England’s Dreaming: A Post-Allardyce Fallout Warning
There is a point at the heart of the conversation concerning the now confirmed departure of Sam Allardyce from the position of England manager after just sixty-seven days that is worthy of consideration: nobody really cares. Sure enough, football loves nothing more than a good argument. If I may push my Saint button and pull my Greavsie lever for a moment, it is a game of opinions. And there will be debates about the continuing over-involvement of agents in modern professional football, about whether a manager should be sacked for injudicious comments or for discussing the circumvention of FA rules, about whether this one transgression in itself should have been enough to do for a settling in manager of the national team with few obvious replacements.
But the atmosphere today, from the point of view of the pure football side of matters, is emphatically not one of wailing or the gnashing of teeth. Some people are bemused at the precipitous speed at which this story blew apart in the way in which it did. Some may be troubled at the idea of Gareth Southgate now being in charge of the England national team. Others will be laughing uproariously at the ability of this nation to start a fight in an empty room whilst trying to run in four directions at the same time on a floor covered in grease. But no-one is lighting candles outside Wembley Stadium, the site of none of the greatest achievements as statistically one of the most successful coaches that England have ever had, today. There were no stoic tears shed. There were no rose petals strewn in front of his car as he returned to his Bolton home from London.
If the England national team has learned anything from the repeated embarrassments that it has suffered over the last ten years or so, it has been a lesson about the disconnect between hope, expectation, and cold, hard reality. England’s elimination from the group stages of the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 were met with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders by most who sat anywhere near the middle ground of opinion on this most divisive of teams. England as a home of international football began to feel like an anachronism some years ago. The press may have caterwauled every time they skidded on a metaphorical banana skin, but an increasing number of former supporters and well-wishers were already looking another way, having already witnessed so many previous pratfalls that they have come to feel like second nature.
It sometimes felt, to use the lexicon of the era, like a series of microaggressions. Set aside the state of the team for a moment. In bidding for the 2018 World Cup finals, they selected Milton Keynes as a potential venue. They allowed Nike to dick about with the kit, leading to the Rag Dolly Anna after a night on the sauce outfit that was thrown together for this summer’s European Championships. The FA were on the right side of history about endemic corruption within FIFA yet still managed to sound pompous and haughty while trying to state their case. In any way that has seemed possible, the England team has become increasingly difficult to fall in behind. The coverage of the press, jingoistic and shrill, don’t exactly make England easy to love, either.
The football didn’t help, but defeat is easier to take under some circumstances than others. England were eliminated from Euro 2016 by Iceland, the final whistle blew on a group of players who’d played the previous ninety minutes with the looks of rabbits frozen solid in the face of oncoming traffic on their faces. Within a day or two of the match and with Roy Hodgson falling on his sword almost as soon as the final whistle had blown, the press had chosen their target and the bloodsport was on. There are many words that we could use to describe the treatment of Raheem Sterling in the days following that match. “Restrained” and “proportionate” are not amongst them.
And after a few years, it becomes wearing. The familiar cycle of expectations like a dirigible, burst by the the first technically gifted team they come across. The shrieking of Clive Tyldesley, now shorn of so much as any pretence of objectivity. The familiar post-match post-mortems, the Football Men sitting in a crescent looking on with mystification as history repeats itself yet again. The clubs don’t care, although our feelings on this are sometimes tempered by the fact that we know that their reasons for doing so are far from altruistic. We already know that it’s all ultimately a fruitless exercise.
Degrees of disillusionment with the England national team are a spectrum, of course, but there seemed to be little genuine enthusiasm for Sam Allardyce’s appointment into the position and there seems to be little angst at his departure. It is unsettling that Allardyce should hold these opinions, but he’s almost certainly not the only man in the game that does. But the lack of disappointment at his departure after one scrappy win tells a story of its own about a national football team and a footballing nation that are showing signs of falling out of love. And that is inextricably linked to the very culture that led Sam Allardyce to hoist himself by the petard of his own hubris, stupidity and tactlessness. Some encourage others to walk away. Others do it knowingly, and perhaps sorrowfully. The majority probably just drift away from it without even noticing it. And whether these people can ever be won back is far from clear.
The prognosis regarding the identity of future England managers doesn’t seem particularly healthy either at the moment, either. Kris Kristofferson wrote the lyric, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” in the Janis Joplin song “Me and Bobby McGee”, and this line feels appropriate to this particular job, right now. Who would want to be the England manager in 2016? This is a team that has been producing steadily diminishing returns for longer than anybody cares to remember, weighed down by a rookery of albatrosses around their collective neck, and with little prospect of improvement in the foreseeable future.
From a manager’s perspective, the clubs are hostile, the pool of players is shrinking year on year, there’s no option to “sign up” replacements from elsewhere in the world, you only get a few days before a match with a group of players who don’t normally play together and who are already worried about what will happen should they lose… any prospective England manager would have be bordering on a sociopath, with the hide of an elephant for skin and, in view of its place as a graveyard for reputations, “nothing else to lose”. And it felt as though the appointment of Sam Allardyce – despite the reputation that preceded him – was a final roll of the dice. Allardyce was The Last England Manager. There was no back-up plan beyond him.
So, where does the FA go from here? Does it offer Arsene Wenger enough money to build a decent pension overnight and keep its fingers crossed that he’s still in possession of that magic hat that we used to hear so much about? Is a foreign manager less of an option in post-Brexit England than it has been for the decade and a half that preceded it? Eddie Howe is already talked of in such glowing terms that he would be considered a shoo-in for the job if interested, but is he ready to have his career CV covered in red marker pen, his life flipped upside-down by the press and his reputation damaged by whatever crisis is thrown at him by the players, the press, or the fans? He has a promising career ahead of him. Why ruin it by coaching the national team?
In the meantime, the departure of Sam Allardyce from this position won’t see him out of the public eye for long. Indeed, it might not even be that surprising to see him back at Sunderland before the season is out, fire-fighting whatever on earth it is that David Moyes has contrived to “achieve” there over the last couple of months or so. We might well think that, in an ideal world, he would not be allowed to continue to earn a living from the game, but this is, of course, not our decision, and with the stakes so high there will be plenty of takers for a manager with a proven record of digging struggling Premier League clubs out of a whole. Perhaps the idealism of international football and the weird, ceremonial nature of the England manager’s job was not for Sam Allardyce after all. Perhaps the Premier League, with its money, its agents, and so much going on behind closed doors, is better suited to him after all. The FA, meanwhile, continues towards its inexorable path towards a Gareth Southgate event horizon. Truly, we live in unusual times.
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