulation war among the press. After England lost all three group games at Euro '88, the squaddies in the tabloids opened merciless fire. Contemporary footage captures a platoon of Fleet Street's finest on an aircraft heading to the next international. "Some of these journalists," states the reporter, "have been fuelling the most vitriolic campaign ever waged against the manager of an England football team." Steve Curry was one of the big beasts of that particular newspaper era. He was interviewed for the same report. "There are number two football writers, if I may use that collective expression, who are here to do the job on Robson should it be necessary," he openly admits.

And boy, did they "do the job" - whether it was necessary or not. Watching from a distance was one Graham Taylor. "What sort of treatment is that of people?" he asks in a 1984 television interview. "What do we expect? We absolutely destroy fellow human beings. Now that I want no part of." If anything the treatment of Taylor between '90 and '93 was even more notorious.

It must be said that their dignity in the face of these public humiliations has stood the test of time better than the fourth estate which inflicted them.

After Taylor came Terry Venables, Glen Hoddle, Keegan, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Capello, Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce and now Southgate. A lot of chiefs in the Football Association came and went in those decades too, without changing its reputation for sublime mediocrity. If the managers were cursed in their relationship with the press, they weren't blessed by the blazers they had around them either.

When their time was up, they would have to endure one final ritual punishment beating from the press - the "exit interview". They were contractually obliged to face the music one more time. McClaren, says Winter, received "the most brutal" inquest he ever witnessed. "And there was a lady sitting at the back of the room listening to the whole thing - and it was Steve McClaren's wife."

Southgate has tried to usher in a kinder, gentler era. He appears to have gained the trust of his players and the confidence of the laptop lancers too. "But, you know," says Winter with a cold smile, "if he slips up against Panama . . ." A pause and a puff of the cheeks. "Phew."

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