Monday, 18 July 2016


The other day I read a tweet from the estimable historian Tom Holland, saying 'Yes, David was able to kill Goliath - but he could never have pulled the same trick twice" - Israeli general. To which I replied, 'He could have if Goliath had played for an English manager'. A couple of days earlier I'd written the following essay, but it passed the editors' desks unrequited...


Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether sport imitates life or life imitates sport or whether they are both intent on becoming artistic parodies of themselves. The confluence of the United Kingdom's Brexit vote with England's (though not Wales' or indeed Northern Ireland's) abject departure from the European football championship was widely noted. As if not satisfied with this, at virtually the same time new Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Brexit's Field Marshal, Boris Johnson, to be her foreign secretary, the Football Association was asking Sunderland's permission to interview their manager, Sam Allardyce, for the England job.

You can argue Allardyce's relative successes and failures within English football all you like. As it happens I met him last summer, and despite his place in the endless line of Big Rons, Big Mals and Big Eteceteras, Big Sam seemed relatively progressive in his thinking. This may have impressed me, but it will not be the ultimate criterion upon which his appointment will be judged. In a stark and not surprising reflection of the late referendum, it is all a question of Englishness.

The argument follows much the same twisted logic of 'sovereignty' that was the rallying cry for Brexit. Paddy Barclay, the Scottish football scribe on the Evening Standard, wrote a column recently rubbishing the idea 'Englishness is not essential' for an England manager. As he put it, 'Germany's successes have been designed by Germans, France's by Frenchmen and Spain's by Spaniards', he wrote. 'So find one'.

I am tempted to interpret that as meaning 'find a German, or a Frenchman, or a Spaniard. But it doesn't, obviously, and therein lies the rub. Paddy listed a number of candidates (Harry Redknapp 'would be fun') including Allardyce. But part of his job description includes 'anyone willing to contemplate an igominious end. Anyone English that is. To be serious: people will look at rugby and reach for the quick fix but, in the long term, principle counts.'

Ignoring his self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, and ignoring also that the long term in international football rarely extends beyond the next major tournament, the question of principle is exactly what drove 52% of voters to Brexit. And as with the referendum, it's important to note that principle is seen through rose-tinted national health spectacles.

In football, England have always ignored the rest of the world to their own great satisfaction. The 1950 loss to the American part-timers (read about it here), perhaps a bigger upset than the loss to Iceland, went ignored at home because basically no one was in Brazil to notice, and the news when it got back to England was so absurd it was dismissed. Not until Hungary thrashed them at Wembley in 1953 did the myth of innate superiority begin to spring recognisable leaks. A World Cup win playing at home in 1966, with Brazil helpfully ushered out of the tourney by the Germans (and an English referee, as any Brazilian will swear) helped resurrect that myth, but the truth is that for the past 20 years, England has been barely more successful in World Cups than, say, the United States.

In fact, a quick fix is exactly what is needed. Eddie Jones, an Aussie, turned England's rugby team around using the same players who had disappointed so gravely at home in the World Cup the previous season. Iceland, lest we forget, were not coached only  by a part-time Icelandic dentist, their other co-manager was a Swede. Xenophobic principle will win England football matches with about as much certainty as would putting the Union Jack on their jerseys. The reality is not a question of nationality: England's past choices of foreign managers has been just as underwhelming as their Englishmen. It is a matter of perspective, of a change in perspective, and if history is any guide, that may be, on principle, exactly the most difficult thing for the FA to even contemplate.

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