England: For club and country

Phil Othman

As our nation’s hopes lie in the hands of yet another manager thanks to the seemingly endless “she loves me, she loves me not” relationship the consistently incompetent F.A. have when it comes to the decision to go foreign or stay home-grown, as always the focus is on what approach Roy Hodgson will take with the team. This was emphasised in all its glory during last weekend’s practice match against Norway in Oslo, as the ITV commentary team embarked upon a jingoistic appraisal of the finer merits of the “new England” after thirty minutes. In true England fashion, the players produced a half-baked performance, worthy of these nonsensical friendlies, strolling to a single goal victory in a decidedly unconvincing manner. While Andy Townsend and Clive Tyldsley gave each other reassuring pats on the back asserting that Hodgson would be pleased with the result, it was clear to all that there was an unwelcome yet utterly expected sense of monotony. It was a display by the same old players, undergoing the same predictable routine of tepid and directionless football. While it is ridiculous to flail our arms in despair over a single, essentially meaningless friendly, the sheer familiarity of the performance justifies concern and it is indicative of a problem lying beyond the powers of Hodgson.

Over the last decade or so England has been shaped by a plethora of football’s architects ranging from the ‘take a punt’ category in McLaren to the prestigiously decorated Cappello, yet all have only managed to perpetuate a chain of underwhelming and largely spiritless sorties into international competitions. With each manager being known for utilising completely contrasting techniques to deliver success on the field, the only common variable between them has been the pool of players in which they have each had at their disposal. If the issues do indeed lie with the playing staff and no one has yet succeeded in producing a convincing unit out of them, it does make one consider how impactful a manager of a national team can ever truly be.

Success at international level is governed by the familiarity and unity of the players involved and recent successes stand testament to this. It is indisputable that club football has taken centre stage over the last twenty years with its growing commercial side and the formation of ‘dream teams’ such as Real Madrid and Barcelona, it is becoming ever more apparent that the formula for victory on the international stage, lies in emulation. The Spanish World Cup and European Championship winning team combinations of domestic teammates in its most crucial areas with the trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets driving the midfield and a comfortable centre-back pairing of Pique and Puyol. With the African Cup of Nations having been dominated by an Egyptian side of Zamalek and Al-Ahly players, only to be recently ousted by a Zambia team of similar ilk and unanimous praise being shown to a Bayern Munich dominated Germany team, the pattern is clear.

England for a long time has lacked the ability to translate the winning aspects of the top Premier League teams to its own squad. The cherry picking of talented individuals has often been based on their individual merit and the national coaches have taken the responsibility of melding these stars into a unified force of their own, but I ask from where does this logic arise? These players spend the majority of their years training, learning, connecting with their fellow club teammates; their entire playing ethos is directed and determined by their everyday club managers. They gain enough respect and esteem to be selected for their country by playing a certain way, within a certain team, that has been acutely perfected over months and years. It would seem irrational to think that an alternate coach, who only has bimonthly access to a constantly shifting selection of these players, could sensibly believe he has the ability to ask them to step outside their comfort zone and perform in a manner he sees fit.

“If only he could play for his country, like he does for his club.”

If the ultimate achievement is for the players to re-enact their remarkable club performances for the national side, then why is it we waste time with third party managers. Would it not be more suitable for one of the league’s more successful managers to take up the reins on a tournament period basis and utilize the same governing skills that have seen their players become worthy of their placement in the national squad to begin with? I am in no doubt that Rooney or Welbeck would be far more willing to perform if they knew they were to be under the leadership of Fergusson for the Euros. Who better to see Cahill, Terry and Cole recreate their stalwart Champions League winning defensive displays than Di Matteo or perhaps simply transplant a Tottenham side and its large contingent of English players and let Harry Redknapp continue where he left off?

I believe the future of the nation lies not in a system that mounts pressure atop an individual who has to work under unreasonable conditions, but rather in a program that rewards successful managers with the chance to not only guide their players to domestic glory but to secure them a place in the pantheon of national legends as well.

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