Michael Walker: Disease of self-belief has infected English game

Gary Neville, John Terry and Liverpool’s owners among those in need of reality check

Liverpool fans leave the stands after 77 minutes during during last week’s Premier League match between Liverpool and Sunderland at Anfield in protest against the club’s plan to increase ticket prices. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images

Liverpool fans leave the stands after 77 minutes during during last week’s Premier League match between Liverpool and Sunderland at Anfield in protest against the club’s plan to increase ticket prices. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images

 

Don’t believe in yourself Don’t deceive with belief.

It’s probably too late to join the media grief-fest, but here goes. David Bowie wrote those lines in Quicksand, from the Hunky Dory album, in 1971. They have always appealed.

That appeal has only grown with every visit to a football training ground where it appears compulsory to have shouty statements all over the walls. And they are always about belief. Self-belief.

Self-bloody-belief. It makes you want to ask: what’s wrong with an inferiority complex?

Where has this self-belief got everyone? When applied to English football as a whole, self-belief has frequently led to self-delusion.

This comes on the grand scale with the England national team, which continues to act as if Hungary 1953 never happened. It means England can behave like a carnival sideshow act at the World Cup in Germany in 2006, full of themselves after beating the might of Jamaica 6-0 in a warm-up. There have been a few other examples.

It comes on a lesser scale, too, at club and personal level. Self-belief as delusion morphing into arrogance leads a man at a club like Liverpool to declare, as managing director Ian Ayre did five years ago, that Liverpool deserve more foreign TV money than some other clubs because: “If you are in Kuala Lumpur, there isn’t really anyone subscribing to watch Bolton.”

The Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s new owners then, felt obliged to apologise to Bolton Wanderers and this week Fenway have again stepped back and said sorry, this time to their own support.

Stepping back is no bad idea.

Arrogant assumption

The proposed rise in ticket prices at Anfield was the cause, a rise sparked by greed and the arrogant assumption that fans are willing victims when it comes to being milked. They aren’t.

There is an unspoken complacency behind such decision-making. It is part of a corporate culture marked by self-belief and self-satisfaction, a large element of which stems from the Premier League’s cashflow.

Because the league is rich, the ‘brand’ is deemed The Greatest League In The World.

There is a lot of self-congratulation, a trait that seems even to have affected Gary Neville. Anyone who has met Neville agrees he is a more rounded and grounded individual than you normally encounter in football. Intense and smart, Neville took his personality into punditry and was declared a game-changer in that realm.

But the praise he received was over the top. Neville was a pundit, not a coach; he was understanding each match he analysed from a perspective inevitably less comprehensive than the 360-degree understanding the respective managers had.

When Neville did coach, or was in at ground level, as with England at the World Cup in Brazil, there was less need for praise. That tournament might have been a moment of reflection for him and English football, embarrassed as England were to be the first team leaving Brazil.

Less than two years after that, though, the FA chairman Greg Dyke spoke about England winning the World Cup “one day soon”, while Neville goes to Spain to coach Valencia without being able to speak Spanish.

Valencia came fourth in La Liga last season and are a huge club in Spain. Their fans, understandably, were taken aback that they were going to be managed by the best pundit in England, who was part of the England coaching staff in Brazil.

Their view of English coaches and English football – as opposed to Premier League coaches and Premier League football – may well differ from the TV cheerleaders’ over here. They might look at a result such as Spain 2 England 0 in November and think La Liga might not require the benefits of English influence.

Some English self-awareness, rather than belief, would have brought a dose of humility, some recognition that England have a bit of catching up to do on the pitch and in the dugout. 1966 was 50 years ago.

But then this is a culture where ‘JT’ calls his own impromptu after-match press conference to announce he will be leaving Chelsea. It at least brought a reminder that it wasn’t always like this.

Prime ministers

Bobby Charlton, the ultimate English footballer, was forced into announcing his last Manchester United match in 1973 by the club and said: “I always thought press conferences were for prime ministers.” Charlton then took the chance to stress he was not as good as Tom Finney.

Bobby Charlton didn’t deceive with belief. His self-assurance came from the material evidence he supplied on the pitch. It wasn’t an invention in his head. Nor was his modesty false, it was true; and it was part of English football’s appeal. Even George Best, not always Charlton’s fondest fan, called Charlton “the greatest ambassador for English football”.

The English game, particularly at coaching level, but also at playing level, could do with remembering Charlton’s virtues, then taking a step back from the self-deluding belief that wealth and volume are goals in themselves. As Bobby Charlton never said: achievement before noise.

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