Welcome to English football in 2012. The captain of the national team faces a criminal charge for the use of racially aggravated abuse during a Premier League match. Five months after the event, the FA announce that this player will be stripped of the captaincy without, it would appear, having consulted the manager. Four months before the start of a major tournament, the manager resigns on the same that the man expected to replace him is acquitted in court of tax evasion charges. Captainless, managerless and rudderless, the good ship England will sail on to the finals of the European Championships having proved the one fundamental truth that we all know about the state of the game in this country at the moment – if there is a way of taking a situation and making it worse, we will, somehow, find it.
The screamingly obvious question to come from last night’s resignation of Fabio Capello from the England manager’s position us that of whether anybody within the FA actually knew anything about Capello when they appointed him in the first place or listened to anything that he said during his tenure. If there is one thing, one thing alone, that we all knew about Capello when he took the job is that he is a disciplinarian and an authoritarian. It is emphatically not a comment on the rights or wrongs of whether Terry should be the England captain or even whether he should be playing for the team to suggest that making a public statement over the captaincy of the team without first having consulted and obtained the explicit approval of the manager – especially a manager of the mould that Capello fits – unless the FA itself was actively seeking to anger him, destabilise him and give him cause to feel as if he wishes to leave his position. It is being suggested that they gambled that, although infuriated, he wouldn’t resign. If they wished him to stay until the summer, they have lost that gamble.
Capello’s reaction has been, to say the least, unsurprising. With less than six months left to run on his contract, he has had the lion’s share of the money offered to him when the FA attempted to use him to buy success in the first place. His tenure as the England coach has been has than perfect – the tactical straitjacket in which his team found itself in South Africa the year before last turned out to be one that nobody had the keys to – but he qualified England for that tournament and the one to be held this summer that he will now not be a part of. Given the infrastructural problems that we all know exist within the English game and the ignominy with which England failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships, perhaps this should have been the summit of anybody’s expectations for this particular team, considering its all too apparent limitations in recent years.
All of which brings us on to the subject of the identity of his successor. Stuart Pearce will manage the team for the forthcoming friendly match against the Netherlands – such an uninspiring choice as to cause one to wonder whether the FA might be actively seeking to use this match as an opportunity to showcase exactly why having an English-born manager in the long-term might be such a bad idea. Meanwhile, the media seems to have already made up its mind who it wants, in the form of Harry Redknapp, but it seems unlikely that Redknapp would jump ship at White Hart Lane while his Spurs team has half a chance of challenging for the Premier League title, and the likelihood of Champions League football next season may only make staying there more likely for next season, as well. For all the fans that he has amongst those of the fourth estate, however, serious question marks hang over his suitability for this job, not least of which is a perceived lack of tactical sophistication of exactly the sort that saw England come so unstuck against Germany in Bloemfontain a year and a half ago.
As ever these days, an instant decision over the new coach was being demanded in some quarters last night, to the point of Manchester United players in the England squad – perhaps mischievously, considering Tottenham’s currently elevated Premier League status, perhaps not – publically stating their support for Redknapp last night. Yet if we take it as read that the only sensible thing to do is to hire a care-taker until after this summer’s tournament – and there is no guarantee of this – then the FA has a golden opportunity. It could use the whole of the title run-ins across Europe to consider and evaluate who, across the whole of Europe, may be best suited for this position and would not be averse to taking the job. It could look closely at who becomes available once the season ends and look at coaches travelling to Ukraine and Poland this summer who may be available at the end of the tournament. There is no need to appoint anyone on a full-time contract until after this tournament has been complete, and the alternative for the FA may be to marry, yet again, in haste and repent, yet again, at leisure.
Yet again, of course, the question of the nationality of any new manager has come under the spotlight. In an ideal world, the new manager of any international side would be the same nationality that the team that he is coaching. We do not, however, live in a perfect world and until FIFA change the rules of selection for coaching staff to be the same as for the players, the FA has no obligation to fire an English coach. Considering the feeble number of fully qualified coaches in this country, this is perhaps a blessed relief, but the broader matter of why there should be a such a paucity of options for the England coach’s job deserves further consideration. There any number of reasons as to why this might be, but until the coaching system is overhauled to bring more fully qualified coaches through, and with further changes being needed to every aspect of the English club game in order to facilitate this, the likelihood of any meaningful changes in the fortunes of the national team would appear to be slim, to say the least.
Meanwhile, misgivings over how worthwhile pouring money into long-term schemes in the search of some sort of happy ending in which England take up a place at the top of the international game – one which, it could be argued, they have barely managed before with a great deal of conviction – remain valid. England’s problems run deeper than any single manager could ever hope to resolve in anything other than the extreme short-term. Perhaps the answer would be to sign a younger coach on a longer term contract, give them control over the St Georges Park complex at Burton and give them the opportunity to build up from the roots and branches again. Perhaps, though, the English – in particular some parts of the press – have never quite shaken off the sense of entitlement that we may have expected to be shaken off by four and half decades of mediocrity. Perhaps the problems that the English national team faces are completely intractable.
After that afternoon in Bloemfontain a year and a half ago, a good deal of time was, it would appear, wasted on the subject of how England could take their thrashing at the hands of Germany and make something positive in the long-term from it. As things stand, however, it feels as if what small progess Fabio Capello made over the course of the qualifying campaign for this summer’s European Championships was largely in vain, and there are no signs that the culture is going to – or wants to – move towards a system that places the success of its national team at its centre. This, in itself, is fine. Perhaps we just don’t take international football terribly seriously any more. If this is the case, however, then expectations have to be tempered and the hysteria over the national team has to stop. It feels increasingly as if the media circus surrounding the appointment of a new England manager is largely a side-show to deflect attention from serious structural defects within the English game, and these defects don’t seem to have diminished since all the talk of them was at its most commonplace. At least, though, supporters of England can look forward to this summer’s European Championships with a realistic sense of low expectation. It is a sense that they may do well to get used to for the foreseeable future.
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