OWN-GOAL OF THE SEASON

allardyceIt might have been twenty-three longer than Cloughie lasted at Leeds in 1974, but 67 days is still a pretty pathetic regime when all’s said and done. Sam Allardyce has been forced to surrender the most poisoned of English football chalices and the FA are again left up shit creek without a paddle. The man who allegedly came to the rescue of England’s shamed national side following the humiliation of Euro 2016 – mainly because there was no other available Englishman to take the job – has been relieved of his duties after one solitary match in charge due to being caught exhibiting his avarice in a tediously familiar Fleet Street sting, boasting of ways around the rules governing player transfers in the company of ‘foreign businessmen’ (AKA Daily Telegraph undercover reporters) and apparently fixing a £400,000 deal to act as a representative for their fictitious company. Do these greedy bastards never learn?

Caretakers in the post have always had short runs, though even the likes of Steve McClaren and Kevin Keegan as official, full-time England bosses at least had a year to prove how inept they were; Allardyce’s 67 days has set a new and unenviable record. Don Revie was crucified by the press for bailing out of the job after just three years in 1977, despite them calling for his head on a plate; that he accepted a well-paid post managing the United Arab Emirates immediately thereafter, securing his financial future at a time when running a pub was the best ex-players and managers could hope for, was greeted with outrage, though hindsight bestows a less malignant sheen on Revie’s actions. Now that the game is awash with money at the highest level, the suicidal greed of Allardyce seems especially repugnant.

The decision of the Telegraph to pursue this entrapment exposé, however – following a recognised path that has caught out numerous politicians and minor royals over the years – raises many questions. Was the motivation merely to catch out another public figure, thus giving their readership one more opportunity to adopt a smug, holier-than-thou attitude, or were they determined to bring down the latest holder of an unenviable job because it presented them with the prospect of endless headlines bemoaning the ‘national disgrace’ of the national sport, thus hoping to arrest falling sales of their paper? Probably a bit of both, I suppose.

The British public like nothing more than rounding on an individual lacking in the kind of fantasy humility that few demonstrate when presented with a something-for-nothing windfall; in a get-rich-quick culture fuelled by rampant acquisitiveness and the expectation of an instant fortune that will spare its recipient the long, hard slog of earning it, how many would behave differently to Sam Allardyce if placed in his position? Not that his behaviour is in anything other than deplorable (considering the kind of wage he would have been on as England boss, an estimated £3 million-a-year), but to pretend the majority – let alone Fleet Street – would react with unimpeachable piety if served up a similar offer on the same silver salver is laughably sanctimonious.

Whatever the reasons behind the sting, the national side of the national sport has again been abandoned by one more ‘saviour’, and at a moment when its ability to generate national pride is at a particular low ebb in the wake of the summer’s embarrassments. Sven and Fabio were the great experiments in looking farther afield than the British Isles, yet neither achieved much other than collecting handsome redundancy packages when the inevitable axe fell; and the paucity of Englishmen managing football clubs at the top level means the talent pool for recruitment is more threadbare than it has been at any time since Walter Winterbottom was the first man promoted to the post in 1946.

Yes, we’ve been here before; but Jeremy Corbyn has more chance of filling his frontbench with outstanding Parliamentarians that will win over the non-Momentum electorate than the FA have of finding a dynamic English coach with enough experience of managing millionaire Prima Donnas to make a success of a job that has ruined the reputation of every man to take it on since Alf Ramsey.

The dismal showing of England when up against a team of part-timers from Iceland proved it’s no easy task to mould a group of average players accustomed to plying their weekly trade alongside top overseas talent into a successful all-English unit; Sam Allardyce may have cracked the conundrum, but he would most likely have ended up sacked within a year before returning to the Premier League touchline at the likes of Burnley or Bournemouth.

All this incident has done is to bring forward the decision for the FA by twelve months, embarking on another search for another ultimate failure who can at least look forward to a golden handshake before being waved off on his way. With just the one World Cup qualifier under its belt, the national side now has a series of fixtures to play under the guidance of one more caretaker, in this case Gareth Southgate, while the FA is faced with filling a vacant post that has few capable of filling it. They think it’s all over; and for the England team, it almost feels like it is now.

© The Editor

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