By Sunder Katwala
What a disappointment Fabio Capello turned out to be.
The England football manager has resigned – protesting at his authority being undermined by being his overruled in his desire to allow an England captain to face court charges over alleged racial abuse without relinquishing the armband.
The problem was never that Fabio was foreign. Rather, he failed the integration test. As Richard Williams writes in The Guardian this morning – “Fabio Capello never bothered to learn much English, or much about England”. The Italian press agrees that Capello was fed up with England and glad to have an excuse to get out.
The requirement to speak English to settle and work here only applies to non-EU immigrants, but Capello’s experience shows why it would have been an extremely useful tool in his football leadership role too.
So ‘an English manager for an English team’ is a call which was heard newspapers – from Terry Venables, Gary Lineker, Wayne Rooney and other sages of the game. For me, this lacks credibility as a general principle – unless those promoting it can point out that they made the same calls for the Zimbabwean Andy Flower to be replaced as coach while the England cricket team were winning the Ashes. I suspect that most England fans remain pragmatic on the question of managerial passports – in the sense that the boss can be foreign if necessary, as long as he’s winning.
Football is the part of the English and British public culture which is most open to and celebratory of immigration, from waving French tricolours at Old Trafford to celebrate King Cantona to unveiling statues to Thierry Henry in North London. But we welcome and celebrate those who fall in love with the English game and who, like Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, add to its legend and folklore. Those Anglophile Europeans could make excellent England managers (though Mourinho, looking to move on from Real Madrid, may be waiting for a vacancy to arise at Old Trafford).
But any romance between Fabio and the FA, to say nothing of the media and the English fans, has long ago fizzled out. His qualifying campaigns were reassuringly and unusually uneventful but the 2010 World Cup campaign was England’s most dismal major tournament
performance for at least two decades. The stuttering start with draws with both the USA and Algeria extended into the an inability to win a very modest group, before being comprehensively outclassed by a sensational young German team who, unlike England, had put the preparation into developing a new generation who proved much more worthy of the hype lavished on England.
After all, England expects … a quarter-final exit at least.
There was every sign that the FA would have dispensed with Capello then – but balked at the pay-out he would receive. Instead they made clear he would be going after Euro 2012 – and declared that his successor would be English. It was already a very public vote of no confidence, but it did not persuade the Italian to resign. Instead, there has been a slow disenchantment, ending in the relief which must have been felt on all sides at his premature exit.
What we are now seeing is another predictable swing of the English footballing pendulum. The governing body has oscillated between appointing promising, but often somewhat untested and under-qualified, English managers tasked with putting some heart and fight into the three lions, then reacting by going for an approach of appointing a candidate, whatever their nationality, on the ground that England should be led by the man most likely to do the job. When their selection fails to match up to great expectations, the circle turns until it naturally becomes time to go English again.
So we go from Kevin Keegan – all heart and no tactics – to Sven Goran-Erikkson, then to Steve McLaren – traduced as ‘the wally with a brolly’ – to Fabio Capello, that pendulum explains why everybody seems to agree that it is now time for Harry Redknapp.
Yet no English manager has ever won the Premiership at club level, with Howard Wilkinson – briefly England caretaker – being the last English boss to win the league title in the last pre-Premiership season two decades ago. Harry Redknapp’s 2008 FA Cup triumph with Portsmouth, shortly before their financial, implosion is the only recent piece of major domestic silverware won by an English boss. Sir Alex Ferguson is a pro-Union Scot, but did not want to lead Team GB at the 2012 Olympics and would not take the England job. Martin O’Neill is another non-English Brit who would be a credible candidate, but he has just arrived at Sunderland.
If Keegan and McLaren made a compelling case for exceptional talent from abroad, the FA have not made the right choice of foreign manager in the past.
We all wanted to believe in Sven once before he became a pantomime figure of fun. I will never forget his most memorable match, not least because it was the one big England game I didn’t see. But I was still over the moon at the England team fittingly marking my wedding day with that amazing 5-1 victory in Munich. But Emile Heskey was probably never going to win us the World Cup.
If we all anticipated Sven would bring us continental know-how from his time in Serie A, he turned out to be more English than anybody in his small town Scandinavian addiction to the English art of 4-4-2.
Then the media created its Fabio myth – projecting the Italian as a silent disciplinarian who would have no truck with all of that WAG-led celebrity nonsense; his unwillingness to offer any thoughts in public but the most banal cliché being seen as a sign of great sagacity, rather in the style of Peter Sellers’ gardener in Being There. But the myth was shattered on the field – so that Capello will now be remembered as the man who made John Terry captain twice.
Instead, he often seemed remarkably disengaged from his excessively well paid job, serving out his time since the World Cup before taking up the offers that were beginning to come in. The Times reported this week that the England manager, furious at being overruled, asked his lawyers to check his contract, and was then “surprised” to find out the agreed terms over who had the final say on disciplinary issues were precisely as the FA had said.
Quite how Capello thought his full-frontal attack on Italian TV on his employers – undermining entirely any future captain he might now appoint too – would play out is a mystery. The newspaper report said he was again surprised to be challenged by the FA board over the comments. Perhaps, having experienced English football as a highly monolingual culture, he didn’t expect the FA or the media to have the interview translated!
Harry Redknapp certainly showed an ability to get out of the wrong place at exactly the right time by being acquitted by a jury of his peers in the tax evasion trial which ended yesterday. The Mail this morning dubs him “Harry Houdini” – and the FA appears to take the view that the outcome of British justice means that there is no ethical issue over Redknapp’s appointment.
Redknapp, a Spurs boss who knows how to play the game the right way, offers a tantalising echo of what now look like the last halcyon days of English football at Euro ’96, under Terry Venables, whose England team played with confidence and flair, until the FA decided that the manager’s unwise business associations had to bring his reign to an end.
So the FA will now turn from a man who could not speak much English to a manager who revealed at the trial that he has the writing of a two year old.
With little time to prepare, Harry will have to rouse an England side in “once more unto the breach” fashion. Let’s hope that we get a better storyline that Wayne Rooney, suspended for the first two matches, getting stupidly sent off in a plucky defeat the first time that we meet a major footballing force.
Amidst this latest FA turmoil, England have not thrown away their Euro 2012 chances for the simple reason that England never had much of a chance anyway at either Euro 2012 or World Cup 2014.
So the question is not whether Harry can rouse England enough to achieve our customary quarter-final exit, but whether Redknapp will use his time as England manager so that England do think long-term about how we can begin to build a team ready to compete in 2018.
This article was first published on the Iain Dale blog, www.iaindale.com. View it here.