THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM

WillieEnglish football’s national side was, for the first near-century of its existence, chosen by a committee of selectors, as was the tradition in cricket until as late as the 1990s. The appointment of Walter Winterbottom in 1946 as team manager with authority for coaching was a revolutionary development, though Winterbottom himself didn’t have overall control regarding team selection and had also never been a club manager. The Club Vs Country debate was as burning an issue in the 40s and 50s as much as it is today, and even though international football in England and Scotland predates league football, success at club level was regarded as the litmus test for football management. Had the path from league to international football applied before the war, someone such as Herbert Chapman – a record-breaking manager with Huddersfield Town in the 20s and Arsenal in the 30s – would surely have been the top candidate for the England manager’s job had such a post existed at the time.

As it was, the FA decided to appoint a team manager after the war and chose a former Manchester United player whose playing career, like so many, had been interrupted by global conflict. However, after being demobbed, Winterbottom had devoted his time to coaching and was something of a visionary when it came to his approach to the game. During his stint as England’s first manager, he guided the side to thirteen out of sixteen victories in the British Championships; at the time, the Home International contest was regarded as the real barometer of success, being the oldest international competition in the world. He also led the team to qualification for the World Cup for four consecutive tournaments, even if FIFA’s premier contest had yet to attain the pre-eminence it holds today.

Before being relieved of his duties by the FA in 1963, Walter Winterbottom urged English football’s governing body that a man with complete control of team selection as well as the coaching aspect was vital if the national side were to compete with the top teams of Europe and South America. The FA responded by appointing Alf Ramsey, a former international who had steered unfashionable Ipswich Town from the Third Division to a remarkable triumph as English league champions in 1962. As we all know by now, Winterbottom’s recommendations paid off, with Ramsey managing England’s only triumph in an international tournament fifty years ago. Winterbottom’s insistence on the importance of coaching ironically benefitted English league football more than the national side, assembling a line-up of notable names on the coaching staff during his stint as England manager, names such as Don Howe, Malcolm Allison, Bill Nicholson, Joe Mercer, Dave Sexton, Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson – all of whom went on to achieve success at club level.

Despite surrendering a 2-0 lead to West Germany as defending champions in the Quarter Finals of the 1970 Mexico World Cup and crashing out 3-2, the now-Sir Alf Ramsey kept his job and seemed set to take England to another World Cup in 1974. However, a 1972 home defeat to West Germany in the European Championships highlighted the subsequent development of the two teams that had competed in the 1966 World Cup Final. The Germans had gone back to basics and built a team around sweeper Franz Beckenbauer that would go on to win that tournament and the World Cup itself two years later, a competition England failed to qualify for, and a failure that cost Sir Alf his job.

The FA understandably turned to the most successful club manager of the past decade, Leeds United’s Don Revie, in the summer of 1974 and there was cause for optimism at the appointment. Sadly, though a former England international himself, Revie established a pattern of struggling to replicate club success at international level that has persisted ever since. His England side had more or less failed in its attempt to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina when Revie gave the press what it wanted and walked out on the job; that he took care of his own financial future by signing-up to coach the national side of the United Arab Emirates at a time when England managers weren’t guaranteed a golden handshake was something that unfairly blackened his character forevermore, and it was notable that his short-lived successor at Leeds (and long-time nemesis), Brian Clough, applied for the job as England manager after Revie’s resignation. Cloughie’s avowed intention to take complete control of the FA itself didn’t do him any favours and the FA played it safe by appointing West Ham manager Ron Greenwood.

Exiting the 1982 World Cup undefeated, cheated by the hand of Maradona in 1986, let down by the wayward penalty kick of Chris Waddle in 1990 and the similarly ineffective boot of Gareth Southgate in 1996, England’s international record since the departure of Don Revie pales pitifully next to our nearest European neighbours, especially the Germans and the French. Men with impressive English club credentials – Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Steve McClaren – coupled with those whose reputations rested upon Continental club success – Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello – all failed to reap the rewards that more than one generation of English footballers suggested should have been a given. Roy Hodgson was merely the latest in a long line of managers incapable of moulding a team from talents that are crying out for a system to sweep competition aside on the world stage.

With the majority of England’s top club sides managed by overseas coaches, the FA’s shortlist of successors to Hodgson seems to have thrown up the sole name of Sam Allardyce, a man who has never won a single trophy at club level, but whose dogged determination to evade relegation has earned him a reputation as a gritty survivor. If predecessors who could boast far more impressive league CVs couldn’t concoct a magic formula for the national side, that’s no real impediment. It remains to be seen if Allardyce can succeed where everyone since Sir Alf has failed, but I suspect someone well-versed in grinding out results without being remotely pretty possibly stands a better chance, if Portugal’s triumph at Euro 2016 is anything to go by. Were he to dismantle the worn-out and wholly ineffective structure of the FA in the process, he might just succeed. But that is just one of the many impossible dreams to be realised by whoever inherits the most unenviable poisoned chalice in English football.

© The Editor

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6 thoughts on “THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM

  1. Oh, how we older folk partied back in July ’66 – a newly-confirmed Labour Government, the ‘white heat of technology’ bursting out everywhere, men going into space (and even a woman the month before), then winning the World Cup – could it possibly get any better than that ? Nope. Excluding the much-anticipated loss of my virginity soon afterwards, life didn’t seem to have many highlights to match that year.

    I jest, of course it did, but the ongoing failure to win anything meaningful in football has never registered even a minor a blip on my personal Richter-scale of importance. But others will certainly disagree and I’m happy for them to use football fortunes as a vicarious vehicle for their lives, if that’s what they want.

    My exposure to football has only ever been accidental or secondary, although I once (accidentally) acted as David Beckham’s bodyguard – it’s a long story and my sole claim to football fame.
    Someone very close to me was once finance manager for a global company selling services into the Premier League sector – she adopted a ground-rule that the only terms on which they would do business with any club in which Terry Venables had a managerial role was ‘cash up-front’ – make of that what you will.

    I wish Big Sam all the success he deserves and hope that dedicated English football fans finally get to share in the party-spirit which we older folk sampled so briefly back in ’66, although my bet and the odds still seem stacked against it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My dad also acted as a Beatles bodyguard, sort of, when they played in Lewisham, SE, in 1964. Being a uniformed policeman, not on overtime, and not caring about the inaudible stage act – just the “bleedin’ kids screaming and pissin’ ev’rywhere” – he’d rather have been on point duty.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mine wasn’t a copper, but the job description sounds similar. Back before ‘professional security guards’, it seemed the police and the nearest big blokes on hand sufficed.

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  2. Allardyce could be just the man for the job. Heavily built, rather working class, and northern he is derided as stupid and a “long ball” man and stupid. Ah, the snobbishness of the English! Au contraire, he has been one of the first to embrace concepts such as marginal gains, and sports science, analysts and technology. He is smart, he knows how to win, and he is a pragmatist. he is undoubtedly smart enough not to do the usual England thing; pick the 11 “best” players and then play them in positions they do not play well in; I think he understands something I learned what seems like a long, long time ago in my rowing days. The best team wins, not the team with the best individuals. Big Sam will play ugly if he has to, and play the beautiful game if he can. The miserable, corporate friendly Hodgson non entity was a disaster. But hugely paid. Likewise Capello. Likewise the corporate friendly McClaren..

    While I am on a roll, can I go off on a tangemt. In Europe, in the UK, the proles are revolting. brexits and all that, Trump. marine le Pen. It’s by no means all good, no not at all. but what is interesting is the “anti-establishment” movement, and how strong it is. Take America, and Trump. What a ghastly, narcissistic, bullying, sexually harassing person (not “man”). But if I had to make a choice between him and Hilary…..? What? I regard her as a deeply dishonest, careerist, patronising, power mad, PC criminal. It’s hard to say which of the two I loath the most…

    There are Revolutions under way. In the smoked glass ivory towers of London, Brussels and New York, unknown and very wealthy men and women who believed the world was theirs to rule by right of their membership of the elite are making calls…the “Project” is not going as expected (although I add here that it was never going to go the way they – and I have no doubt there is a “they” – thought. As Ramsay Snow said in one of the great lines of Game of Thrones: “If you think this was going to turn out well, you haven’t been paying attention!”).

    Now England have appointed a decent manager! Another straw in the breeze? Who would have thought Big Sam was an indicator or Revolution!

    Liked by 1 person

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