England rules the waves

Not since the Hart Family was blown up by the producers of Family Affairs (oh don’t tell me you haven’t got a clue what I mean) has there been a soap opera storyline quite like that blurting from the top floor offices of the Football Association?. This is archetypal “shower scene/was it all a dream” stuff, now that we know that West Brom manager Roy Hodgson has been approached to take the poisoned chalice/Titanic-like helm/leader of the Opposition type role which is the England manager position.

Parts of the sports press have had their hearts and minds set on a particular kind of England and English football for as long as they’ve been copy and pasting press releases into their pieces. The name “Roy Hodgson” tends not to pass across their keyboards surrounded by positive adjectives. In the pursuit for an English manager to take on the English role (“We gotta have a man who can speak to our BOYS AND LIONS!!!111”), there is a tendency to look over the ‘wrong kind’ of Englishman. None of this foreign muck any more, we’ve tried and failed too many times….over…about forty-five years……and we’re not about to start turning around that particular boat now by looking past candidates who have been walking through the streets of central London wearing neon-lit arrows attached to their shoulders with the slogan “Well, it’s obvious, innit” flashing away.

On the way to the big twist ending so liked of the daily drama scribes are two men who would be  the perennial bad boys of Albert Street or Costa del Eldorado.  Hodgson is the nice but dull character with the story arc taking in successive promotions at a small firm of travel agents before an embarrassing event at Heathrow Airport cuts him down to size at the expense of the show’s bad boy rival, namely one Harry Redknapp, and audiences soon fill their boots with the daily exploits of the rough and ready  businessman (NOT a wheeler-dealer).  Having his wicked way with the girls at the factory or contacts at an industrial estate, Redknapp becomes the loveable rogue in the shape of Mike Baldwin, loved and hated for being rough and ready and eager to sniff out a bargain rather than doing things by the book.

The England job has always had the air of farce about it, not least because, as with coverage of soap operas and reality TV, the press have muddled up reality and hype into a bundle of breathless farce. “Hodgson verses Redknapp” is perfect for tabloid sports writers, because it can be boiled down to “English verses Foreign” or even “Honesty (perceived) verses Dishonest (perceived)”.  As with soap opera actors, characters are given nicknames and are subjected to pantomime boos (“TURNIP!” “FABIO THE FLOP!”). There is no reality in the hyper-real sports reporting bubble.

Following the tabloid led execution of Fabio Capello (successful manager around the world until he came up against the Collective England for the English Corps. of tabloid sports writers), the ‘papers have been rallying around the establishment choice. Redknapp has been the industry favourite for years, to the extent that it appeared nobody else would be considered. His Spurs side were riding high enough in the league for his supporters to use that alone as evidence for suitability in the run-up to this year’s European Championships. Yes the FA has midhandled the Capello resignation and subsequent selection process to such a degree that we could be entering the competition without a manger in charge at all, but at least there’s ‘Arry proving his worth every week!

Consequently, and it can only BE consequently, Spurs have plummeted like the proverbial since the New Year, doubtlessly because like all people who have been promised a new job sometime down the line concentration levels do seem to wander. That Hodgson was perceived to have failed at Liverpool made the press all the more eager to big up ‘their man’. All the international club and country experience Hodgson has enjoyed could only have been responsible for not quite ‘getting’ what a club side like Liverpool really wanted from a manager, and our ‘Arry can seek out the no-nonsense English way of doing things like no other. “We want an Englishman for England” was just code for wanting ‘one of ours’, wide-boy accent an’ all, to follow the considered, complicated tastes of Sven and Capello.

Point-by-point, it’s the West Brom manager who has the more trophies and achievements as well a world-wise experience. Back-page journos always want conflict, within and beyond any dressing room bust-ups and the like, which is partly how the contrived rivalry has been fostered over so many years. Tabloids have brought down people at a finger-click, and will do so with Roy at their whim, as and when it’s seen that Redknapp would have made better/more credible/logical choices in his position.

The press bring down their enemies in the end – fictitious television baddies and political wannabes alike. Whether they will do the same to Hodgson before, during or after the forthcoming European Championship depends on what kind of storyline twist they fancy attempting for their own entertainment. There will be no real war of words between the two favoured candidates in front of the cameras, of course. Each instalment will be more breathless and contrived than the last, leading to a summer showdown with Poland/Ukraine as a suitable backdrop. Nothing ever gets resolved in soap opera land because it suits the television companies to keep characters living, dying, marrying and divorcing month after month – it suits both front and back pages if the same happens with ‘Arry and Roy. If you think television drama is the loser with the popularity of soaps, you wait to see what happens to football at the end of all this….

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Nationstates

Across the Arab World, people of all ages and backgrounds risk their lives in demonstrations against corrupt governments. Meanwhile, our close European cousins risk the chill of the North Sea winds in naked protests against the lack of a government. In the topsy-turvy world of Belgium, never knowingly simple to understand, the longest period of time without a national government continues apace and nobody sees an answer in the short-term.

There is a serious economic side to the otherwise eccentric story that has developed in Belgium since elections last year. The country has severe national debt and the risk of investing with the centre of the European Union has been thrown in serious doubt. Whilst local government continues offering services at ‘street level’, the national scene is one of chaos and confusion. The King of the increasingly polarized Belgians has almost reached the limit to what he can provide in leadership. Away from the high-level talks along the corridors of uncertainty, ordinary Belgians want resolutions. History suggests they will be waiting for a long time.

In short, Beglum (not known as a “made up country” for nothing, in all fairness), is a compromise with a flag and borders. Political parties have split and divided to satisfy the often completely contradictory demands of Francophone and Flemish populations. The small German enclave in the east acts like an unexpected flavour in the bowl of contrasting ingredients which Belgium has become, a failed dessert overcooked and overstirred. Brussels is a Francophone exclave surrounded by the Flemish Region which has been flexing its none-too inconsiderable muscles, the capital city of the EU’s beating heart, watching the fabric of the country flicked and charred by the flames of dissent, exhaustion, frustration.

It was after their most recent election that the Flemish population pushed hard enough to unsettle the columns of compromise that held the state up for decades before. The sight of people marching for the formation of a government must seem like Wonderland stuff under the context of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain; placards and posters uniting citizens under one flag, only for different ends from their means, the flip-side to North Africa’s pleas for representative democracy and economic reform. Belgium, oddly to observers, is a divided country demanding the ties of compromise are brought together tighter.

The southern, French-speaking Wallonia is statistically poorer with double unemployment levels to the right-leaning, Dutch-speaking north. Politicians from both sides spend so long balancing political compromises to the detriment of economic solutions. Resentment of the north by the south permeates across and through all Belgian society. In an example from the fringes, Belgium has alternated French and Dutch-language entries to the Eurovision Song Contest ever year, to keep both sides “sweet”. When, in 1999, the Flemish broadcaster chose an English-language song, tempers flared and questions were raised in Parliament.

Not having a Government for nigh-on 300 days must seem like bliss to demonstrators in the UK from both sides of the political debate. To those under the “UKUncut” umbrella, demonstrating against the Coalition government’s spending proposals from a largely left/leftist perspective, such apparent freedom from a formal government structure must seem like a dream come true. After all, Belgium has not fallen apart, its two sides not torn asunder. If all Belgium has is local government delivering services on a tight budget without central government, without crumbling away to nothing, then why not here? They’ve got a monarchy, so have we, where’s the harm?

From the extreme-right in the UK, demonstrators wanting an England of their own invention, pure of race and colour, march under the St George and Union flags, self-styled ‘Defence Leagues’. It must be attractive to them, too, seeing how a country with two different peoples struggling to survive under one flag. Observe the contrasting sociolinguistic and geopolitical struggles, watch the tension, see how they run. Without a government the two sides are running their own affairs, and even with a government and titular Head, the populations speak their own language and enjoy their own culture. We’ve been force-fed multiculturalism and the diluting of culture for too long, why should this be tolerated further?

England (and I specifically use England, not Britain) has all the makings of another Belgium. My politics, my conviction, is not nationalist, is not flag-waving jingoist. I don’t want or desire a break-up of England anymore than I would like the break-up of the United Kingdom itself per se. Let us look at recent coverage of the Coalition’s plans to reduce the number of MPs by 50; the good burghers of Cornwall signed a petition in their thousands against any new constituency crossing the Tamar. One Mebyon Kernow supporter went on hunger strike. Ask a man from Northallerton where he lives, and he is likely to say Yorkshire before England, and long before Britain. North/South divides in England are almost Belgium reversed: an over-inflated south-east and economically compromised north, pulling in different directions for generations. Can you imagine an England split in two? Would the on-going demonstrations by both left and right result in an England we all wanted to live in?

Each Arab World demonstration has the name of the country seared on the hearts and wrapped around the souls of each protester – Egyptians wanted their country back, Tunisians want their country back, Bahrainians demand (and die for) an island for Sunni and Shia. In England, the political discourse swims around the nationalistic question, flirts with it, places more wood near the fire.

There could be a situation to all this from outside the box entirely, of course. When Belgium needed to choose a Eurovision entry in 2006 they forego Dutch, French and English, chose something in an entirely invented, made-up language and got their best result in nearly 30 years. Maybe there’s a political equivilant answer for England in this…

We Will Never Surrender

Fabio Capello has delivered cryptic assurances to straight forward questions relating to his future as England manager. I noticed a bod from the FA – sorry, “Club England” as they seem to be branded at the moment – was hastily filling in blanks and putting forward his own opinion with all the urgency of a jumpy husband at a RELATE meeting. So begins, depressingly familiar as it all is, the tabloid-led blame game and leaked managerial suggestions in the diary columns.

We’ve been here too many times. To borrow a phrase from the coalition government, we can’t go on like this.

Many branches of the “Club England” tree – ugh, sorry, “Club England”, it’s like “Centrica” all over again – are need of urgent surgery. It is not enough to offer a few “frank” analyses of the Germany thrashing before moving on to the next round of qualifying games. With only two years between the Hungary friendly and Poland/Ukraine 2012, there is a loud ticking clock above the entire structure of English football.

In his excellent (and 5 year old) article “Football Fans are Idiots”, Sean Ingle outlined a blueprint which seems just as relevant today. Certain sections of the football fan base are gluttons for punishment, and as the England campaign from the Mexico friendly onwards showed, those Premiership players who demand respect in the Premiership sure don’t know how to earn that respect on the international stage. Wayne Rooney’s “emotional outburst” was very much his real feelings, doubtlessly shared by many of his team-mates.

But the mindset of the players internationally is only one part – and a small one – of the English disorder.

Capello must be allowed to stay on as manager until 2012. The merry-go-round has to stop. There are players who could find a place in a younger, more experimental England side leading up to 2012 (which, to be very radical, we concede as not an achievable winnable aim to calm down the England Flag brigade)

Names like Jack Wilkshire (currently being toughened up at the Reebock), Danny Welbeck (given time to mature at North End), Joe Hart (topping up his tan these past two weeks), Micah Richards, James Milner, Aaron Lennon….There are possibilities and probabilities, but under the constant and instant pressure of the “Three Lions” tabloid culture, slowly-slowly long term planning seems far harder to promote.

No need to look to the Americas; across the Atlantic there are the Dutch and Germans showing intelligence, quick-thinking and fluidity; and there are the French and Italians creaking along in slow-motion soap operas. Or /real/ operas, I suppose. England resemble the latter far more than the former: under Capello, it really shouldn’t be that way. From the “player index” mess through sex scandals and the own-goal assisted Japan ‘victory’ to the Emile “Turning circle of a whale” Heskey, it has not been England’s finest hours.

But changing players and formations, and ditching the hoofing up-and-under strategies, all involve the team at the stage of adults facing the limelight. Someone somewhere in “Club England” needs to spend months, if not years, at schools and junior levels finding out exactly what is wrong with football at grassroots level. Is it Government funding, school teachers, scouts preferring “traditional” types to “continental” skills in the young talent they recommend, the fact that England has only 2,000 registered football coaches, far behind almost every other country in UEFA.

There are too many questions about the lack of funding at lower league and Non-League level, the lack of support from the FA and Premiership clubs for smaller sides often in the same postal code as the larger, debt-ridden names. It would be brilliant for the men in charge, so easy, so easier to ditch Capello, give the under-performing England stars their limelights back again, ready for another overhyped throw at Poland/Ukraine. It would be lazy, too, and another lost opportunity.

Let us get out of our system the “goal that was”, the apologies and the tabloid rants. Let us stop this managerial witch-hunt. There are plenty of English sportsmen and women who are far more deserving of our praise – the cyclists, swimmers and indeed our cricketers (whose achievements on Sunday were completely overshadowed) – football should work from the bottom-up before it goes totally tits-up.

Singing for England

If we’re honest, really honest, “God Save The Queen” is an insipid and tedious little piece of work isn’t it? The whole dirge is as stirring as a spoon made from nougat.

Now, I’m no right-on republican or “eat the rich” leftie; just someone who finds “God Save The Queen” to be lacking in the vim and vigour required in a national anthem. Okay, as a British anthem or in times of national crisis, it has its role. But specifically for England, and English national pride? Surely we can do better than asking English people to instruct God to send the Monarch of the day to visit the battle hotspots of the day?

John Leech, Lib Dem MP for Leeds North West, has secured a debate on the use of anthems at English sporting events. For the first time, “Jerusalem” will be used as the medal anthem for English athletes at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi; Leech thinks this is the right choice, and for as long as I can remember, I have thought the same…

Due to the way this country has managed to get along with its unwritten constitution, there is a curious set-up whereby a constitutional monarchy as all the characteristics of a federal republic, Scotland and Wales carrying on with their own devolved parliaments and accepted national anthems with England having neither. Little wonder people felt it necessary to deface the cross of St George with the word “ENGLAND”, we’re in danger of having a collective identity crisis.

“Jerusalem” has been my choice – and that of selective rugby and cricket event organisers for years – because it sings of and about England. There should be no shame or unease about singing an English anthem when cheering an English team. Make no mistake, as a liberal I find most nationalistic fervour tricky to support. I can sing – well chant – “God Save The Queen” with the best of them. I understand – much better than the knuckle draggers on the far right – that someone can be patriotic while not being prejudiced or pathetic.

Scholars of both national psyche and Christian teaching will doubtlessly unite in pointing out how “Jerusalem” is adopted from a theological poem, upon which hanging English chest-beating is inappropriate. I happen to think a few verses on bashing the Scots is not quite the best argument for keeping “God Save The Queen”.

Of course, my family heritage is not of England much at all, but Wales. I have yet to perfect the prouncuation of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” beyond accidentally insulting Pembrokeshire café owners, so until that is sorted, I will get behind the movement to give England an anthem its people deserve. On the eve of the football team’s latest tussle against the Germans, let’s get a suitable song belting out across the country. Anything is better for the spirit than “Two World Wars and One World Cup…”