England Must Have A Big Man; The Universe Demands It
August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
First published on SB NATION, 9 May 2012
They don’t tell you about the dreams.
Becoming manager of England? It’s a lot to take in. They stick you in front of the press and expect you to answer questions about why you’re not somebody else. They walk you round the vast underground hangar that holds generations of official England kit in every shape and size, including the rejected Euro ’96 goalkeeping kits, and the range of St George’s Cross rain ponchos that Steve McClaren never got the chance to approve. They take you round Wembley: this is — well, was — where Kevin Keegan resigned in tears. It was a toilet then. It’s a slightly newer toilet now. That isn’t a metaphor.
But they don’t tell you about the dreams. And so on that first night, when Roy Hodgson slipped into his freshly-ironed navy blue pyjamas, snuggled up against his World Cup Willie hot-water bottle, and drifted off into Morpheus’ sweet and tender embrace, he was unprepared for the visions that came and assailed his sleeping brain.
Meaty thighs. Flashing elbows. Broad, noble foreheads. Ball after ball flying into the mixer; defender after defender sprawling helpless on the turf. Guttural roars from the stands. Power. Presence. Arcing crosses, dispatched into the corners of the net with brutal and hideous contempt. Searching passes, neatly diverted into the path of diminutive second-ball sniffers. Desperate opponents flailing limply, bruised and beaten and crushed into nothingness.
Hodgson, like his predecessors, sees this panoply of myth and folk memory every time he closes his eyes. And this is why he, like his predecessors, wakes up every morning knowing what the England team needs. It needs a Big Man Who Can Put Himself About A Bit, for They Do Not Like It Up Them. As it was, so shall it ever be.
Quite what It is, and how exactly one puts it Up Them, remains mercifully shrouded in mystery. But the Big Man is crucial to an England squad, and not just because for all that we live in the age oftiki-taka, direct football done well still works. In much the same way that an Argentinean squad needs a short lad laced with gossamer and latent violence, and the Dutch need master technicians salted with mutual loathing, so England needs its hulking totem, otherwise things just don’t feel right. An England squad without a Big Man? When will the EU stop interfering with the nation’s affairs?
Emile Heskey, of course, is the most emblematic of England’s recent Big Men, a curiosity of a footballer whose value as a Big Man seemed to swell in inverse proportion to his usefulness as a goalscorer and footballer, as though the fact that he wasn’t scoring many, or even any, meant that he must be doing something else, even if that something else amounted, ultimately, to simply occupying a considerable-yet-disappointingly static chunk of space. His alternate, Peter Crouch, is a kind of unwilling Big Man, a perfectly reasonable footballer who is doomed, thanks to his incongruous tallness, to be pressed into a role for which he is temperamentally unsuited, like a jazz musician who wrote one Christmas single many years ago, just to pay the rent, and now finds himself unable to escape the long shadow of “(I Can’t Wait To Get My Hands On) Santa’s Big Shiny Baubles”, no matter how far out he sends his skronking clarinet.
And as Euro 2012 approaches, Hodgson — not an implacable opponent of direct football at the best of times — finds himself at something of a Big Man crossroads. Crouch notwithcrouching, the two outstanding candidates for this most culturally weighty of squad spaces are Andy Carroll and Grant Holt: the former the eighth most expensive footballer in history and current custodian of the history-drenched Liverpool #9 shirt; the latter an ex-tyrefitter, whose route to the top has taken him all the way up the pyramid, from non-league Workington to Norwich City.
Of the two, Holt would be both more interesting and more pleasing a selection. Not only has he comfortably outperformed Carroll over the course of the season, but he has done so at a nominally smaller club, in a manner that has brought joy and warmth to every Norwich fan and plenty of neutrals as well. It would be a welcome reminder that there are other paths into the England team; that a player doesn’t have to come through at a large club, and run through the system of underage teams, followed by a flawless graduation to the senior side, as is the tradition. It would reconnect the very top of English football to the levels at the bottom, a fundamentally worthwhile business, if only because it might vaguely annoy Richard Scudamore.
But Carroll is probably the favourite. He is a Big Man not just for now, but for the future, and judging by his recent performances he has rediscovered the unrefined berserker effectiveness of his better games for Newcastle. To watch the Chelsea defence after Carroll’s introduction to the FA Cup final was to see an object lesson in how the plan is supposed to work: here was a group of men who quite unexpectedly found It Up Them, and they Did Not Like It one bit.
The problem, of course, is that the Big Man can have a distorting effect on England’s football. Any team with a certain style know that the line between archetype and caricature is a fine one, and putting It Up Them is a delicate business. Against halfway competent defences it requires patience and creativity as much as it does willing shoulders and a thick neck, and whether it ends up being Plan A or B, England need to be careful that the emotional resonance of the Big Man doesn’t lead to the entire tournament vanishing in a sigh of misdirected lumps.
But that’s for later; for hindsight, recrimination, and blame. Now is a time for optimism. The Big Men have had their porridge, and they are ready, and England are off to batter the world into submission again. The ravens are still in the Tower, and all is right with Albion.