I don’t know how long these “honeymoon periods” are supposed to last, but I think it’s safe to say that Steve McClaren’s is over. The last four days have seen two utterly spineless England performances in a row, and things aren’t going to get any better. As I write this, Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer are sitting in the comfort of a studio in London discussing the tactical errors made in Zagreb tonight, but the truth of the matter is that the malaise surrounding the England team runs far, far deeper than that. It’s institutionalised incompetence, and we’re all paying for it, because we all, to a lesser or greater extent, pay for the FA.
Some of you with longer memories will remember that, to an extent, I defended England during the World Cup. They made it to the quarter-finals in the midst of a horrific run of injuries and whilst not playing terribly well. Sven Goran Eriksson, we were told, was a dreadful coach who had tried, unsuccessfully, to apply the rules of winning on Serie A to international football and failed. But… here’s the deal. When you appoint the assistant to a coach as his replacement, you are tacitly implying that said coach’s run in charge has been successful. Received wisdom had it that Eriksson’s time in charge wasn’t successful. He couldn’t motivate the players when he needed to. He couldn’t make tactical changes during matches when things were going against him. Well, with every decision that he made, Steve McClaren was standing right there next to him. If Eriksson couldn’t motivate them, there was little evidence to indicate that McClaren could.
McClaren was the press’ choice. One might think, with the Premiership being the most cosmopolitan league in the world and England having had a foreign coach for five years, that they might have looked down the list of available candidates and concluded that one of the best coaches in the world might have been the best replacement for Eriksson, but they didn’t. They battened down the hatches and started trotting out the old cliches. We need an Englishman in charge! It’s all a matter of national pride! Well, now we’ve got McClaren in charge and how proud do we feel tonight? When they lined up the available candidates, a few unfortunate home truths became apparent. Luis Felipe Scolari politely declined. We can be in little doubt that the feverish press attention that he was getting at the time must have, to some extent, left him thinking, “if this is what they’re like, what the hell will they be like if we lose a match?”. Martin O’Neill, arguably the best British coach to emerge in the last fifteen years, was keen for the job. In every job he’s had, he’s left the team that he took over in a far better state than they were in when he arrived. There aren’t many managers who can claim that. But reports started coming out that he wanted “too much independence”. Heaven forfend that an England coach might want a bit of independence from the FA to build a winning team!
Of course, the really BIG names weren’t even approached. Even with the Glazers in charge, it would be a cold day in hell before Sir Alex Ferguson would coach England. Mourinho and Wenger? Not a chance. Abramovich has got too much money, and Arsenal’s David Dein sits on the executive committee of the FA. No way were they going to be troubled. So we were left with McClaren. He’s not really achieved anything in his managerial career. One UEFA Cup final? Assistant to Eriksson? Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Steven Gerrard. You’ve lifted the Champions League trophy and the FA Cup. Now look at a photograph of Steve McClaren. How the hell is he going to motivate you to do anything? Not going to happen.
The “honeymoon period” was short, and it wasn’t even much fun. The win against Greece didn’t mean anything. The hustled their way to the European Championship two years ago, but their fall from grace has been almost alarmingly rapid. Andorra? Well, I think St Albans City could give them a game. That result doesn’t mean anything. The 1-0 win in Macedonia? That was an atrocious performance. It is probably one of the understatements of the season to say that they were fortunate to get that. And now the wheels have fallen off the wagon.
I’ve heard it said that the problem is the culture of the English game. We bring young players up badly, and don’t teach them to pass and build their technique. I see the point of this, but I think that it’s overly simplistic to blame this entirely. Without wishing to delve into cliche too much, it was enough in 1966. It could have been enough in 1990 and 1996. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand can pass a football. These players aren’t just cloggers who run around battering the shit out of everybody they come across. Some say, and this was the viewpoint of the “boys” in the studio, that the “system” is to blame, but this is to reduce football to a series of logarhythms. There is NO perfect tactical solution. And good footballers, world-class footballers, should be able to break out of any tactical strait-jacket.
Everything that you will read about this in the papers tomorrow morning will tell a truth, but only a small part of the truth. The truth is that England have delusions of grandeur. Every once in a while, Euro 84, USA 94, we fail to qualify for a major tournament. We’re due a massive failure. Like an enormous earthquake on the west coast of America, we know it’s inevitable but we rumble on until it happens. And then afterwards, we carry on the same as before. Just like San Franciscans, who rebuilt their city after 1906 whilst knowing that the same thing would one day happen again, if McClaren is replaced, we won’t change the structure, we won’t challenge the moneyed, we won’t allow coaches in who genuinely want to do it their own way. We won’t learn, and we won’t learn our place in football’s world order. If I believed for a second that England not qualifying for Euro 2008 would give the game the boot up the backside that it sorely, sorely needs, I’d support each of England’s opponents one by one. But it won’t. So I’m forced to peer through my eyes as they stumble through what should be a straightforward qualifying group, and permitting myself a little guffaw every time they suffer the sort of indignity that they have done over the last few days or so. It’s the only healthy way to deal with it, really.