The Toughest Job in Football
by Brian Glanville
Reviewed by Harry Pearson
From WSC 246 August 2007
“I didn’t see any reaction in the team. That was the thing that left me amazed; there wasn’t the rage you expect from an England team that’s losing.” So said Fabio Capello after watching Bobby Robson’s team thrashed humiliatingly by Holland at Euro 88.
Brian Glanville’s overview of those men who have held what is now routinely described as “the poisoned chalice” of English football is richly studded with such quotations, picked up over 50 years of covering the game across Europe. Usually Italians provide them – “Butcher, always Butcher!” groans Enzo Bearzot of Robson’s team selection – though arguably the most entertaining comes from Spurs manager Arthur Rowe who, fed up with the coaching jargon coming out of the FA, remarks scornfully: “Peripheral vision? You know what that means? That means seeing out of your arse.”
Most of the comments, or so it seems to those of us who still haven’t fully recovered from last summer’s shambles, wistfully mark the slow decline of the national team. The rage has gone, replaced by the sort of chest-beating bravado that is the surest sign of a deep sense of inferiority. How did we get in this mess (assuming we were ever out of it)?
For Glanville – who is broadly sympathetic to Walter Winterbottom and his successors, surprisingly so given his often caustic comments about them over the years – the fault lies largely with the old fools of the FA, paralysed with indecision one minute, busily meddling the next and all the while storing up grudges as a squirrel does nuts (Sir Alf Ramsey’s sacking is traced to the moment he had the temerity to rebuke Professor Sir Harold Thompson for blowing cigar smoke over the players). For the FA, appointing a manager is a bit like finding a bride for the Prince of Wales – a case of eliminating the unsuitable and seeing who is left. The result is often just as unhappy. Ron Greenwood is given the job despite being “a man deeply disillusioned by what he perceived had happened to the game” because Thompson knew him when he was coaching the Oxford University team; Steve McClaren gets the post because there simply isn’t anyone else.
The FA are certainly part of the problem, as is the reluctance of successive managers to trust talented players, which Glanville also highlights. But so, too, is the national reluctance to accept Vince Lombardi’s famous axiom: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Even Glanville, with his generally refreshing pan-European outlook, is not immune. When I read his summary of defeat to Argentina in 1998 – “in the last analysis England’s gallant performance against the odds could be seen as a moral victory” – I felt like banging my head on the table.
England Managers is subtitled “The Toughest Job In Football”. This has become one of the national game’s great truisms. Looked at objectively, however, it’s hard to see how it can be. Since the war England have made the same number of World Cup final appearances as Sweden and Czechoslovakia; their record in European Championships, meanwhile, is considerably worse than that of Belgium. And yet, over 60 years of more or less consistent mediocrity, the national team has had 11 managers, only two more than the much more successful Germans. Over the same period, 18 coaches have taken charge of Italy, several of them more than once. After the Netherlands lost to Italy on penalties in the semi-final of Euro 2000 Frank Rijkaard resigned because he felt he had failed. When Terry Venables had achieved a similar feat four years earlier with England, he was hailed as a genius. Where is the rage, indeed.