The furore over Kevin Keegan's resignation masked deeper failures in the English game, says Stephen Wagg
Kevin Keegan’s resignation as England coach after the defeat by Germany on October 7 has to be seen as some kind of some kind of consummation. The ongoing melodrama that has been the England football team and its various administrations since the late 1960s had finally embraced the theatre of the absurd.
During the 1990s, the Football Association has often resembled an eastern European state, struggling to come to terms with the garish excesses that market forces bring with them. Unlike the former Warsaw Pact economies, however, the FA is awash with money and this, paradoxically, is part of their problem. Like Gerald Ratner’s jewellery the FA’s principal “products” – the Premiership and the England team – are popular, lucrative and of doubtful intrinsic worth. Unlike Ratner, however, the FA are unlikely ever to make the mistake of saying so.
England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup final, which, because of its uniqueness is still endlessly revisited by commentators, seems to have reinforced at least two long-term and deeply harmful tendencies in English football.
First, the style of the 1966 team, based as it was on hard running, strong tackling, “work rate”, speed and the abandonment of wingers, was validated by victory and has long since become established around the world as “the English way”. The absence of wingers and of “canny inside forwards” (like Johnny Haynes or Peter Broadbent in the Winterbottom era) and the exclusion of folk hero Jimmy Greaves in favour of Geoff Hurst and the burly Roger Hunt, might easily have raised protests on the sports pages, in the TV studios and around the League clubs, had England lost.
But they didn’t, and English football began to industrialise. The balance between playing and needing to stop others doing so has been steadily eroded. Ramsey, after all, gave several caps to the brutal Peter Storey (the first in 1971), while Ramsey’s successor, Don Revie once told journalists that he could, if he’d wanted, have picked a “real bastard of a side”. Thus, while the dependable defenders of the 1950s and 1960s (Billy Wright, Jack Charlton) have been followed by a steady supply of redoubtable Terry Butchers and Tony Adamses, creative players have been harder to come by.
And, even when they were found, they might be seen as a luxury the country couldn’t afford. Glenn Hoddle, for instance – for many people the most talented England player in the last quarter of the 20th century – was seldom assured of his place. There always seems to have been room, however, for a David Batty, a Paul Ince or a Dennis Wise. These men stand for values that run deep in English culture.
They are there in the tradition of tough working class masculinity, to which managers like Revie successfully appealed and, beyond this, in the ethos of the 19th century public school, which placed courage above skill. Such men thrive still in the blood and thunder of the Premiership, often alongside men of greater skill who are invariably purchased from abroad.
But there is no genetic reason why Brazilian, Portuguese or Nigerian players should have more skill than the English. The truth is our domestic game now has little need for these skills and English football has fallen back on the traditional suspicion of the exotic and the unmanly. Since the 1960s, self-expression has increasingly been equated with self-indulgence.
The second problem is that 1966 strengthened the assumption of the nationalistic tabloid press that England, as the Nation that Gave the Game to the World, somehow had a God-given right to succeed and that failure must therefore be attributable to some bungler at the helm. The routine vilification of whoever happens to be in charge of the England team has long since passed into weary self-parody. But, as a stock response to the performances of the England team, it is seldom challenged, save for the equally familiar observations that managing England is a Poisoned Chalice, that abuse Goes With The Territory, and so on.
Moreover, the broadsheet press has generally joined the clamour, with the Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent frequently citing managerial decisions as the cause of England’s various setbacks. Now presuming to know as much tactically as anyone who might coach the team, they ask how X could have been left out, why Y wasn’t brought on as sub and how come Z didn’t even make the bench? Football managers, like the “superteachers” invented by New Labour, are at the heart of contemporary myth-making: nobody ever wants to talk about the raw material with which they have to work.
Given all this, Kevin Keegan’s withdrawal is understandable. He is certainly not “his own man”. On the contrary, whether advising people to rub Brut on their armpits, cavorting with the Honey Monster, telling the fans of each of his various clubs that they were the best in the world or entertaining corporate clients, he has a long history of saying what he was required to say. He himself is a myth and, as such, a commodity – he often discusses himself in the third person.
But he knew the players available to him were unlikely to qualify for 2002. (This is nothing new, though it seems to come as a surprise to many: England didn’t qualify in 1974, 1978 or 1994 either.) Aptly, he framed his resignation in terms supplied to him by the press: “Maybe Kevin Keegan hasn’t quite got it at this level.”
Who succeeds him seems not to matter. Because France are currently world and European champions, there is talk of hiring a French coach, as if he could provide some magic Gallic ingredient. At the FA Adam Crozier and David Davies talk solemnly about Getting the Right Man for the Job. But there is no such person. Besides, despite his talk of “putting coaching structures in place”, the appointment of Crozier, previously of Saatchi and Saatchi, to be its chief executive sealed an important transition at the FA.
It has relinquished its public service role as steward of the national game and become instead an essentially corporate body, dealing with sponsors and selling television rights. Like the ploughman’s lunch (in Richard Eyre’s film that name in 1983) English football has become a successful means of getting people into pubs. This guarantees huge revenues. Only when people stop going down the boozer to watch the game, or TV deals create “bad publicity” (as with the decision to sell the Finland game to a pay-per-view channel), will the FA pause for much thought.
Meanwhile, for all we know, in Under-16 matches up and down the country, the next generation of Dennis Wises are already kicking each other.
From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month