The England Job: Capello, Redknapp, And More FA Nonsense

Arrivederci, Fabio! Capello, one of the most successful managers in football history, has handed in his notice as England manager and been happily waved away by a public who appear more eager to find out whom his successor shall be than to care about why exactly he left. Posterity may well record the Italian’s little dalliance with English football as his lowest ebb as a manager, his England tenure lying somewhere in between the abysmal failures of Steve McClaren and Graham Taylor and the consistently ‘alright’ performances under Sven Goran Eriksson. Like that of his Swedish colleague, however, Capello’s exit is paving the way for disaster – and one which the English media are happy to usher in.

First of all, it should be noted that Capello’s resignation is quite possibly the most boring exit by an England manager in the history of English football. But then, we have been somewhat spoiled over the years: we’ve had martyrs, like Sir Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson, men sacked in spite of their wonderful successes; we’ve had clowns, like Graham “Turnip” Taylor and S(h)teve “Brolly” McLaren, whose teams performed as poorly as their PR; and we’ve had the downright weird – Glenn Hoddle’s spiritual world view evidently not extending to penalty shoot-outs or the disabled.

Capello’s is one of the rare occasions on which the coach has said, “I quit”, the FA have gone “That’s absolutely fine – don’t forget your cheque!”, and the public have reacted without too much of a fuss.

There are two convenient truths masking what is the latest in a (very) long list of examples of hypocrisy in the FA, and of a tragi-comic lack of historical perspective among the English public and media:

1)      Under Capello, expectations never matched his personal reputation.  Even when he arrived, a champion whose combined silverware was probably worth even more than his astronomical paycheque, hopes were fairly low among an English public worn out by a long history of disappointment and the acute embarrassment of failing even to qualify for Euro 2008. After a few interesting tactical experiments and a solid qualifying campaign, England’s woeful performances at World Cup 2010 pretty much buried Capello’s reputation in this country. Suddenly, his inability to speak English, rather than being the quaint little quirk of an Italian tactical visionary, demonstrated a lack of commitment; his interest in art a pretentious distraction rather than a sign of personal culture.

2)      Capello is not the first foreign manager to take charge of England on the back of tremendous success in various other countries, achieve no more than the bare minimum, and leave for an absolute fortune. We’d already had Sven.

So, Capello is gone, and most of the mainstream press appear to be focusing on two things: who will replace him (or better: will Harry Redknapp want to replace him?), and how bad he was. Neither of these themes actually asks the important questions, so I have taken it upon myself to ask them: 1) Why did he leave? And 2) Why was he so unsuccessful – and who could genuinely do a better job?

The first question reveals, for me, an astonishing level of autocracy at the root of English football. Capello left because the FA decided to ban John Terry, due to his upcoming trial, which was called to investigate allegations of racial abuse. I have written about the FA’s irrational treatment of racism here, but the John Terry example reveals English football’s governing body to be not only stupid, but downright overbearing. John Terry, for all Chelsea’s defensive problems this season, remains a crucial member of the England squad. Whilst the potential for awkwardness with his usual defensive partner Rio Ferdinand, whose brother Terry is alleged to have insulted, is obvious, it is just as obvious that whether the two can play together should be down to the manager. Essentially, the FA told Capello that he couldn’t pick one of his best players, and Capello said “OK then, ciao!”.

One of the traits most admired by foreign observers of the English game is the power our clubs afford their managers. In Capello’s native Italy, for example, a club’s President will, in consultation with his ‘advisors’, buy and sell players himself, and expect the coach to build a team. These footballing despots will sometimes intervene tactically, or request that a certain player be dropped or another included in the squad. Such power struggles are supposed not to form a part of the English game, but it seems that when it comes to taking a “tough stance” on something, the FA is completely willing to jeopardise the success of its own national team.

Which brings me on to the second point. We can only speculate as to why Fabio Capello wasn’t more successful with England, but some facts are self-evident: he took a team which had just failed to qualify for a European Championship to a World Cup, where, after three admittedly poor displays, his team were knocked out by one of the best teams at the tournament in controversial circumstances (and let’s be honest: Germany were, and are, a better team than England – that they needed a disallowed goal to gain control of the match is a compliment to Capello’s team). He then qualified England for a European Championship. All the while, he tried to promote youth within the squad, and grappled with the glaring tactical deficiencies of English players. Capello didn’t perform miracles, but he was hardly a saboteur.

It is almost unanimously agreed that Harry Redknapp is the FA’s favourite to replace Capello. Redknapp, we’re told, understands the psychology and methods of English players, and of English football; Capello tried to impose his own ideas – and failed. We’re told Redknapp is a proven winner (as though Capello weren’t), that he’s a no-nonsense manager who may not win trophies but will restore England’s pride.

Redknapp’s qualities (good and bad), can be described, pretty much universally, thus: simple, used to turning average teams into good ones, ineloquent, a bit cheeky, a long career in the Premier League (mostly successful, on the whole), ambitious, twinkly-eyed, tactically unsophisticated. These, to me, are the exact same qualities I would use to describe…Steve McClaren. A manager who arrived on the back of a popular pro-English mood in the country, the idea that his foreign predecessor had come in with expectations set too high and had, subsequently, failed to match them and simply run off with the paycheque. McClaren’s appointment was seen as a refreshing return to basics, a reflection of the trust the FA were willing to put in up-and-coming English talent. He started by tearing European champions Greece to shreds in a friendly, which was followed by a thrashing of minnows Andorra and a “difficult” away victory in Macedonia. The nation was euphoric.

Under Redknapp, I almost feel as though the script will have been written before England even set foot in Krakow: after a couple of decent friendlies, England, in characteristic ‘four-four-fucking-two’, will smash their way past France to the delight of the tabloids, before the obligatory ‘solid’ draw with Sweden (whom England don’t normally beat anyway) and then a “tricky” win over co-hosts Ukraine. ‘Arry will be lauded as England march triumphantly into the second round, talisman Wayne Rooney returning from suspension, ready to lead England to glory before a sudden defeat in the Quarter-Finals, probably on penalties.

Is that really any better than what Capello would manage? Given that the FA effectively forced the Italian out with their bizarre antics over Terry-gate, the least you would expect would be an imaginative appointment. Plucking a tactically backward wide-boy in charge of one of the most expensively-assembled sides in the Premier League from the middle of what promises to be their best season ever in the Premier League borders on lunacy.

It isn’t that Redknapp is a bad manager – he isn’t; he is an expert in the transfer market, with an eye for young talent and a tremendous ability to manage squads full of big egos. All the traits you want from a league manager, none of the ones you want from an international coach.

The British people’s fetish for “getting the job done” means that the temptation to appoint managers cyclically, based on their style and attitude, will be with us for a long time yet. Just as McClaren was the practical, workmanlike antidote to Sven, so Redknapp will be the working-class, common-sense British alternative to the bespectacled, art-loving fancy-dan Capello. Another no-nonsense manager, Graham Taylor, once succeeded the legendary Bobby Robson with even worse consequences. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I sincerely believe history is about to repeat itself – again.

Oliver Neto

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