How bad is English football?

Published : Jul 22, 2010 00:00 IST

Capello's tactics were ineffective, his insistence on using a plainly below par Gareth Barry in midfield, in ignoring the quick Dawson of Spurs as a centre back, of picking a goalkeeper as suspect as Robert Green for the opening game against the States; these were hardly the choices and policies of a wise manager.

Following England's dismal displays in the World Cup, the sackcloth and ashes are out again. The game is in crisis. Talent is scarce. Major clubs such as Spurs won't release their teenagers to play in pre-season international tournaments. Youth and boys' coaches are badly lacking. Prospects are grim.

Well, up to a point. The dirge is an all too familiar one. You could have heard it, though so far as I can recall all those years later, after England in the 1950 World Cup were sensationally beaten 0-1 in Belo Horizonte by a USA team of anonymous part-timers. You could hear it once again, loud and clear, after England's longstanding unbeaten record against foreign teams was smashed by the brilliant Hungarians in November 1963: 6-3 at Wembley.

For that matter, you can currently hear cries of despair from Italy, the Azzurri in South Africa not having even qualified for the first knockout round which at least England did, however unimpressively. Both countries and their national teams will rise again. As indeed will Argentina, thrashed 0-4 by the Germans and paying a heavy price for making Diego Maradona the manager against all logic, and keeping him on even when the team crashed 1-6 to humble Bolivia on the heights of La Paz in the qualifying tournament. The truth was that the grand panjandrum of Argentine soccer, Julio Grondona, should never have appointed him in the first place and didn't have the guts to get rid of him when things went wrong.

Will things soon improve for the England team? Keeping Fabio Capello in office, I'd hardly think so. I'd have been delighted to see him replaced by my old friend Roy Hodgson, who in my view should have been given the job way back in 1994 immediately after the World Cup in the USA, when he had been in charge of a Swiss team which he had revitalised. But Roy has accepted a 3-million-pound-a-year position with Liverpool and I only hope he doesn't live to regret it.

For Liverpool at the moment are a club in turmoil. Run and if you like run into the ground by the knock about American pair of Gillett and Hick — who detest each other and are desperate to sell — they've been burdened with debt of over 430 million pounds, have sold the excellent Israeli winger Yossi Benayoun to Chelsea and seem sure to lose the Spanish striker Fernando Torres. A flop alas in the World Cup where he was manifestly still unfit, but ultimately if restored to full fitness, a major star.

In the event of course Capello, despite his multiple mistakes in South Africa, had the inept Football Association over a barrel. Sacking him would have cost the Association a cool 12 million pounds, paying up the last two years of his contract. The FA, under the ineffectual aegis of Sir Dave Richards — who couldn't even make a success of leading Sheffield Wednesday — had scrapped the clause which would have allowed either party to dissolve the contract within two weeks after the World Cup.

Capello's defenders in the media stress the panoply of honours which he won with Italian clubs, but what has that to do with international management in England? Yes of course there was the extenuating factor of Wayne Rooney's ineptitude, Rio Ferdinand's absence, but Capello's tactics were ineffective, his insistence on using a plainly below par Gareth Barry in midfield, in ignoring the quick Dawson of Spurs as a centre back, of picking a goalkeeper as suspect as Robert Green for the opening game against the States, of making use of a player who simply never seems to score in Emile Heskey, in choosing James Milner for the opening game although he was ill; these were hardly the choices and policies of a wise manager. Though it has to be said, as the far more canny but less renowned German manager, Joachim Loew pointed out with a smile, that while Argentina lost 0-4 to the Germans, England in fact lost only 2-4, if you take into account the goal scored by Frank Lampard, but disallowed by an incompetent Uruguayan referee. One whose record, even in Montevideo, was such that FIFA's decision to appoint him seems inexplicable. But then so much of what FIFA does is hard to justify.

Meanwhile, it is hard to see Capello as anything else but a busted flush, a liability, who has seemingly lost the confidence of many of his players; though oddly enough not of the gifted attacker Joe Cole, although he made scant use of him. At least the French who, as idiotically and more as the FA kept Raymond Domenech in charge though he was so plainly damaged goods, can start again with Laurent Blanc from Bordeaux as their new manager. Goodness knows why they've waited so long to install him, and at a time when he must pick up the pieces of a disastrous French World Cup campaign, in which the players were mutinous, rebellious and sullen. Looking back, it seems ever more amazing that despite England's various disasters in the 1950s, Walter Winterbottom remained in office as manager for full 16 years! That he survived the humiliation of the freak American defeat in Belo Horizonte wasn't wholly surprising. After all for many years, thanks to a crazy compromise between the FA and the so called selection committee, consisting of leading club chairmen, he wasn't even allowed to pick the team!

But his inept tactics, when the Hungarians excelled at Wembley in 1953 and nothing was done to curb the deep-lying, hat-trick scoring Nandor Hidegkuti, was followed by a 1-7 debacle the following May, in Budapest. Implying that tactically Walter, an academic figure but once a pre-war Manchester United centre-half, had learned absolutely nothing from the 3-6 defeat.

He stayed in office because he was the protégé of Stanley Rous, then the all-powerful Secretary and autocrat of the Football Association. Since Rous we have never had a competent figure at the helm of the FA but in the case of Walter's longevity — and Walter would always say his other job as director of coaching was the more important — he surely abused his authority. Meanwhile, I'm resigned to two years of stasis and aridity under Capello, who surely shot his bolt in South Africa. To be fair to him, English football, overflowing with foreign stars — heaven help you at Arsenal, should you happen to be English — hardly offered him a cornucopia of English talent. Is coaching the answer? There is good coaching and bad coaching and it isn't so long ago that Charles Hughes, at the FA, poisoned the wells, with his long ball fanaticism. Let's hope and pray.

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