We had the cover of this issue worked out ahead of the Croatia match. “Disaster for England” would have been the headline, with two players discussing the fact that qualifying meant Steve McClaren was still the manager. We should have known better. Still, in the wake of the Wembley debacle, it has been suggested that England’s worst ever qualification failure may yet have a silver lining if it leads to the “root and branch investigation” of English football promised by the FA.
A genial old man called Stanley Green used to parade up and down Oxford Street wearing a sandwich board, now preserved in the Museum of London, that warned of the dangers of “passion”, which he believed could be brought on by consuming too much protein. The small pamphlets he handed out to passers-by didn’t make any reference to football being afflicted with this dangerous tendency, but the game would have provided him with enough material for a book, possibly even an encyclopaedia.
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.
“The only crisis we have here is when we’ve run out of champagne in the boardroom,” said John Cobbold when Ipswich chairman. The Cobbolds, whose family brewery was one of the town’s main employers, are often held up to exemplify the attitude of the patrician dynasties who used to own many teams. They may have looked upon their clubs as heirlooms – one of the last of the breed, Peter Hill-Wood at Arsenal, has been magnificently disdainful of the rumoured interest in the club from US billionaire Stan Kroenke – but they also knew better than to interfere with the manager’s role.
Do you have an idea how many key passes Darren Fletcher has had in the Champions League? Would you remember enough about Frank Lampard’s various performances against Barcelona to be able to take a guess at his total yardage? Good luck to you if you do, because we haven’t got a clue. And neither would anyone else 15 years ago. In the century of football that occurred in the pre-Sky age, supporters somehow managed to cope without knowing how much ground a certain player covered or whether he was statistically his team’s fifth-best decision-maker in the final third.
As our press day loomed, our thoughts turned to Leeds United and we began to write about Ken Bates’s latest victory. Which was what would surely happen. After all, the man who was on the brink of disaster at Chelsea, with unserviceable debts of more than £100 million, was able to walk away with £18m when Roman Abramovich arrived on his white charger. Bates had bought Chelsea for just £1 originally and now seemed likely to snap up Leeds for another astonishingly low sum.
Some are angry at the club for giving only 11,000 out of 17,000 tickets to fans, and the allocation arrangements. Some lionise those who conned their way in through bluff or with forgeries, though others wonder if any of them worked out what the consequences would be: either overfilled stands or some of those lucky 11,000 being excluded. But whatever the arguments between Liverpool and their fans, and among the supporters themselves, the central fact to emerge from the Athens ticket fiasco is that UEFA have lost control. They can no longer stage a major event and guarantee entry to legitimate ticket-holders.
Even more than usual, May looks like being a very good month for overblown football superlatives. It’s the big one; the even bigger one; the dream final. It’s a feast of football, a soccer apocalypse. Manchester United and Chelsea have been competing for three major trophies and don’t we all know it. These days it feels like it’s judgement day every day.
Anyone who watches matches regularly would know that the proposal to stage shootouts at the end of drawn Football League games is a stupid idea. Which is why it’s alarming that the suggestion was made by the chairman of the League, Brian Mawhinney who, one would assume, attends matches regularly. If he does indeed pay attention at matches, you would think he’d be aware that shootouts won’t make them more exciting. They would in fact have the reverse effect – teams already inclined to play for a draw would have even more incentive to do so with the prospect of gaining an extra point.
Should you need evidence that football is the global game, then England is the place to find it. The Premiership is the most widely followed league in the world (if not perhaps the best, whatever Sky may claim) and there are more nationalities represented in it than any other. All of which throws into stark relief that in one way English football upholds a very old tradition – almost all the managers are white.