It was some achievement of England's, frankly, not winning Euro 2020 given the players we had. As I sat down before kick off and began the customary cursing at the inexplicable omission once again of our best player, Jack Grealish, my wife tried to console me. The fact Gareth Southgate very clearly had no clue which was his best starting eleven was really a secret weapon, she said. It meant other managers couldn’t second guess him. Hmm, I thought.
The relentless corporatisation of the England football team over the last two decades has been an exercise in eradicating flair – that quality most hated in boardrooms because it is unquantifiable. Putting charismatic Englishmen capable of doing something brilliant and unexpected in charge of the national team was certainly something we used to do – Sir Bobby Robson, Glenn Hoddle, Terry Venables, for example – but the practice came to a hard stop at the turn of the century with the end of Kevin Keegan’s tenure.
What has followed, with the exception of Sam Allardyce’s doomed appointment, has been a succession of very well remunerated corporate-style dullards – men like Sven Goran-Eriksson, Steve McLaren and Fabio Capello – each daringly more dull than the last. The football played by the teams these men have managed has naturally reflected their personalities. With a few notable exceptions – usually when qualifying for tournaments – it’s been relentlessly charmless, risk averse and lacking in cunning. As a result, it’s been terribly easy for opposition teams to predict and negate.
The policy of embracing corporate-style managers at all costs reached its zenith in 2012 with the appointment by then FA chairman David Bernstein of the amazingly unimaginative Roy Hodgson, over the choice of the rest of the nation, which was the hugely likeable Harry Redknapp. When Hodgson’s team were beaten by Iceland, it occurred to me it is a grave injustice the buck always stops with the manager, and not with the fools who appointed him. After all, it’s the lavishly salaried suits in the FA who are the real managers of the national team.
Decent Gareth Southgate is another corporate-style manager sent straight from central casting. He was appointed initially on the basis that he was cheap – a stopgap while the FA found a more expensive replacement following the Telegraph investigation that resulted in the downfall of Allardyce (in which Big Sam memorably appeared to be drinking a pint of red wine).
Southgate has many good qualities, of course, not least the sense of humility he brings to the role. This has proved a very welcome salve to the grotesque hubris and accompanying bombast that has grown up around the England football team in recent decades, despite results. However, he is also almost completely lacking in charisma and flair – and the football played by his team has reflected that.
How else to explain the extraordinary treatment of Grealish – the player the team should very obviously have been constructed around? How else, too, to explain the Scotland or Denmark games? And how else to explain the complete inability to respond dynamically to the tactical changes made by the Italian team in the second half of normal time in the final?
Despite an embarrassment of riches – approximately eighteen outfield players who would walk into the first team of almost all other nations in the tournament – we clearly had no idea how to react to the Italians. After going one nil up, in fact, England were like a large corporation being beaten to everything that mattered by a smaller, hungrier and more agile enterprise. We just couldn’t change course.
Italian manager Roberto Mancini, it goes without saying, is not a man anyone could accuse of lacking charisma or flair. He seems, in fact, to bend the very elements toward him. Witness the Italian huddle before extra time and penalties, tight as a beehive with Mancini at its centre, eyes gleaming as he gave orders. England’s huddle, by comparison, was a much looser affair, Southgate just off its centre holding a scrap of paper to which he seemed listlessly to refer, and defender Kieran Trippier trying to gee the troops by ruffling hair and patting bottoms.
Witness, too, the choice of captains. Harry Kane may score exciting goals – although crucially not enough at this tournament – but listening to him talk is always terribly difficult, because he never says anything remotely interesting. Giorgio Chiellini, on the other hand, has the air of a man who might appear laughing and joking through a blizzard to rescue you off a mountain. The force of his personality alone seems to have driven Italy through the tournament – charming referees by pretending to hug forwards and frying the mind of the Spanish captain with outrageous bonhomie just ahead of their semi-final penalty shoot out.
Inevitably, there are now calls to give Southgate a knighthood. This would be a mistake. Although certainly a good man – dependable, well intentioned to a fault (although too easily manipulated on the issue of the idiotic kneeling before games) and honourable, his achievements as manager of the national team have been far from outstanding, especially given the resources and talent at his disposal.
That he will now manage the team in the World Cup next year is a certainty. If he wins that tournament, then let him take the knee in front of the queen, by all means. But unless he understands what his best team is, and dares to do something different, that’s highly unlikely.
The pain continues.