An article by Stephen O’Donnell

Hodgson the right man for England?

First up, I’m not an England fan. But then neither is Rafael Hönigstein an England fan, and he wrote an entire book on the travails and peculiarities of the football in that country, ‘Englischer Fussball’, so I’m hoping that will allow me some scope to crave the reader’s indulgence for a thousand words or so on the subject, at least they will have the virtue of being in English. I suppose neither Hönigstein nor me could really care less who the F.A. appoint as the next England manager, but while Rafa’s lofty, dispassionate equanimity on the subject would be Teutonic in origin, mine is of an even older, more traditional footballing rival, being Caledonian in its nature.

Yes I know Scotland have a rubbish manager too, who thinks it’s clever to experiment in a competitive game with no strikers in his formation against a decent, but nowhere near as good as they once were Czech team, ( a costly error that will surely haunt Craig Levein for what’s left of his managerial career). And it’s true, we have a poor team too, which hasn’t even managed to qualify for a major tournament since Craig Brown took us to the World Cup in France back in `98, a tournament that, if at all, is dimly remembered by our present crop of players alongside short trousers and their four times table.  At least I can’t be accused of gloating at the latest misfortune to affect the English game, because in Scotland we’d give our left foot to have their problems right now. Nevertheless, here is the basis of my contention and the purpose behind this article: Harry Redknapp, sorry I just don’t see it.

Let’s backtrack a wee minute so we can remind ourselves how we came to be in this situation. It’s said that most plane crashes are a series of mistakes, a chain of avoidable errors, any one of which, had they been spotted in time, could have prevented the accident. Let’s take these errors in turn then: John Terry, the England captain, (allegedly) racially abuses a black player, using the unutterable ‘N’ word (allegedly, allegedly, I must stress allegedly), and not just any old black player. But Anton Ferdinand, the brother of his erstwhile international central defensive partner, Rio Ferdinand, his sometime rival for the armband itself – calamity number one. Calamity number two: a court date has been pencilled in for March, but guess what, Terry’s club don’t want it interfering with their challenge for honours (what honours?), so the date of the hearing is put back. A lot of people don’t find it convenient to come to court, protests the judge, while at the same time agreeing to the delay – July, we hear, is when the case will be heard. But wait, here comes calamity number three, because the European Championships are being held this summer, and doesn’t that mean that the tournament will take place with a potentially divisive charge of racial abuse hanging over the man who will not only lead the team onto the field but wear the armband as well? This is England remember, where the captaincy matters, it’s not just passed around amongst the senior pros willy-nilly. This is the land of upstanding leaders, of fairness and justice and of absolutely zero tolerance to anything untoward in a racial context, where Sepp Blatter is battered from pillar to post for his injudicious words on the subject and where Luis Suarez is given an eight game ban for calling a man a ‘negro’, nothing other than a bit of jocular, if somewhat politically incorrect, banter back in his homeland, he contends. Sorry son, zero tolerance here, this is England, you’re barred. Calamity number four, panic engulfs the F.A. Think of the press reaction. Forget innocent until proven guilty, the media will be all over this, and the media are the ones who pay the bills in England, so we can’t be doing with that. We have to keep our paymasters onside, which leads neatly on to calamity number five: somewhere in the F.A. statutes it says the board have the right determine if the England captain continues in his job. So in a panic they fire him, without telling Capello, who promptly takes the huff and walks out.

At this point in the writing of this article, I feel I need to go back and reread what I’ve written so far, just to make sure that I haven’t made it all up. I’m really not gloating, honest, because Scotland has a far shiter team than England will ever have, and at least the English are going to Poland and Ukraine, unlike the Scots who need to broaden the tournament to twenty-four teams to give themselves half a chance of even qualifying, but if these events seem to have a strangely familiar ring to them, it must be because it’s déjà vu all over again. There’s another brilliant book about English football called ‘Why England lose’ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, but as far as I’m concerned this sorry series of calamities will tell you everything you need to know on the subject. Inevitably Capello’s departure was followed by clamourings to ensure that the next manager was an Englishman, an echo of Gordon Brown’s ill-fated (and frankly illegal) call for ‘British jobs for British workers’. Be careful what you wish for; the last time a foreigner left the England post he was also followed by the same demands. Felipe Scolari was in contention after Eriksson left, a man who had won a World Cup, but in the end the job went to Englishman Steve McClaren, a man who’d won a League Cup. McClaren failed to qualify England for the Euros in 2008; in contrast his successor Capello has a record in competitive matches that is unsurpassed by any England manager in history.

Thanks lad, these days any criticism from Scotland helps

The problem seems to me to be twofold: there don’t seem to be too many good English managers out there. The Premier League is full of Scotsmen (Glaswegians in fact, unlike the SPL which is currently being taken over by Irishmen). Coaching even at the very top level is about teaching, and there just don’t appear to be a lot of good English football teachers about. The best seems quite demonstrably to be Roy Hodgson, and if this were any other top European footballing nation, I think Hodgson would probably already have the job by now. They’re a funny bunch, these Europeans, they seem to have an oddly simple way of doing things, including the appointment of national team bosses: generally, they find the guy with the best track record and experience, and on that basis, subject of course to negotiation and availability, they offer him the job. International players are expected to be self-motivated and disciplined, and intelligent enough to be able to follow the coach’s instructions. Redknapp’s record is little better than McClaren’s (an FA Cup rather than a League Cup), despite the advantage of a far longer managerial career. Hodgson’s career is equally extensive and he’s worked abroad a lot, something that, dare I say, might be advantageous when it comes to understanding the motives and mentalities of England’s international rivals. But here we are told that there’s nothing more important than team spirit, and there’s nobody better than Harry Redknapp at engendering that. He’s become a kind of mythical folk hero, fans are wheeled out from God knows where to declare that he’s the only possible choice. The players want him, everybody wants him, but the real people who want him are the media because he fits their template and the media call the shots in England, whether it’s good for the team or not. England’s traditional failing, relying on a kind of mythical English team spirit, while cleverer and better organised foreigners run rings round them will be in evidence again. As I think I’ve mentioned already, I’m not an England fan so I don’t really care, but if you want to know why England lose, you can throw away Kuper and Szymanski’s book, it can all be seen in this whole sorry episode, in glorious technicolour.

This article was written for GGW by Stephen O’ Donnell. His novel “The Road to Paradise – Not the Celtic Story” which will of enormous attraction to all literate Celtic supporters, is to be published in a few months by Ringwood Publishing