Thursday, March 01, 2012

Management expectation

There has been an awkward vibe around football this week: with André Villas-Boas clinging by the last layer of fingertip flesh to his job at Chelsea, his compatriot and mentor Jose Mourinho reappears in London to meet an estate agent.

Given Mourinho's penchant for the theatrical, The Sun’s blurry snap of his meeting all but lacked the Portuguese conspiratorially twirling his moustache like a silent movie villain, a tinkling piano signaling impending doom for some young damsel tied to a railway track. Which is how Villas-Boas must feel right now.

In another part of the capital, however, a 49-year-old Sex Pistols fan who goes by the name of 'Psycho' was preparing to lead out the England team in a somewhat pointless friendly against the Netherlands. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Stuart Pearce had won the one-off chance to manage England in a competition on Blue Peter, such is the unlikelihood of him being anything more than a temporary appointment while the Football Association works out how to get Harry Redknapp out of Spurs.

For all Pearce’s status as a minor national treasure for his unbridled patriotism – his sinew-stretching pre-match singing of the national anthem and that fist-pumping, post-penalty elation that he shared with the entire country after the England-Spain shootout during Euro’96 – few England fans would say he has the credentials to take England into and beyond the 2012 European championships. It is something that Pearce humbly and characteristically suggested before last night’s game, that he “didn’t have the CV” to become the permanent England manager, a point he then repeated after the 2-3 home defeat to the Dutch. "The full-time manager of England at this moment in time is probably somebody else, not me," he reflected.

While it would be tempting to feel a little sorry for Pearce, having been given the chance to manage the senior team for one game, but his brief spells in club management were less than stellar (although compared with Villas-Boas, Pearce is positively weighed down with experience). His ongoing management of the England Under-21 squad, while positive, hasn’t given the impression that, charged with the next generation of England player, he would be lifting silverware any time soon.

In the end, the sobriquet ‘caretaker’ was more than appropriately applied to Pearce. Although he effectively suited up for the night, adopting the Italian/Spanish style of dark suit, dark tie, tan shoes, tan belt, the end result for England was less than spectacular. It wasn’t bad. Just not good. As caretaker, Pearce stood on the touchline, waving his arms in the manner managers are meant to wave their arms, even though it rarely does anything to make the team perform any differently. Meanwhile, we watched on trying to work out what the plan was. There didn’t seem to be one, although if it was “contain Robben”, it had clearly been forgotten.

I don’t wish to knock Pearce, and he certainly won’t brook any sympathy. If he wants the England job full-time, dressing smartly for the press isn’t really the most important requirement. The trouble is, no one really knows what is required to be the new England manager. If it is managing the egos of a group of ageing stars, then Capello was your man, until his fit of pique over John Terry saw him flounce off.

If it is about bringing through a new generation of players, motivating them and making them want to play for themselves as a team, not for their own individual reputations, then there would be no one better than Redknapp. True, Redknapp’s trophy record at club level hasn’t exactly been remarkable either, but most fans would agree that he’s the best option left untried in the never-ending search for an end to English expectation.

When Three Lions replaced God Save The Queen (the original version) as the temporary national anthem in 1996, “30 years of hurt” seemed a long time then for England to go without a tournament trophy. “46 years of hurt” in 2012 not only doesn’t scan (so please, anyone considering re-recording that song before this summer bear that in mind…), it is also a perilous reminder of the length of time with which the country which founded association football has been potless.

We all know that, however. No need to remind us. No need to drag up the fact that every four years we talk of another ‘golden generation’ who flatter to deceive and fail to deliver. No need to recall how often we’ve heard the phrase “If this team can’t win the tournament, then none of them can”.

The World Cup in 2010 was supposed to be the opportunity for England: a sharp team, playing at the highest level of the Premier League, under one of the most respected managers in football. And yet it ended in durge and another early departure.

Perhaps our expectations are too high? Perhaps 1966 was the fluke Germans still claim it was? Perhaps England – despite being the home of arguably the most tactically exciting domestic league in world football – just can’t cut it as a national side. Perhaps England is the mirror reverse of the Netherlands, which has some of the most dire domestic football and yet consistently puts out incredible national teams, albeit frequently self-destructive teams.

But back to the job of England manager, because no matter what, he will bear the heaviest weight of expectation of all. Which is funny, because the parallel between that position, and the manager’s job at Chelsea is starkly similar. Both are the most poisoned of chalices; both have, over the last few years, been the subject of experiments (be it the shot in the dark that is Villas-Boas and was Steve McClaren; the boutique appointments that were Sven Goran-Ericsson and Fabio Capello; or the “inspired” appointments of Mourinho, Ancelotti or Scolari which ended in acrimony); and both seem to be appointed without any clear plan, just a ‘let’s see if this works’.

The FA is, according to Sir Trevor Brooking, in no immediate hurry to appoint a permanent successor to Capello, even though we're now just over three months away from the kick off of Euro 2012. Perhaps it will be Harry Redknapp or perhaps it will be a complete surprise. Perhaps the FA will do what the BBC did when Angus Deayton was sacked as host of Have I Got News For You, and there's a guest manager for each game England plays. Surely you'd eventually find someone who could win something...

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