“I don’t know what I am doing here. I suppose someone has to take the slings and the arrows” grumbled the confidence-shot Roy Hodgson in the fallout after England’s exit to the hands of Iceland just three weeks ago now. That very quote, kowtowing to the criticism English fans have given him ever since 2014, could’ve summed up the experiences for both the fruitcakes and loonies in charge, as well as the consistently disappointed fans, of England ever since the mildly successful Terry Venables stepped out of the office back in 1996. Ever since the time when football almost came home, we’ve had the clueless (Steve McLaren), the madmen (Fabio Capello), the tabloid-baiting (Glenn Hoddle and Sven-Goran Eriksson) and the short-lived (Howard Wilkinson, Kevin Keegan, Peter Taylor and Stuart Pearce) all trying and failing in their attempts to salvage respectable end results during their reigns. This pattern only continued into the ill-fated four years of Roy Hodgson, where, as always, the team performed in qualifying, but buckled in tournaments. So where has it all gone wrong? Who should the FA turn to next to even start to fix this mess of a football team? Why is English football in the dumps?
Well, it is difficult to know where to start when discussing the England team really. If there was a glaringly obvious fault line in the FA system, you have to believe they would’ve found the root of it and thrown money at the problem. But that is by no means to say the FA are blameless in this situation, as in any case of a failing structure, those at the top do need to look themselves in the mirror too. I mean for god’s sake, we’re the country where our very sport originated, was professionalised, and is being commercialised. England is the very heartbeat of football, yet that heartbeat never sounds when we are up against nations which used to be our protégé’s, countries who learnt all they knew from us. So how have our understudies overthrown their masters? Well, it’s simple really, and the UK has seen it happen to its car, steel, textiles and building industries over the past 50 years; other nations have adapted to the times, while we have become stubborn, stuck in our ways, too up our own arses to see that the way we approach the game isn’t efficient or cutting-edge any more.
Just look at our managers over this time; all middle-aged, white, mostly English men stuck there on the touchline in their well-ironed suits and ties. But it’s not their appearance that decides their success; it’s their tactical outlook. Our major issue, from my standpoint, is that we don’t accept real characters in our footballing subculture; we just stick to the status quo. Maybe it’s because the old, white, male panels of the FA wanted chaps who they could present to the sponsors, the media and the public as a puppet of themselves, someone who seemed to be the best candidate for the job, but actually didn’t have a clue. Just look at the history books; Don Revie, Ron Greenwood, Graham Taylor, Kevin Keegan and now Roy Hodgson, men who had a packed CV full of impressive performances, but never won a sausage with the national side. Why did they get appointed? Well, they had never done anything controversial, out of line or uncharacteristic, whereas Brian Clough and Harry Redknapp, for example, had; and that is why those two particularly successful managers never got offered a place in the biggest seat in the country (at least in football). They were two flashy, too strong in their beliefs, too stubborn to be moulded into the perfect candidate by the FA. The managers they choose are pressured into selecting the ‘best’ players, not the ones who fit into a specific system. Do you think Hodgson ever wanted to play 4-2-3-1? Or 4-3-3? This is a man whose most successful spells in English football came with Fulham and West Brom, infamously unfashionable in style themselves. If he didn’t play passing football with them, why would he do it now?
I know it is easy to criticise now, but with Hodgson gone, I think we all finally saw how poorly he, and the side he lead, performed both behind closed doors and in front of our own eyes. They may not have appeared it in the good times; the 3-2 win against Germany or the 2-0 easing past France in friendlies in the past year, but our side was incompetent. We relied on luck more than judgement; we thought bringing in Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Eric Dier would fix all of our problems immediately by turning to the youth who didn’t have the scars of past performances, and while they did well in the build-up, they didn’t turn up at Euro 2016. This wasn’t due to fatigue, this was down to not having a proper plan to turn to when the going got tough, and for that we have to blame the easiest man to remove in football; the manager.
This is where things really need to change. We need a strong manager who will speak his mind, play those who he believes in, install a clear tactical rethink, and at the end of the day win football matches with a style that works. The thing is; I don’t think that manager, right now at least, is English. I don’t think we as a country bring up managers at the top level to be like that. Just look at the nationalities of managers who have won the Premier League in its 24 year history, no Englishmen, just a special Scotsman (Ferguson), Portuguese (Mourinho) and Frenchman (Wenger), plus the odd Italian (Ancelotti, Mancini and Ranieri), a Chilean (Pellegrini) and another Scot (Dalglish). No English manager has ever had the sense of irrepressibility and invincibility around him to be able to win it; to get close to a top, top job or carry an unfancied side to the summit. English managers aren’t special, aren’t inseparable, aren’t clear enough in their styles to actually win. We don’t play a forward-thinking or expansive natural style of play either, and whether you want to put that down to youth coaching or not is your own decision, but you cannot deny that no England manager has done anything to change that stereotype. Never have we had anyone change our tactics like Vicente Del Bosque did with the tiki-taka in Spain or Johan Cruyff with total football in the Netherlands, nor even on the level of possession football with Wenger at Arsenal or counter-attacking with Ranieri at Leicester. So, from my perspective at least, we can rule out an English manager if we want to turn things around.
If Sam Allardyce really does get handed the job though, I don’t think it would be an absolute disaster; it would just carry on a pathetic schedule of disappointment that we as a country seem to love revelling in. We are the butt of all our own jokes, as well as those of our Scottish, Irish and now in particularly Welsh cousins, who just love to wind us up when the moment comes around again (as it inevitably does). And Allardyce would do nothing to change this fact, as he has no experience of actually winning trophies, playing tidy football or competing up there with the best of them. It seems the FA has suddenly forgot the accusations of ‘19th Century football’ when he was in charge of West Ham, or even the fact that he has only managed the Hammers, Bolton, Blackburn, Newcastle and Sunderland in the Premier League. Face it; he is an unfashionable, second-rate boss, better known for his bargain buys on the transfer market and defensive football than his international-quality diplomacy and managing of world class talents such as Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart or Harry Kane. What evidence is there to prove that he would do any better than Hodgson? Yes, he has a personality (he is called Big Sam after all), but in this case his personality wouldn’t win him any World Cups. What would he do, suddenly mastermind a way for Jermaine Defoe to get back in the set-up and inflict a killer blow against the Germans, Brazilians, French or Argentinians in competitions? I don’t think so.
So who do I see as a potential next manager? Well, two weeks ago, I was pessimistic. Back then I imagined the next boss to be a filler, someone who didn’t really deserve it but would take the job as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity anyway. I saw Gareth Southgate or Alan Pardew taking the reins, but now I am much more optimistic. I think our nation’s next manager, whether he is being appointed next week or in three months’ time (it doesn’t particularly matter to me, and you might even be reading this when he has been put in place), has to be a serious big name appointment. I’m not talking Mourinho, Conte, Klopp, Guardiola or Van Gaal, I’m thinking more along the lines of someone who won’t require the world’s biggest wage, but will take the job because it is something he deeply believes in. Arsene Wenger for me would be a really interesting candidate, as he has a proven track record of a regimented style (passing, which always works on the international stage), is vastly experienced, and is coming up to the twilight of his career in which he needs to send a statement out that he really is a great manager. Yes, he’s French. Yes, he’s never managed an international side. Yes, he might still want to stay on as Arsenal manager for another season. But why not offer him the job anyway? If he really did want another season with the Gunners, surely he wants it to be a winning one, spending money to win the title? I say hand him the opportunity, see if he is strong enough to hold down his authority on the underperforming English players. Well, at the very least, we know he is thick-skinned, after all he’s had to deal with the notoriously fickle Arsenal fans for the past 20 years!
Alternatively, why not go for Guus Hiddink or Roberto Martinez? Hiddink is another man looking for a sweet swansong to his near but yet-so-far career, who understands how to tailor a 4-2-3-1 (just look at the way he turned Chelsea around last season) and can designate all players into specific and well-rounded roles, contributing to a strong team ethic. He has been around, seen it all and got the t-shirt from the national teams of his native Netherlands (twice), South Korea, Australia, Russia and Turkey, as well as Real Madrid, PSV Eindhoven (again, twice) and Valencia. He is a calm, composed and unpredictable boss, an experienced and assertive manager who will stick to his guns when he believes he needs to. What more could you want from a prospective candidate? Martinez, on the other hand, may not be an outstanding candidate, but he is one who would formulate a passing game so patient and expansive we might be able to finally work down opposition rather than vice-versa. He is also known to be supportive of young talent, something many England fans have been crying out for in recent years, and something he could definitely deliver on. Martinez doesn’t yet have a reputation of being able to deal with pressure, but if he was given the England job on a whim he would be able to prove himself to the world, not just the English media. But we need somebody who doesn’t have a vendetta against the media or one group of fans, we need somebody widely respected. That’s why, for me, it would be Wenger or Hiddink for the job.
Leaving a legacy, however cliché it might sound, is an undoubtedly vital aspect of the job description for any England gaffer, and whoever Hodgson’s successor is, they will have to ensure they do their best to lay a path for the next two or three bosses. Our problem here in this country is that we are far too self-engrossed to take a step back, really think about the problem, and regiment a plot on how to lay a solid foundation before we try and cover the canvas in what we think is a unique, impressionist art form of how to succeed. Which England manager can you last remember speaking in his press conference about the future without him? No one, that’s who, because they all fear losing their own job far too much to actually think five or ten years down the line, to whoever the next polished, glittering example of a leader we will have then. We have no contingency plans for the future, no defined blueprints on how to return to the top, whereas the Germans, the Spanish, the French and the Italians do. They have systems where planning is encouraged, not frowned upon socially, where they have to work hard to get to the top, whereas we think our place is already earned. Well, let me tell you FA, it’s not. Remember 2008, not even going to the European Championships? Why didn’t we have a complete shake-up of our obviously misfiring system? Well, that would’ve been too hard for the FA at that point, it would’ve upset too many people, apparently. But if we want to be the best, you have to ruffle a few feathers, that’s just the way life works. Do you think it would be plain sailing to become a great side? No, of course not, but for some reason the FA does, and always has.
That’s why we need something, and something, different. We don’t have to be England-central, we can be open-minded and free-spirited to succeed. England’s rugby union and cricket sides have changed coaches over the past year, from two clueless home-grown hopefuls in Stuart Lancaster and Peter Moores to outspoken, humorous Australians Eddie Jones and Trevor Bayliss respectively, and have reaped the rewards. From Rugby World Cup hosts and group-stage losers to beating the Aussies on their home turf and winning the Six nations in the space of around 10 months, and Cricket World Cup group-stage losers to Ashes winners and World Twenty20 runners-up in the space of just over a year, Jones and Bayliss have transformed the fortunes for their sides in scarily similar patterns. So why do we fear what a foreign coach could do for our football team? Australia were better at rugby and cricket than us before Jones and Bayliss turned up, and now we have toppled them in both, so surely we should turn to a coach from an obviously better nation at football than us? Spain, France, Brazil, Belgium, Germany or even Wales, their coaches are always improving, whereas we have stagnated. We need something to revitalise our game, and I don’t think the solution is to reinvest in another home-grown boss as they clearly aren’t good enough right now.
So, for me, the FA has to take it’s time, even have a look at itself prior to the appointment of any manager and analyse any decision they are thinking of making before they do it. For once in this country, we have to be patient to be right, and to be right is so, so important right now. We are clinging on to the last hope of any success with a (not very golden) generation of Rooney, Hart, Cahill, Vardy and Sturridge, and we have already seen Terry, Ferdinand, Cole (Joe and Ashley), Gerrard, Lampard, Neville, Scholes, Beckham and Heskey (well, maybe not) go past us without winning anything. Either we give Wazza one last tournament with a real, tough, uncompromising and trophy-hungry manager or turn to the future, but that will depend on who we appoint. There needs to be a balance of experience and youth, grit and flair, defence and attack, and only the right manager will be able to combine all that we need to win. By win, I don’t realistically mean the next World Cup or Euros; I just mean a semi-final, playing well, restoring pride and enthusiasm in the side. We need to be playing well again to revive any faith we might have in the FA, and only the best manager will be able to reward the organisation with that. After all, it is the manager who wins games, he makes the plans, inspires the troops, battles to the top and handles pressure for the players, he is the one who fights the mental battles, the nitty gritty stuff, while his starting XI are the ones who transfer that methodical approach into wins. Without the right man at the top, you can never be consistently good at football, and we really do need to be right now. So FA, we look forward to your decision, and without wanting to put too much pressure on you, we are counting on it being the right man. We are hungry for some wins and confidence, and we need a manager who reflects that. We need him now.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!