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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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.