The euphoria that followed England’s victories against Israel and Russia was perhaps understandable, especially in the context of what had gone before. The two 3-0 wins against opponents with half-decent records (however badly Israel played) came after a run of just two victories in nine matches – and those previous successes had been against Andorra and Estonia. And Steve McClaren had seen off a side coached by Guus Hiddink, a man widely tipped as a candidate for his job.
Yet before the supermarkets stock up on St George’s Cross bunting, McClaren’s team have to travel to Moscow on October 17 to play a side who had an equaliser at Wembley wrongly ruled out. Assuming England can beat Estonia on the previous Saturday, a win in Russia would bring instant qualification and a draw would keep control of destiny. Defeat, though, would leave McClaren’s hopes of keeping his job in the hands of Israel. It would not now be a surprise if England qualify for Euro 2008. It would also not be a surprise if they fail to qualify.
Incredibly, meanwhile, Scotland are on top of a group containing both World Cup finalists. Yet unless France stumble against Lithuania, or Italy slip against Georgia, then Alex McLeish’s side must beat Ukraine and Georgia then at least draw with the world champions in their final match, at Hampden on November 17, or else face an agonising wait as France visit Ukraine four days later.
Should McLeish fail, he will keep his job – deservedly. There will be no such reprieve for McClaren. In which case we will be back looking for suitable candidates. There will be a choice between a range of Englishmen without a trophy or top-five finish to their name, or the hunt will be on for a successful, though masochistic, coach from elsewhere.
Since his shock appointment, questions have been raised about Avram Grant’s qualifications to take charge of Chelsea, because he lacks the UEFA pro licence Premier League regulations demand. As with the dispensations granted Glenn Roeder and Gareth Southgate, this has prompted a debate about the value of coaching badges. And it is true that plenty of managers with the right qualifications have struggled. Yet there is, of course, no evidence that passing these courses makes you a worse coach. If all the coaches in a 20‑team league have a particular qualification then – guess what – ten will be in the bottom half and three will get relegated.
The distrust of such qualifications is part of an anti-intellectual trend in society at large – self-made millionaires being used not to give hope to those without academic success but as a way to suggest there is no point studying: “He left school without a GCSE to his name and it never did him any harm.” But in football, the struggle to find someone English who is qualified to coach England should concentrate minds on the need to compel coaches to better themselves.
As with Trevor Brooking’s drive to improve coaching standards at primary school and youth level, it will be years before this work will bear results. The success of foreign coaches here suggests that studying or working overseas would help British managers improve, though once again our anti-intellectualism – notably the reluctance to learn languages – is a hindrance.
Too often the critics of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s appointment on the grounds of his nationality ignored the absence of credible English candidates. (It’s possible to find Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail suggesting as an alternative Bryan Robson, a manager barely faring better with Sheffield United in the Championship than Neil Warnock managed in the Premier League.) If he qualifies with two more draws he will still have dropped as many points in one go as Eriksson did in two-and-three-quarter campaigns, but no current compatriot could match McClaren’s club record.
The Spurs board may be unwise if they dispose of Martin Jol so soon. They may be foolish to demand Champions League football given their lack of financial muscle compared to the big four. But, with Sam Allardyce newly tied in at Newcastle, we would know for certain that Daniel Levy and co were mad if they were to appoint an Englishman in Jol’s stead. The club of Bill Nicholson and Keith Burkinshaw could see how badly English coaching has been left behind by comparing the records of one man, David Pleat, in the 1980s and as caretaker this century. Eriksson was criticised for three quarter-final exits in a row and undoubtedly lost his way. But the same players that are struggling now won three successive qualifying groups. If McClaren is out of a job in six weeks, then the FA have a duty to find a foreign coach for the next qualifying campaign – while making every effort to improve the chances of an Englishman being up to the job in 2010, 2012 or whenever.
From WSC 249 November 2007