Are England and the FA too arrogant for their own good?
National team set-up in disarray after another campiagn failed to meet expectations
These are the moments when the mind goes back to one of the sketches that has formed part of Henning Wehn’s stand-up routine since the last World Cup. There are not many Germans on the comedy circuit in England and Wehn used to have a replica of the trophy to bring out on stage. Back home, he would explain, everyone had one. And then he would hold it towards his audience, teasing them, with a tone to his voice that reminded everyone which nation coined the term schadenfreude. “This,” he said, “is the closest you will ever get to it.”
He might be right bearing in mind a country that likes to think of itself as football royalty has won only six knockout matches in tournaments since 1966. The last occasion was 10 years ago against Ecuador. Before that it was Denmark in 2002, Spain (on penalties) at Euro 96, Belgium and Cameroon in 1990 and Paraguay in 1986. England might have invented the game but a look at their record over the last 50 years shows it is an awfully long time since they saw any royalties.
The latest ordeal might be the most grievous of the lot and, once again, it is difficult not to marvel at the pomposity of a nation that has a clock on the wall of its football operation, St George’s Park, noting the day England apparently win the 2022 World Cup. The most noteworthy part of Martin Glenn’s press conference was the Football Association’s chief executive introducing himself as the man who would help find England’s new manager, then reminding us, twice, he was “no football expert”. Glenn’s performance did not bode well and it turns out Hodgson was so convinced his team would be in the quarter-final on Sunday that he had already arranged for his wife to fly to Paris.
Hodgson, to give him his due, is not an easy man to pin arrogance on and, however joyless the football at times, it was not easy sitting across the table from him at Les Fontaines, looking into the eyes of someone who had not slept and seeing, close-up, his suffering. “I’m very raw, I’m very fragile,” he said. His three top buttons were undone. He spent 10 minutes clawing the top of his hand as if troubled by a nervous tic. His first words were confused and defensive – “I don’t know why I am here” – and it turned out the FA asked him four times before he agreed he should front up. Hodgson looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. He was grey, perspiring, broken. His fingernails were bitten to the quick. “I don’t remember Roberto Martínez holding a major conference when he left Everton,” he complained.
In happier times those of us who witnessed this personal devastation might actually miss Hodgson’s easy manner, the quaint references to “the mass media” and the way some of his answers tended to be longer than one of Neil Young’s guitar solos. His players liked his idiosyncrasies, the floral language and even his capacity, as one confided recently, to “go nuts” if something annoyed him (one example: finding out Wales had gone above England in the Fifa rankings). The team’s failings could not be attributed to dressing-room disharmony and it would be a surprise if the players were to start chopping him down in absentia in the way that happened to Fabio Capello, Steve McClaren and a few others.
Equally, managers can have spells of good and bad form, just like players, and there are a couple of stories from the last few weeks that show Hodgson might have peaked too early with that friendly win against Germany in March.
For starters there is the strange case of Harry Kane and who should be taking England’s corners. Kane was handed the role before the tournament and Hodgson was indignant when it was put to him that the Premier League’s leading scorer would be better off in the penalty area.
“I don’t need to apologise for Harry Kane taking a corner,” he argued. “Kane is the best striker of the ball we have. He’s the one who gives us the best delivery. We’ve tried many other players and we don’t get the same level of delivery as we get from Harry. We believe the best chance of scoring a goal is by the delivery and you can prove that with research.”
The players, however, plainly did not agree, bearing in mind that in the following match against Wales it was Wayne Rooney who went across to take the first corner. Hodgson was so startled he came out of the dugout and his body language was of a man wanting to know what was going on. Kane went into the middle, Rooney swung the ball over and Hodgson looked entirely nonplussed. It could not be described as a mutiny but it was as close to one as anything else that happened in the Hodgson era.
Do not be fooled either by the players, with their media training, saying they understood Hodgson’s reasons for making half a dozen changes for the goalless draw against Slovakia when England had the chance to win Group B. The truth is that lots of them could not see the logic and nobody more so than Rooney. The first Rooney knew about it was when Hodgson announced the team. There was no private explanation and Rooney could probably be forgiven for thinking, as captain, that he was entitled to one.
Rooney will now be consulted about the new manager. Indeed, a lot of people will be, judging by Glenn’s admission that the FA needed help: “We are going to use the opinions, wisdom and insight of current managers, former managers and the same with players.” Gary Lineker will be one. Hodgson himself might be asked, and Gary Neville too, but the decision will ultimately be taken by Glenn along with the FA vice-chairman, David Gill, and technical director, Dan Ashworth.
Gill was a chartered accountant before becoming chief executive of Manchester United. He, like Glenn, has never hired a manager, though Ashworth did help to bring Roberto Di Matteo, Hodgson and Steve Clarke to West Bromwich Albion. “We kick off the process with the three of us,” Glenn said. “It’s the old joke: ‘what’s a camel?’ It’s a horse designed by committee. If we get 55 people involved . . .” Glenn, one imagines, would get on well with Garry Cook, the former Manchester City chief executive.
The FA is promising a “definitive review” of what went wrong but it is not just the football it needs to address and the all-important question about why players find exhilarating highs with their clubs but excruciating lows for their country. With England, it is more than that: the stage-managed press conferences, the extraordinary coddling of the players, the jarring sense it is better fun elsewhere and that the players are spoilt in the extreme.
England’s players stayed at the €600-a-night Auberge du Jeu de Paume, a hotel with two Michelin stars that is described as “the epitome of French finesse and art de vivre” but there was still a complaint on the first night that the duvets could be plumper.
The players’ idea of fun was to take turns carrying round a cuddly lion that had its own accreditation lanyard indicating its name was Kit. One photograph showed Hodgson in conversation with Jack Wilshere on the pitch in Saint-Étienne before the Slovakia game. Wilshere had Kit strapped to his back and it was tempting to wonder what might have happened if anyone had tried this kind of PR gimmickry with, say, Sir Alex Ferguson or Brian Clough. A swift jab in the privates from Cloughie, almost certainly.
But this is the weird and wacky world the FA would ideally like Arsène Wenger to explore when his contract at Arsenal runs down next year, with Gareth Southgate taking over in the meantime, it appears, for little reason other than the fact he is already on the FA’s payroll.
No other country in Euro 2016 stops its officials staying in the same hotel and forbids them from eating with the players because the coaching staff prefer it that way. No team bar England has a set of players who are given their lines, like homework, before interviews instead of being trusted to talk for themselves. Nobody else has made one of Euro 2016’s training grounds look like a woodland prison, surrounded by 7ft-high fences, police lookouts and flying drones.
Covering England, one quickly learns there are rules in place. Players were told not to mention anything that related to their clubs or talk about opposition players. This is how silly it became: the players were even under orders not to discuss their games-room dart tournaments. Whose idea was Kit? “Senior players,” came the FA’s stock answer. Only a little thing, perhaps, but just compare the secrecy surrounding a cuddly toy with the way players from other teams hold themselves in front of the cameras.
These issues might not matter if Hodgson’s reign had not been brought to its knees with three wins in his 11 tournament matches and a humiliation, ultimately, that a man who has devoted himself to this profession since 1976 will never live down. Likewise, it probably looks even worse in hindsight that Hodgson and his assistant, Ray Lewington, went sightseeing in Paris on the day Iceland played Austria, visiting Notre Dame and taking a boat ride along the Seine, but chose not to make a personal check on the game that would yield England’s opponents.
Hodgson described it as “laughable” that this would be questioned when Gary Neville and four other members of staff were at the game and could report back. Others might apply the same word to the fact England’s delegation apparently jumped from their seats and punched the air when Iceland scored the stoppage-time winner that meant Hodgson’s team facing the smallest nation in the tournament. Is it any wonder sometimes that the rest of Europe thinks of English football as far too haughty, full of self-importance and entitlement?
Alan Shearer, meanwhile, presents himself as the saviour, complaining that he should have been given the job after Fabio Capello and actually sounding as if he means it. Someone presumably might have to let Shearer know that it is going to be a hard sell. And, besides, Glenn sounds as if he is getting the idea. “It has to be the best man or woman for the job; more likely a man,” the former biscuit company boss concluded.