Sport, a little like politics, has a habit of making hardened cynics of even the most cheerful optimists. But the same alchemy also works in reverse. Over the past few days I have read the opinions of some of the nation's most worldly sports writers, fellows who have seen it all, and pretty much without exception they reckon that Fabio Capello might just be the man to lead English football out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land, which would be reason for hosannas all round were it not that Sven Goran Eriksson, a similar high achiever at club level, received exactly the same ringing endorsement in January 2001.
It is hard now, knowing what we know about quarter-finals and penalty shoot-outs to say nothing of Ulrika Jonsson, Faria Alam, stacked heels and fake sheikhs to recall the widespread approval when Sven succeeded the hapless Kevin Keegan, which turned to widespread euphoria when England hammered Germany 5-1 eight months later. Those who had opposed the appointment on the grounds that England should be managed by an Englishman were dismissed as petty xenophobes. Those who had celebrated it on the grounds that Sven palpably knew his stuff were hailed as prophets.
What worries me about England's prospects under Capello is not that Sven failed to live up to his early promise. It is that the Swede is making such a damn fine job of managing Manchester City. In other words, he is clearly every inch the astute operator the Football Association hoped he might be seven years ago when they appointed him. Which surely suggests that the problem with managing England is not who does it, but what it is he has to do.
When folk advance the cause of a manager because of what he has achieved at club level, be it Capello, Martin O'Neill or even Arsne Wenger or Alex Ferguson, I feel like the little boy in the parable of the emperor and his new clothes. Apparently, Capello is a keen collector of art. Well, to assume that a great club manager will step effortlessly on to the international stage is like assuming that in every great watercolourist there is a latent master of oils. What does Wenger do so brilliantly at Arsenal? He scours the world for hidden prodigies. He works the transfer market like a magician. He nurtures and cherishes young talent. He watches over his charges every day, all-knowing and all-seeing, the Dumbledore of London Colney. So why should anyone conclude that he would make a fantastic England manager, a job that cuts the daily contact, the transfer market and the identification of budding teenage talent out of football?
Of course, to say that not all great club managers can succeed at international level is not to say that some cannot. It's a Venn diagram, or in this context a Sven diagram, of a situation. Similarly, it is often assumed that top players will make top managers, and some do, but more don't. Alan Shearer was a wonderful footballer, and he seems to know what he's talking about on Match of the Day, hence a groundswell of support for him to become the new England manager. And I'm not just talking about in the Dog and Duck: there were also more than a few gnarled old pros pressing his case. Which would be risible if only any of us really knew what background a successful England manager needs. Maybe Shearer would have been brilliant.
As for those with more conventional credentials, in the trophy cabinets of Milan and Madrid and Lisbon and even Ipswich, the trouble is that no one knows until it's too late who can make the transition from club to country. Alf Ramsey got the England job on the back of guiding Ipswich Town to the First Division title in 1962, a tremendous achievement given that it was Ipswich's first season in the top flight and that most experts had predicted immediate relegation for a team nicknamed, with a mixture of admiration and condescension, "Ramsey's Rustics". But his achievement was in making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Ramsey acquired no experience at Portman Road of managing the finest footballers in the land. But by God he knew how to put together a team, and, as it turned out, how to make a silk purse out of silk.
We have already been told, by seasoned observers of Serie A and La Liga, what to expect from Capello. He is his own man, he does not court friendships or suffer fools. He will not be in thrall to the celebrity of a David Beckham or a Wayne Rooney. But never mind all that; has he the temperament to cope with seeing matches week in, week out, but his players only once every Preston Guild? Has he the guile to pick and organise a world-beating team consisting entirely of British passport holders? I hope so, but I don't know so, any more than he or anyone else does.
Who I Like This Week...
The Carling Cup, which has thrown up the delicious prospect of a final between Everton and Tottenham and you don't have to be a fan of either club to welcome a cup final not featuring one of the so-called "big four", whose wealth-propelled dominance is sapping the very spirit of football. Still, at least the Carling Cup is less predictable than its more glamorous cousin; since 1989 only two clubs have broken the Arsenal-Chelsea-Liverpool-Manchester United stranglehold on the FA Cup. They are Everton (in 1995) and Tottenham (1991).
And Who I Don't
The Carling Cup, which has thrown up the dispiriting prospect of a final between Chelsea and Arsenal just like last year. Sooner or later, someone has to do something to prevent the almost inevitable progression of one or more of the "big four" to one or both of English football's cup finals. My recommendation, floated before here, is that the four clubs that qualify for the Champions League do not take part in the following season's Carling Cup.
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