When it comes to managing England, there are plenty of precedents for crash and burn on a blockbuster scale, of which Glenn Hoddle’s views on the transmigration of souls and Sam Allardyce’s start-stop tenure are only the most exotic. Throw in everything else from metatarsals to serial failure from the penalty spot, and from ‘the wally with the brolly’ to Iceland at Euro 2016, and all the warnings from football history would seem to add up to a collective scream of ‘don’t even think about it’ at Gareth Southgate.
Who’d be a manager anyway? Arsene Wenger has famously likened the job to “living on a volcano” and only this week our own Kevin Doyle, even as he stated his intention to do his coaching badges when he hangs up his boots, was expressing severe reservations about taking the big step into management.
“They go in looking fresh-faced and suntanned,” he observed, “and six months later they are grey and look as though they are about to die of a heart attack.” Six months? Big Sam could only dream of such longevity.
Managers of Ireland have hardly been immune to the pressure which comes with taking on the top job. Recently, it was, as ever, a pleasure to run into Steve Staunton at his old stomping ground of Oriel Park when he turned up to see Dundalk seal the title against Bohemians. Staunton is one of the all-time Irish greats but his ill-starred tenure as manager left him exposed to toxic levels of media and public abuse. Had he never taken on the role, he would still be regarded - as indeed he should be – as, first and foremost, one of Irish football’s favourite sons.
Before the illness which would eventually take his life intervened to cut short his role as Staunton’s mentor, Bobby Robson would no doubt have provided an experienced sounding board on how to handle the flak.
In the run-up to Italia ‘90, the knives were out for the then England manager, a draw in a friendly with Saudi Arabia siring the infamous tabloid demand, ‘In The Name Of Allah,Go’. And with the backing of the FA at best lukewarm – they were already sounding out Graham Taylor as his successor (and, by the way, that went well, didn’t it?) - Robson’s pragmatic decision to negotiate a post-World Cup deal with PSV Eindhoven was met with the headline, ‘PSV Off Bungler Bobby’.
Robson, to his credit, answered the relentlessly vicious criticism in the best way possible, by leading England to the heroic failure of a penalty shoot-out defeat to West Germany in the World Cup semi-final, on the back of which ‘bungler Bobby’ was miraculously transformed into ‘a national treasure’.
“The criticism did get to him,” Chris Waddle later recalled. “But after getting to the semis at 1990 he could walk on water. He could walk away thinking, ‘I can stick two fingers up to anybody who doubted me and doubted these lads’.”
With the exception of Euro ‘96 when, as Gareth Southgate won’t need reminding, an England team commanded the popular vote on home soil despite once again coming off second best to the Germans in a penalty shootout, the “doubts about the lads” and the men who lead them have persisted.
A recurring theme is that, in the Premier League era of eye-watering salaries and outlandish celebrity status, English players simply don’t care enough about playing for England.
I’ve never bought into that. For one thing, if they don’t care about donning the white shirt then how is it that, more often than not, they succeed in negotiating the hard slog of qualifying for big tournaments?
If anything, it seems to me you could argue that, all too conscious of the grim fate which has befallen so many of their predecessors, their desperation to do well is so intense that it spills over into a kind of performance anxiety whenever they step out onto the big stage. Surely too, it’s more than mere coincidence that, when literally put on the spot, English footballers tend to spectacularly lose their nerve.
hen I spoke to Harry Redknapp just a month after the national team’s latest horror show, at Euro 2016, the man who might have been manager of England, suggested that this culture of fear was at least as big a factor in the 50 years of hurt as any issues pertaining to personnel, tactics or the identity of the man in the hot seat.
“Whoever’s took the team, same old story,” he said. “We qualify no problem,we get to the tournament; soon as we come under a bit of pressure, we don’t perform.
“I think there’s got to be a way of taking the pressure off the players. Something happens to them when they get into a pressure situation. We walk through the qualifying group but as soon as it comes to the crunch of a real knockout game, we’re gone. Maybe they need to find a way of relaxing. Even silly things. Build a bit more team spirit, give them a bit of down time and not put them under so much scrutiny. To play football, you can’t go out uptight every time you play. And that’s what we seem to be doing.” When it comes to getting the balance right between fun and games, and investing the national team with some of that club spirit which so vividly animated the likes of Iceland, Wales, Northern Ireland and ourselves at the Euros, Gareth Southgate doesn’t have to look back as far his own days on the inside of the ‘El Tel ‘n’ Gazza’ show for inspiration.
As he officially begins his bid to do ‘the impossible job’, only the most hard of heart would refrain from wishing the new man the very best of luck, even if the notion of ‘a safe pair of hands’ hardly seems like the required inspirational template for England to finally emulate the boys of ‘66. We shall see. But I’m sure even the powerbrokers at the FA must, in their quieter moments, look at Jurgen Klopp and wonder, ‘what if?’.