Never can the words “The FA are clueless” be the headline to more emphatic proof that the English game’s governing body got it right. They encapsulate the judgement of Harry Redknapp, in his own mind a worthy England manager, who has revealed in the course of a new and bitter attack on the Football Association how he would have needed to enlist someone else, the then Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers, to help him introduce a passing game, had he been asked to lead the nation at the 2012 European Championship.
Redknapp also discloses that the idea of spending time at St George’s Park, the centre of excellence established to develop that very passing game, does not appeal to him. “I’d rather go in every day and see a bunch of footballers than sit around drinking tea with a bloke in a suit,” Redknapp says, in the first serialised extracts of his autobiography, in which he characterises the governing body as full of institutional snobbery.
Well, the FA certainly feels like a closed shop at times. It revealed that much when Pep Guardiola expressed a willingness to talk about replacing Fabio Capello, which at the very least created the chance of a free consultation with the most exciting manager in Europe. No one returned the call to the Guardiola camp because the FA was set on an Englishman. That seemed to me like a breathtaking lack of curiosity.
But at the outset of the most significant week of Roy Hodgson’s tenure, the spectacle of Redknapp revealing the fury of a manager scorned, with his own supporters piling in behind him to verbally duff up Hodgson yesterday, was an extremely unedifying one. It reduced the discussion of why England are so far from where they ought to be in international football to the kind of pantomime fare for which we can always rely on Redknapp. He’s a manager for the digital media age and just can’t stop himself. Just ask Manchester City, who called in their lawyers a few years ago after he claimed they had tried out a form of commercial blackmail on him and Tottenham in the transfer market. Good headline. Total nonsense.
England deserve better than this. Not only in these next 10 days but in the months ahead, when something needs to be done about why, to select just one example of a dismal institutional failure, the best collection of footballers England could muster under the age of 20 this summer conspired to draw 2-2 with Iraq – a nation with the most basic football facilities, currently in a very uneasy kind of recovery from its own Armageddon.
An intelligent conversation about what is wrong with England is under way, powerfully opened last year by Gary Neville and taken forward very shrewdly on these pages by Patrick Vieira last Saturday. Vieira, Manchester City’s new development squad manager, was walking on egg shells while he talked; reluctant to offend by giving full voice to the notion that the same old people are coaching the same old version of the English game. Confines of space on Saturday prevented us publishing Vieira’s observation that “you need new, fresh faces; new, fresh voices” coaching the game “because the way of coaching and of talking about the game has changed. Our society has changed.” Vieira’s words certainly resonated when Redknapp popped up yesterday morning.
It is at St George’s Park, the place to which Redknapp seems so averse, that some of the “fresh faces” are to be found – because they certainly do exist. Nick Levett, the FA’s national development manager for youth football, is improving the quality of the coaching environment, to ensure young players begin thinking for themselves on the field and making their own decisions. It is a culture of less shouting and more thinking. Not a headline maker – but deeply significant.
There is still a dearth of the “new voices” Vieira talked of, because those who might provide them are desperately undervalued. A former England international related to me at the weekend that he is currently making a 200-mile round trip to coach at a leading Championship club, earning £17.50 an hour to do so. It might take him seven years to complete his coaching qualification, now that the fast-track route enjoyed by retired Spanish players – who can complete all their Uefa badges inside 18 months if they have played a minimum of five internationals or had eight seasons in the top division – has been taken away.
The England manager cannot solve all of these problems. He cannot even solve many of them. But the task ahead requires a figurehead with qualities of intelligence, modernity, flexibility, perhaps a modicum of diplomacy, as the FA seeks to wrench back the power it has lost to the Premier League. It requires the ability to take the same long-term perspective as the FA’s director of elite development, Dan Ashworth, who admits that England’s prospects of success are even further over the horizon than chairman Greg Dyke has suggested. It requires more than an occasional journey from a mansion at Sandbanks to Burton-upon-Trent.
The question of whether Hodgson was – and is – the right man belongs to another day. As Redknapp says, Hodgson’s face possibly did “fit” more with chairman David Bernstein, who appointed him. That much was clear on the night Hodgson casually dropped a novella – Chess, Austrian writer and journalist Stefan Zweig’s examination of Nazism – into Bernstein’s hands at a pre-Euros barbecue. Their inherent conservatism means both lack the personality for this media age exuded by Redknapp, born into the 1940s just like them.
Yet it was when reading the serialised sections of Redknapp’s autobiography that lay one double-page spread back from his annihilation of its organisation yesterday, that the FA must have given thanks for good, old-fashioned, buttoned-up Hodgson. It was the story of how Redknapp had been conned by a “jockey” called Lee Topliss who after three years and a scam which earned him thousands, turned out to be a potman from a pub in Newmarket. Clueless? Just imagine the fall-out from a story like that.
Simplicity ruled in Anfield’s Boot Room
I’ll talk more at a later date on these pages about an excellent new book on Liverpool FC in the 1980s – Simon Hughes’ The Red Machine (Mainstream, £15.99). But the memory it provides of the incredible simplicity of Bob Paisley’s ethos as his players bestrode the continent makes you wonder whether everyone is trying too hard these days, with their performance analysis and tactical rigour. When Michael Robinson arrived at the club in 1983, he asked Paisley and his assistant Joe Fagan how they wanted him to play. Hughes relates how the two men looked at each other before Fagan took charge of the conversation. “Listen lad, we play 11 players here – just to make sure we aren’t disadvantaged,” he replied. “In midfield, when we get the ball we try to kick it to someone in the same colour as us. As a forward, Michael, kick it in the net, and if you can’t, kick it to somebody who can.” Eat your heart out, ProZone.
After all the shouting, Donetsk is just the same
Four days in Donetsk last week was more than enough to wonder whether staging that European Championship was worth an iota of the expense and effort. The Donbass Arena, where England opened their tournament against the France last year, is glaringly resplendent against the grey, impoverished backdrop of a coal city in which the Sergey Prokofiev Airport – vast, gleaming and totally empty - is the only other sign that the football carnival once passed that way. “The Euros helped the politicians and some business people,” said a local university teacher. “But for the rest they have just what they had before. Nothing.”