Need versus want

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 1 May 2012

We all knew it was coming. With little more than a month until England kicks off its Euro 2012 campaign against France, the FA needed to start doing something about the yawning void in the national team’s dugout. After all, the longer Stuart Pearce remained in his caretaker-by-default role, the harder it was going to be to crank the hype machine up to eleventy billion. Fortunately, we all knew who the “Eir” apparent was. Harry Redknapp  was seemingly destined to ascend to the throne ever since that strange one-two of a day that saw him acquitted of tax evasion in the morning and Fabio Capello  resign in the afternoon.

But we were wrong. The FA announced on Sunday evening that it had made a formal approach to West Bromwich Albion for permission to speak to Roy Hodgson . In turn, the Baggies’ boss had asked to be allowed to “explore this opportunity.”

Four hours of interview followed on Monday …

“And do you have any weaknesses, Roy?”

“Well, I did rub my face once.”

And from there, the contract was signed Tuesday afternoon. Swift, decisive action from the FA? Truly, we are living in the end times.

The appointment makes several kinds of sense, too, including on that most fundamental of levels: economic. Hodgson is out of contract this June, and so would cost the FA nothing in compensation. By contrast, Tottenham owner Daniel Levy would demand a substantial fee in exchange for his manager. Redknapp has also let it be known that he would expect wages similar to those enjoyed by Capello, whereas Hodgson, coming from a smaller club, might well be cheaper. It’s worth remembering that the FA took a lot of stick over the eye-watering remuneration of Capello ($7.4 million per year, rising to an average of $9.5 million per year) and, prior to him, Sven-Goran Eriksson ($8 million per year).

More important, Hodgson has two major advantages over Redknapp. The first is his experience of international management. While it’s not the cavalcade of high-profile glory or trophies that would present an inarguable case for appointment, his time in charge of Finland, the United Arab Emirates and, most notably, Switzerland, which he took to the World Cup in 1994, gives him knowledge of the slow, slow, quick-quick, slow rhythms of international football.

England has never appointed a manager with such experience before and given that Hodgson’s first task in charge will be this summer’s European Championships, his nous will be welcome. And in the future, it might provide some protection against the organizational and logistical snafus that always seem to accompany England’s adventures. At one point, Hodgson’s Switzerland side was the third best team in the world by FIFA rankings. While that perhaps tells you as much about FIFA’s curious metrics as it does the actual prowess of the Swiss, it is nevertheless indicative of a largely successful international career.

The second advantage is less immediately obvious, and relates to the FA’s long-awaited, long-delayed National Football Centre , which will “transform the future of football and sport in England.”

Speaking prior to Sunday’s announcement, former England manager Graham Taylor told the BBC that the FA was looking for a manager who would work at the NFC every day and oversee England sides at all age levels. He went on to say that in his suspiciously-prophetic-in-hindsight view, the FA did not think Redknapp was that man. Hodgson, on the other hand, certainly was. Subsequent reports have indicated that Hodgson would not object to slotting into the pre-existing coaching structure and working with in-post personnel, most notably Stuart Pearce.

Of course, Hodgson would come with several sizable question marks hanging over him. While few people dispute that he is an effective manager in modest circumstances — Fulham’s run to the UEFA Cup final is, arguably, the outstanding achievement of any English manager of the past 10 years — the memory of his disastrous 191 days in charge of Liverpool is still fresh in the minds of many.

His brief and unhappy tenure raised doubts over both his ability to handle egotistical or high-profile players and questions about his tactical flexibility. Watching Liverpool launch long balls toward a confused Fernando Torres was not a happy sight for anybody wanting the team to do well. Neither was his failure to grasp that a kind of baffled, bemused self-effacement wasn’t quite what Liverpool was looking for. Some would perhaps argue that England, technically inferior at the international level, is more of a West Brom or a Fulham than a Liverpool. Some might respond that the gap between expectation and ability makes Liverpool the perfect analogy. Either way, a penny for Steven Gerrard’s thoughts.

The other problem will be with the media. The British press is less of a homogeneous beast than it is often given credit for, but the chorus of “Harry for St. George!” that followed Capello’s resignation was as remarkable in its unanimity as it was alarming in its implications. The Telegraph praised his patriotism , the Guardian gushed over his “cuddly, amusing, utterly human ” persona and a number of the press pack sang him “Happy Birthday ” on the occasion of his 65th, a moment that could only have been more fist-gnawingly embarrassing had they appended a breathy “Mr. Manager.”

Furthermore, it’s a well-known fact that England managers are inevitably mocked, abused and denigrated by the press, a rite of passage that never ends. Even Bobby Robson, subsequently hailed as a national treasure, was subjected to what the Guardian’s Dave Hill called “the most sustained campaign of press humiliation the national game has ever seen.” Prior to the 1990 World Cup, the Sun labeled him a “Plonker,” while the Mirror implored “In The Name Of God, Go!” Since then, Graham Taylor became a turnip, and Eriksson, obviously, had to be a Swede. Steve McClaren, fatally, tried to keep the rain off his head with an object that rhymed with “Wally,” and the Sun decided that Fabio Capello, one of the finest coaches in European football, deserved a pair of donkey ears.

Managing England is, at heart, an attempt to stave off the root vegetable for as long as possible, and making the prophets of the press look like they’re guessing isn’t the best start. Sure enough, Monday’s papers were laden with barely concealed disdain for “the Hod choice,” “a bombshell,” “an amazing snub,” an “astonishing decision” made in spite of “widespread calls for Harry” that led to “immediate outcry.” (That last is only true if “outcry” means “flood of Paul Konchesky jokes.”)

It’s clear that Hodgson is not, and will never be, the perfect England manager. He may well turn out to be tactically retrograde and poison the wellspring of another generation of English colts. Perhaps he will choke on the England dressing room’s special cocktail of talent, ego and delusion, and we’ll have to watch him suffer through more of those end-of-Liverpool-days news conferences, wincing as he dispenses irrational brickbats toward his own players and inappropriate compliments to opponents. One day, he knows (and we know), he’ll end up depicted as a radish.

But if it’s a gamble, then it’s a gamble with a point. Redknapp would happily reflect the tabloid coverage of the England team: they’d be going to win, it’d be the name on the trophy, the three lions would roar and so forth. The same old cycle would continue: a miracle-worker, praised to the heavens, his bloody crucifixion looming just around the corner.

By contrast, appointing Hodgson, and appointing him not just for his work with the senior team but also to slot into the wider picture — to actually do some of the building for the future that England’s fans have been promised so often before — suggests a different, more modest, more humble approach. There are many reasons it might not work, but think about it this way: the FA might be about to appoint a manager that when asked “So, are we going to win?” has not only the common sense but more importantly the institutional backing to say “probably not, but of course we’ll give it a go.”

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