The impossible job

The media lambast England manager Fabio Capello as some choice decisions see his side losing a friendly to France 2-1.

Fabio Capello can please no one. Harry Redknapp thinks he shouldn’t pick players he turned down for the World Cup. Sam Allardyce is upset that he disrespected Paul Robinson. Robert Huth thinks he should pick Ryan Shawcross. David Moyes wants him to play Leighton Baines more. And Roy Hodgson wants him to play Steven Gerrard less.

Ian Holloway reckons he should scrap friendlies and let his players play among themselves. Tony Cascarino wants him to stop playing a lone striker. And Terry Butcher thinks he should make his players sing the national anthem to “inspire the crowd, unite the squad and generate adrenalin and spirit”.

If England’s defeat to France last month reinforced Capello’s unpopularity, it did little to salvage the reputation of his players. In his match report in the Times, Oliver Kay managed to accuse England of being “abject”, “brainless”, gutless”, “painful” and “barely going through the motions”. According to Jim Holden in the Sunday Express, they were “fearful” and “craven”.

Each scribe lined up their best put-downs, but the public barely noticed. Most of them were watching The Apprentice on BBC1. As the Mail’s Des Kelly put it: “They’d had enough of a bloke looking on with a face like a walnut soaked in vinegar as his hopefuls failed with the simplest of tasks. So they turned over to another bloke looking on with a face like a walnut soaked in vinegar as his hopefuls failed with the simplest of tasks.”

The temptation to blame Capello proved irresistible for some. The Mirror and the Sun both plastered the headline Prat in a Hat across their back pages after the England manager had worn a cap on the touchlines. Capello looked every inch the Tony Pulis wannabe, but his bid to emulate Stoke’s long-ball game failed miserably. Some commentators called for the manager to be sacked. Capello is a “dead man walking” to whom we should bid “arrivederci”, said Steven Howard in the Sun. Graham Taylor, writing with a sympathetic tone that seemed out of place on the pages of the Daily Express, foretold a doomed future for the Italian: “He is going the same way as the rest of us. There is very little you can do once you are swimming against the tide. You can fight and prolong the agony but it will now take an enormous amount of good fortune to save Capello from drowning.”

Dave Kidd, the People columnist, had a novel idea – sack Capello and replace him with Nigel Clough. Clough might not have managed in the top division, but he was “spoon fed the principles of fearless, free-flowing football when he was in a high chair”. And, to mark him out from the crowd, the Derby boss “has employed team-bonding methods from bingo to diving off cliffs”.

Aside from this bizarre suggestion, most commentators recognised that replacing the manager will not be enough. If England want a successful national team, the country needs a new football culture. As Henry Winter put it in the Telegraph: “Not all the blame for England’s travails can be lumped on the slim shoulders of the uncaring, uncommunicative Capello. England’s malaise runs deeper.” In the Independent James Lawton said: “England managers have been ambushed, one by one, by their own football culture.”

The pundits queued up to lambast the current set-up. Mark Lawrenson, Gary Lineker and an impassioned David Ginola all cried out for a renewed emphasis on better coaching techniques at the grass-roots level. An inspired Terry Venables declared that “not for the first time in their history, the French have shown there needs to be a revolution”. It was with a great hurrah, then, that the FA announced that building would soon begin at the National Football Centre in Burton. An enthused Winter suggested that Capello should be the first to “don his Wellies, grab a spade and start the digging”.

The consensus seems to be that, although the immediate future is dark, there is cause for hope in the long term. However, one man flew in the face of this reasoning. Kenny Dalglish, who had evidently watched more of The Apprentice than the football, thought the English players were every bit as technically proficient as their French counterparts. “Despite what you might read, top-level football is not just about technique,” wrote Dalglish. “Otherwise all those fantastic ball-jugglers would be playing in the Premier League rather than entertaining on street corners.”

King Kenny was so sure of himself that he challenged readers to remember his wise words: “Cut this column out and keep it. Because if England play France in 18 months’ time, England will win.” Those Liverpool fans chanting his name should be careful what they wish for.

From WSC 287 January 2011