There is a story, much cherished on the Turf, about the day Lester Piggott was beaten on a horse trained by Snowy Wainwright. "That's it, Piggott," raged Wainwright, as the champion dismounted. "You will never ride for me again." Lester was in his pomp, sought by every top yard in the land. Wainwright stabled half a dozen nags in a Yorkshire back-water. "Well, that's me screwed, then," Lester muttered. "I'd better hang up my boots."
Fabio Capello must have been tempted to respond in similar vein when those giants of modern football, Paul Robinson and Wes Brown, renounced service in the national cause.
It would not sound so very different, either. Capello can make Piggott, with his glottal mumblings, sound like some mellifluous Greek orator. Demosthenes, admittedly, trained himself to speak with pebbles in his mouth, but Capello, the Italian, still sounds as though he is swallowing a phrasebook. Until this summer, indeed, that seemed the one incongruity. How can such a man – one so cultured, so urbane, one who exalts himself from the bovine ruminations of those under his supervision, one who collects the works of Chagall, Kandinsky and Piero Pizzi Cannella – be such an execrable linguist?
Since the World Cup, however, pundits now doubt his fluency in the common idioms of football, as well. These will now be glorying in what appears a calculated affront from Robinson and Brown, who waited until Capello summoned them back to the fold before planting their feet and lowing.
To anyone not divorced from rational judgement by his wage packet, it should be easy to recognise a rather greater indignity than being ranked only the third or fourth best Englishman in your position. And that is to allow preening self-regard to poison the honour of representing your country. To others, however, this putative snub completes the sense that Capello is now a lame duck.
It must be granted that Capello's World Cup dismayed even those who never shared the delusion, espoused by those who should have known better, that his team had the remotest chance of winning the tournament.
In qualifying, albeit via a group that counted Andorra as the only other nation in existence 20 years previously, he had looked a man of iron. If anyone, for instance, would have the balls to drop Wayne Rooney – who had never retrieved his form, after being hastened back from injury by his club manager – it was surely Capello. But let's not deceive ourselves. We all admired his austerity, his contempt for the insecure reverence of his predecessor Steve McClaren for JT, Stevie G, and Becks. In South Africa, Capello became depicted as some kind of ludicrous martinet, stifling the enterprise in his midst. In reality, his failures were only ever a matter of degree.
It would require an especially puerile disenchantment suddenly to deny that Capello is one of the best coaches in the world. Remember Jose Mourinho's first Champions' League campaign at Internazionale? It was wholly devoid of any suggestion that he might imminently satisfy the club's great, unrequited craving. But one step back is often a necessary prelude to two steps forward.
And vice-versa. A vital revolution in Italian football, for instance, was grievously retarded when the Azzurri won the 2006 World Cup. One of the grandest of all football traditions remained mired in the bad old days: violence and racism off the pitch, stagnation and corruption on it. The singular circumstances of that success proved the final throes of an extinction. In South Africa, Italy finished below even New Zealand at the bottom of their group.
You can rest assured that Capello would have remained a very acceptable replacement for Marcello Lippi, after that. As it is, Cesare Prandelli brings his first squad to Upton Park tonight for a friendly against the Ivory Coast. Like his compatriot, who begins his World Cup exculpation against Hungary at Wembley tomorrow, Prandelli has made some necessary gestures to a livid public.
He has retained only nine of Lippi's final squad, and only one of the 2006 veterans. In particular, he has guaranteed more offensive potential, in every sense, by calling up Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. Both were too combustible for Lippi's taste, but Prandelli finds himself in a situation where fire can pardonably be fought with fire.
In Capello's case, his critics prefer to view the enlistment of young players like Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Adam Johnson merely as a sop. But their venom simply reflects the misplaced sense of entitlement they had themselves nourished so credulously. Now that the veneer has finally been peeled from the golden generation, Capello can attempt some more pragmatic alchemy.
Funnily enough, in his time he has got the best out of Cassano himself. Great careers have blossomed under Capello through precisely the adventure and flexibility he is suddenly supposed to lack. At Real Madrid he blooded Raul at 18; he also vexed fans and pundits by switching him to left midfield, where he promptly scored 21 goals.
The best that can be achieved by Prandelli with Cassano and Balotelli, or by Capello with Wilshere or Johnson or a defender as comfortable on the ball as Phil Jagielka, is a sense that nobody – not fans, not media, never mind players or coaches – is entitled to complacency even in the most venerable of footballing cultures.
As one pebble-sucking Greek once put it: "The easiest thing of all is to deceive yourself. For what a man wishes, he generally believes to be true."
James Lawton is away
Why all the scouts will be watching Udinese this year
The best managers don't even send scouts to the World Cup. They know that all that glisters is not gold, and that players who catch every mug's eye go home with hopelessly inflated values.
Some smart business was duly completed before the tournament: Barcelona securing David Villa, or Manchester United discreetly signing Javier Hernandez. It still seems surprising, however, that nobody was sufficiently seduced by Alexis Sanchez to bankroll his inevitable arrival among the elite.
The Chilean winger looked every bit as special as Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age, light years ahead of every defender quaking in his path. Sanchez has four years left on his contract with Udinese, and the club president vows not only that he will stay, but that this "will be the year of his consecration".
Kwadwo Asamoah, also 21, has meanwhile pledged at least one more campaign after impressing with Ghana, so Udinese will be compulsory viewing this season. But much bigger clubs will some day reproach themselves for not forcing their hand sooner.
You can almost taste the sea salt in League One
Now if those in League One could just tread water for a season, and wait for the good ship Pompey to sink a few more fathoms, football on the South Coast will never have been such fun.
As it is, Plymouth began the campaign by beating Southampton away in front of nearly 22,000 people. Gus Poyet is assembling a team worthy of a new stadium at Brighton next year, while Bournemouth last season defied the steepest odds – including a transfer embargo that reduced them to filling the bench with the assistant coach and a schoolboy – to win promotion under one of the most promising young managers in the business, in Eddie Howe.
Though there remains the lamentable possibility of Portsmouth passing one of these teams on the stairs, there is an unmistakable new saltiness to our maritime football.Reuse content