Three Lions on a shirt, but no idea who wears it… search for next England boss must end soon
23:39 GMT, 27 March 2012
The problem with being England manager is that everybody thinks your job is easy. They think all you do is pick a team. And anybody can pick a team. In a newspaper office, in the pub, at home, on Twitter, bored at work, we can all sit down, make a list of our favourite 11 English players and throw down the gauntlet, as Sir Bobby Robson did before his first match with Denmark.
Asked if he had a message for his opponents, Robson spun his piece of paper on to the desk defiantly. ‘This is my team,’ he said, ‘and we’re coming to get you.’ They drew 2-2.
Clearly, though, judging by the dried-up tumbleweed blowing gently across the forecourt at Wembley Stadium, the Football Association still believe all the next England manager has to do is get 23 names in some form of order at least 10 days before the first match of the European Championship and the ship is set fair.
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Knowledge of the opposition Not essential. Nuances of form, fitness and individual endurance See how we go. Game plans, strategies, tactics We’ll let them worry about us. After all, if we don’t know what we are doing, how can anybody else It’s the element of surprise.
Yet picking England teams isn’t easy. Picking England teams is really hard.
One wrong substitution (Emile Heskey for the devastating Wayne Rooney when leading France 1-0 at the European Championship in 2004, final score France 2 England 1) or a missed tactical change (Owen Hargreaves should have shored up the midfield against Croatia in 2007, before Mladen Petric scored the goal that knocked England out of the European Championship) and consequences can be enormous.
What looks the simplest of plans on a white board can have entirely unanticipated complications in practice.
Take Steve McClaren’s back three strategy in Croatia. It had everything going for it, most particularly a trio of outstanding centre halves in John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King.
On paper, it played completely to England’s defensive strengths: a rock solid middle and two good attacking full backs in Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, who were also very strong defensively. It took a belt-and-braces approach to containing the most dangerous team in the group, but with counter-attacking potential.
Then King got injured. No matter. Jamie Carragher could be a more than adequate replacement.
Except in training Terry looked deeply uncomfortable playing on the outside of three. This was an issue because Ferdinand was intended to be the central figure and ball carrier. Now Terry was in that place, Ferdinand outside.
What looked so good in theory became flawed. Fine had McClaren schemed long in advance, but he fatally delayed preparing for the midweek visit to Croatia until after the Saturday game with Macedonia.
He was making discoveries late, which is pretty much how the next England manager may be forced to operate at this summer’s tournament.
Fatal delay: Steve McClaren should have prepared for the Croatia game earlier
In Zagreb, the only England defender who looked content playing three at the back was Carragher, who was included by chance. So much for the straightforward task of placing 11 names on a sheet of A4.
The way the FA are going about their business now, it is as if men who are supposedly immersed in football’s culture genuinely believe Fabio Capello’s job entailed sitting at a desk thinking, ‘Goalkeepers … ooh, Joe Hart, he’s good’. Fantasy football with a 6million first prize.
They are not the only ones. The Guardian recently asked Robbie Savage about his England fancies and received an illuminating answer.
‘I’d pick Wayne Rooney as soon as he was available, no matter if my other strikers had scored six goals between them,’ he said. ‘And I’d give youth a chance. I’d pick Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling, Adam Johnson.
‘We’ve got nothing to lose. I’d have Theo Walcott on one wing with Micah Richards behind him and real pace on the other wing, too. I’d have Paul Scholes in the squad. But my first-choice midfielders would be Wilshere and Steven Gerrard.’
Let’s walk that through. So, once Rooney is free from suspension, the forward line is him, plus Sturridge and Welbeck, so a front three, one central and two wide. But what’s this We also need room for Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott. So, two wide forwards and two wingers, plus Wilshere and Gerrard in the centre because it’s not as if either of them might desert a guarding position for a forward run.
Muddle: Robbie Savage's ideal team, featuring Daniel Sturridge and several other attackers, would be a disaster
So with three up front and four midfielders, we can only play three at the back. Except Robbie wants Richards behind Walcott at full back, plus Smalling, who can’t be playing at right back because Richards is already there. Now we’ve got a right back, Smalling, at centre half and one outfield place remaining for either a left back, or a second central defender.
To recap: we’re playing 3-4-3 with two wide forwards, two wingers and an overlapping right back, two forward midfield players in the hole, and either a lone centre half who is 22 with three caps, or two centre halves and Adam Johnson dropping in at left back if required. Now, I’m not Rinus Michels but I reckon you could get at that team through the middle. On a Space Hopper. With a puncture. And filled with sand.
In Robbie’s defence, he may have been on his way to a dance class or pre-occupied with his new job running the BBC. Perhaps he was thinking in squad terms. Given more time he would no doubt opt to temper his craving for youth and perhaps incorporate a second centre half at the expense of one of the five wingers.
The point being, just naming names is easy. Making it work is the puzzler.
Capello was genuinely still agonising over England’s World Cup goalkeeper on the eve of the opening game with the United States in 2010; Sir Bobby Robson said three of 23 places were open going into England’s final friendly before the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
As for Sir Alf Ramsey’s wingless World Cup winners in 1966, that strategy had only evolved by the final three matches of the tournament. In every group game before the quarter-final with Argentina, England played with a winger.
Scouting: With no boss in place, who is scouting our opponents
And that’s only the half of it. When England face their first European Championship match in Donetsk on June 11, there will be some other, less familiar, faces out there with them. They are called France. Who is keeping a check on them Who is poring over scouting reports, even making the odd journey to watch an individual player in action across Europe Detail is required.
England were not playing Ajax at Euro 96 but Ajax had enough players crucial to Holland’s plans for Terry Venables to pay visits to their Champions League games. He met Ajax coach Louis van Gaal for breakfast after a tie against Borussia Dortmund and talked football philosophies. He based the tactics that earned a 4-1 win against the Dutch on what he heard and saw.
Glenn Hoddle knew he was succeeding Venables as England manager even before the European Championship began in 1996, which is why he was able to fly to Bucharest on June 1 – the first match of Euro 96 was on June 8 – to watch his first World Cup qualifying opponents, Moldova, play Romania.
His assistant, John Gorman, scurried down from the main stand to observe the Moldovan defence from pitch level.
‘I want to get a sense of exactly how tall they are,’ he told reporters. ‘I think we can get at them in the air.’
Moldova played another match before England visited Chisinau – against Turkey on August 14 – so all would not have been lost had Hoddle skipped Bucharest, but what he saw that day meant he could spend the summer preparing.
Prepared: Glenn Hoddle had the summer to prepare for a game against Moldova
A successful qualifying campaign began with a 3-0 win in Moldova on September 1, 1996. The first goal came from a Gary Neville cross that Moldova’s defence couldn’t cut out, the second was a Paul Gascoigne header, the third a long ball allowed to bounce with Neville nodding it on for Alan Shearer to score. So Gorman was right. Moldova were poor in the air.
Who is amassing this information for England now Who is then looking over it or factoring it into any evaluation of the squad
The idea that an England manager can be parachuted in – Sir Trevor Brooking’s phrase – rather ignores the exhaustive research the post requires.
You can bet Erik Hamren is familiar with his dossier on England. And who is he Hamren is the manager of Sweden, England’s second opponents on June 15 in Kiev.
He is toying with the selection of a 19-year-old on loan at Feyenoord called John Guidetti, who has 19 goals and five assists in 20 games this season.
Sounds useful. What does the next England manager know about him Not much. For a start, he doesn’t even know he’s the next England manager at the moment. Guidetti might not make Hamren’s cut. Then again, he might explode at the European Championship as Michael Owen did at the 1998 World Cup, with his victims scratching their heads and wondering, ‘Who the hell is this’
But there would be no excuse for an England manager failing to anticipate Guidetti’s danger, considering the club he is on loan from is Manchester City.
Threat: John Guidetti could face England for Sweden
Fitness: Jack Wilshere's ability to keep fit for the whole tournament is in doubt
He has played for the reserve and Under 18 teams there and had a brief loan spell at Burnley. A permanent England manager could be up to date in one telephone call. He just has to know that Guidetti’s strengths and weaknesses are very much his business.
Do not think this is merely the media’s obsession.
The players want an England manager, too. They want a conversation, perhaps reassurance, a sense of direction. They want to know where they are going and who they are going with; as for the boss, he will wish to know the secrets that are not revealed by a bald 23 names on a piece of paper.
What did the players learn from the doomed mission in South Africa What must be avoided Can Ferdinand and Terry be in the same room, let alone the same defence Will Wilshere’s fitness hold up to the intensity of a tournament
Maybe the manager might want to avoid being caught cold by the talent of Marvin Martin (French, nine caps, two goals on his debut against Ukraine last June, currently drawing comparisons with Zinedine Zidane).
Indeed, isn’t there just a little hint of arrogance in the thought that none of this matters
That all it takes to be England manager is a 23-strong list, Three Lions on a shirt and 12 FA Board members giving you the thumbs up from the posh seats. This is our team and we’re coming to get you. As Sir Bobby found out that night at the Idraetsparken in Copenhagen, there is a little bit more to it than that.
A Wayne win and he must top the polls
Wayne Rooney’s winning goal against Fulham on Monday night was his 28th this season and his eighth in the last six League games.
If Manchester United now go on to beat Manchester City to the League title, particularly if they do so by a small margin, he, more than any player, will have proved the difference.
City’s David Silva began the season magnificently but has increasingly run out of steam and while Arsenal’s debt to Robin van Persie is immense – take him away and they would have struggled to stay in the top half for much of the season, let alone secure a place in the Champions League – he has not decided the title race.
If Rooney contributes more than 30 goals, as seems certain, and a vulnerable United team see off their rivals yet again, it would be very hard to vote against him as Footballer of the year.
Vital: Wayne Rooney (left) has been crucial in the title race
AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT
It is unfortunate that Mark Pieth, the Swiss criminologist detailed to reform FIFA, looks a little like Sepp Blatter’s younger brother; it is also unfortunate that he was immediately presumed to be Blatter’s stooge.
The good news is that some think this will harden the resolve of Pieth to make the tough calls and protect his own reputation. The bad news is that he sees future FIFA presidents as allies in the fight against corruption and insider dealing.
One presumes he means men like Michel Platini, the UEFA president, who voted for a Qatar World Cup, knowing it would be hell to hold it there in the summer, but whose son Laurent has since conveniently landed a top job with the Qatar Foundation. Some ally. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Critics are confused by the real Issue
The front page of the Manchester United fanzine Red Issue contains a photograph of paramedics attending the scene of Fabrice Muamba’s collapse, beneath a headline that reads ‘Grief junkies run riot’.
Speech bubbles from the watching crowd include one asking ‘Is he dead’ and receiving the reply ‘I’ve tweeted my condolences, just in case.’ Predictably, it has caused outrage.
The joke is on the offended, however.
Drama: Has football's reaction to crisis become increasingly theatrical
Issue: The offending cover of the fanzine
Red Issue is no more making fun of Muamba than Monty Python targeted Jesus Christ in Life of Brian or Chris Morris’s Brass Eye made sport of the victims of paedophilia.
This is about the self-aggrandising nature of modern mass grief, itself an off-shoot of the herd mentality satirised in Life of Brian, and the media frenzies so effectively dissected by Morris.
I can understand those who were moved by Muamba’s plight, but also those who find football’s reaction to crisis increasingly theatrical.
I would imagine the writers at Red Issue are similarly conflicted. Anyone who thinks their target was an ill young man, however, may be among the ranks of the professionally outraged — or simply smarting at recognising themselves as the butt of a joke.