Where did it all go wrong this time? Harry Pearson assesses the tenure of the man under the brolly and Ashley Shaw looks at why the England team fail to unite the support of the country's biggest clubs
It was hard to look at him as he wagged his left arm in some forlorn attempt to get his players to deliver a decent cross and not think of Stevie Smith: “I was too far out all my life/and not waving but drowning.” Though sadly for the poet, she was not about to pocket £2.5 million on her way to a fortnight’s holiday in the Caribbean.
McClaren is a man with a passion for dugout displacement activities, scribbling madly away like Barbara Cartland with a deadline, or sucking on a water bottle with the desperation of a 60-a-day man in a no-smoking zone. The umbrella was a new touch, but it summed him up all too neatly. Even with his life collapsing around him, it seemed the England boss was still intent on ensuring that incongruous hairdo didn’t get messed up, still strangely preoccupied with appearances.
When McClaren took the England job, I wrote in WSC 235 that he was football’s first New Labour manager – all smiles and slogans, but with no firm beliefs so far as anyone could discern. That he has proved to be more Alistair Darling than Tony Blair will have surprised nobody who watched as he charted his erratic course at the Riverside Stadium. From early on it was plain that his philosophy was defensive on the field and off it, damage limitation his default setting.
As a result, throughout his time with Middlesbrough and England he has appeared overly concerned with how things can be made to look, rather than in confronting reality; eager to defuse questions, not answer them. His Alastair Campbell is Bill Beswick, a sports psychologist who has lurked in McClaren’s shadow for many years like some life-coach Cardinal Richelieu, only without the robes, the rings and masterful cunning.
To listen to McClaren’s post-match press conferences is to be deluged in the duo’s Athena-poster truisms: “We put this behind us and we move forward… We learn from our mistakes and look to the future… Setbacks make you stronger as a person, we remain focused and positive…” And on and on, a lukewarm torrent that transforms every defeat into another upward motion on the learning curve, every thrashing into a sign that you must remain true to your vision. That the England coach didn’t react to the Croatia defeat by pointing out that “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of our lives” was surely only because he had already written it in his notebook a hundred times during that embarrassingly shambolic first half.
Even experienced journalists, men and women used to sorting meaning from the effusions of managers such as Glenn Hoddle and Bobby Robson, expressed amazement at the sheer ungraspability of some of McClaren’s replies, especially when he was asked something for which he did not have a pat answer prepared. “I’ve listened to the tape six times,” one told me after an England friendly, “and I still can’t make any sense of it. It’s like a big cloud of nothing.” The consensus was that he made Kevin Keegan look like a master of concision.
One of the things that strikes you when reviewing McClaren’s post-match comments is how little he actually says about football. Tactics are barely mentioned. He might as well be discussing the reasons for a shortfall in production at the local kazoo factory. Management is now seen as a job completely separated from production, of course, allowing Adam Crozier – the man who saddled us with that “Golden Generation” tag – to move seamlessly from messing up Wembley to buggering up the Royal Mail. Perhaps McClaren is heading a new trend. Maybe a future England coach will be recruited straight from the boardroom of Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty.
Of course, in many ways McClaren’s vacuity made him the ideal man to run the current England team, filled as it is with players apparently lacking any substance whatsoever, flickering holograms powered by reputation. Like their former coach they are preoccupied with upbeat slogans, for ever assuring fans that it is time to “let their football do the talking” and then blathering on unstoppably. Unlike him they don’t carry umbrellas during matches, they just play as if they are. Harry Pearson
Where once English fans rallied around the national team, it now seems that supporters of the Big Four are growing tired of the accusations that attach themselves to their star players after each England failure, further fracturing a game divided between haves and have nots. The thing to “have”, of course, is a regular slot in the Champions League – a competition that has become such a status symbol and cash cow that it has, for those involved in it on a regular basis, already overtaken the World Cup as the game’s pinnacle.
The national team’s latest failure doesn’t help the patriots’ cause, either. Compared to the flowing football and silky skills offered by today’s multinational club squads, the stolid fare served up by McClaren’s England offers a nasty reminder of a recent past when English teams looked hopelessly out of their depth in Europe. The history of fan unrest can be traced back to the demonisation of David Beckham in the aftermath of the 1998 World Cup. The antagonism of Manchester United fans towards England hasn’t waned since, with most now accepting that the common thread linking the nation’s exit from three of the last five major tournaments has been the vilification of United players (1998 – Beckham; 2000 – Phil Neville; 2006 – Cristiano Ronaldo).
Things settled down a bit after David Seaman’s blunder in 2002 and Urs Meier took the heat two years later, but the attempt to hound Ronaldo out of English football in 2006 was the final straw for many. Conveniently, another United target, Wayne Rooney, got it in the neck following the crucial defeat in Moscow. The reaction to Croatia’s victory verged on the triumphal among a hard-core but vocal minority in Manchester, with a rumoured party to “celebrate” England’s exit in a city-centre pub and taunting banners planned for subsequent away games.
This antagonism towards the national team now extends itself to other members of the Big Four, albeit to a lesser degree. Liverpudlians rarely regard themselves as English by anything but an accident of birth and the ostracism of Jamie Carragher and the criticism of Steven Gerrard have widened the gulf between England and fans of the country’s most successful club. Of the Big Four, Chelsea fans are perhaps most closely associated with the national team, yet the vilification of Frank Lampard has alienated some. Meanwhile, proposals to help England via a quota of native players in club squads would hit Arsenal hardest of all.
The fact is that supporters and players no longer need the national team as they did during the European ban in the late 1980s. In the Champions League era, it’s also possible to say that the clubs themselves no longer need English football – their main goal is to extend an international brand by playing before a global audience. Clearly, too, football has moved on from an era when each nation had a certain style of play. In the globalised game, Arsenal are little different to Barcelona or Ajax.
The intense hype whipped up by continuous coverage doesn’t help, either – the demonisation of the Big Four’s star players by opposing fans makes a suspension of hostilities all the harder when internationals come around. How can United fans cheer on “Stevie G” or Arsenal fans root for “Big John Terry” when they’re conditioned to hurl abuse at them week in, week out? Also, when the chips are down, how can these rivals perform together? As Spanish fans have long since discovered, club loyalties often run deeper than shared nationality. The failure of the “Golden Generation” also implies that their career goals are aimed at success with their club rather than their country. And, in an era when the cities these teams represent no longer feel constrained by their Englishness – their leaders intent instead on joining the ranks of “world cities” – is it any wonder that the clubs themselves look beyond any responsibility to the national game?
For these reasons the prospects for the national team seem limited in the near future. In an era when the apex is no longer a quadrennial competition between nation states but an annual tournament between brands and sponsors, the lure of filthy lucre and sexy football is going to beat a crummy old flag every time. Ashley Shaw
From WSC 251 January 2008