Popular But Stupid: The FA’s Obsession With Englishness

World cup England

Image by doug88888 via Flickr

Trevor Brooking’s recent statement that Fabio Capello could yet be persuaded to stay on beyond Euro 2012 should have come as no surprise to any football fan. The only real surprise is that it took so long for someone in the FA to put forward such a view, and that the FA is persisting with its stated intention of only having an English manager replace Capello.

British football, and England in particular, have long been accused of insularity and a resistance to new ideas. That thought holds some weight as far back as the 1930s with the FA declining to participate in the first three World Cups seeing the competition as nothing more than a silly fad. Fast forward 80 years and the same accusation of insularity might seem harsh given the advancement of the game, the existence of the Premier League (still technically ‘licenced’ by the FA) and the influx of foreign talent.

Excepting the fans, and look at the other most important elements of English football though, the players and the managers, and for all the money and glamour, the game still has its philosophy rooted in the mid 20th century. Very few English players ever play overseas, even fewer coaches do so and those that do, with the exception of David Beckham, tend to disappear from the national consciousness.

It is this culture and the FA’s desire to appease the press and fans that has led to a situation whereby the next national manager will be drawn from a tiny pool of talent. Fans are not blameless in this – whipped up by the press, the majority of England’s supporters seem to believe that Capello’s nationality is the main factor in the lack of success over the last 4 years. The press meanwhile, also point at Capello’s age and his lack of international experience.

All three of these criticisms clumsily ignore several important facts. First, that the majority of England’s players over the last 15 years have spent almost all of their club careers under foreign coaches, with a remarkable degree of success. Secondly, that the only current English manager with international tournament experience is Roy Hodgson, with his time with Switzerland. And lastly, that the two most eligible candidates, Harry Redknapp along with Hodgson, are both in their mid-60s, which is hardly a blueprint for the future of the current squad. In fact, there are only four top-flight English managers to choose from: Redknapp, Hodgson, Alan Pardew and Neil Warnock. None of them come close to being as decorated, successful or internationally experienced as Capello or the other potential foreign candidates such as Hiddink

It is worth considering Redknapp for a moment. In a managerial career of almost 30 years, his only achievements of any note are an FA Cup with Portsmouth, and leading Spurs into the Champions League. His recent heart trouble is well documented and at 64, he would be almost 72 by the time he’d taken England to two World Cups. If off the pitch affairs are also criteria for selection, as they wrongly were for Terry Venables, then Redknapp’s looming court appearance for tax evasion makes his popularity amongst the press and fans almost inexplicable.

The FA’s stance begs a question: What other organisation or industry willing to pay up to £6 million a year for the top job would choose to constrain the talent they recruit by nationality? Would Tesco or HSBC declare that their next CEO must be English? Do clubs at any level of the game declare that their next manager will be from the local area? And with a similar paucity of good candidates for the job, would any other nation insist their manager must not be foreign? English clubs and the game overall have made huge leaps in success and quality, due in large part to the influx of foreign players, managers and coaches. Consider the advances that Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier brought to English football, both of them receiving OBEs in 2003 for their contribution to the game.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for an English manager is that it keeps international competition a genuine test of the relative strengths of each nation – the best players under the best manager. Yet this too is undermined by the many other nations with foreign managers helping to maximise the potential of their players – look no further than across the Irish sea at another successful Italian helping a national side to over-achieve. In any case, until UEFA and FIFA mandate that managers must come from the country they represent, why should the FA impose such an artificial barrier on the England team? What England need is the most qualified coach for the job, not the most English.

So here we are, trapped in what Brooking refers to as a “mindset for change”, with the FA committed to employing an under-qualified English manager in one of international football’s toughest jobs. Not all change is for the better.

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