One of the more familiar tricks of modern English football management is the development of the siege mentality. It is maybe the game's greatest growth industry.
Quite often it works like this: one of your £100,000-a-week superstars is having a negative publicity week for no better reason, say, than being caught by video in some inconsequential bout of projectile vomiting at 4am, perhaps while trying to organise a visit to his baronial home by a charabanc of new female companions, so you put your arm round his shoulder and tell him that he must grow strong under the weight of criticism.
He must store up the cheap sneering and use it as perfect fuel for a moment of brilliant redemption out on the field.
Terry Venables, arguably the smartest and most wordly (at least until now) of all those given the job of walking in the footsteps of Sir Alf Ramsey, probably got most mileage out of this psychological device when in 1996 the cream of English football poured itself out of a Hong Kong nightclub with tattered shirts and glazed eyes.
They had such little repentance that when Paul Gascoigne – one of the most enthusiastic occupants of the antique dentist's chair in which the England players were pictured having hard liquour poured down their throats – scored a dazzling goal against Scotland in the subsequent European Championship, he fell on his back and elaborately mimed the drunken ritual.
Everyone thought it was a hoot, even after Gascoigne had failed to meet a cross that came to him in front of an empty German goal in the semi-final.
Venables, of course, had to make the best of his inheritance... an English football culture going bad on big money and small individual responsibility.
Fabio Capello has no such burden. He is being paid £6m a year to make a team out of England, to give them the values which enabled him to create one of the most impressive dossiers of personal success in the history of the game.
This is why on Sunday night, in his first contact with the players he hopes to guide to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he brought his own twist to the concept of the siege mentality. Yes, it was clear he hoped for some striking benefits from the players' sense that they were under siege. However, it would be Capello, and not the scavenging media, doing the besieging.
One Sunday broadsheet carried the headline "Axeman" in reviewing the week which saw Capello mortally outrage a large section of the public and considerable amounts of the media by denying David Beckham his 100th cap on the grounds that in future anyone playing for the national team had to be, at the very least, in a state of fitness worthy of any conscientious professional. Axeman might be right, but then look at the target of his chopping.
He is aiming at the kind of self-indulgent sloppiness which was such a distinguishing mark of the regime of Sven Goran Eriksson. Apart from issuing a set of rules – imagine it, the team who once threatened to strike because one of their number had been suspended for failing to take a drugs test being given written instructions on how to behave – Capello has said that he will not rush to appoint a captain. He will do what Ramsey did, he will take a good look around and weigh up the competing characters. Ramsey settled on the young Bobby Moore. Eriksson gave it to Beckham right off. Why? Presumably because Beckham asked for it, on national television.
The word is that Capello has had the effect not of a new broom but that tough old teacher who kept you on your toes by saying what he meant – and doing what he said he would and who was, in the end, the one for whom you most eagerly did your best.
There is a story from the old regime which may have been told here before but becomes ever more relevant in the light of Capello's first strenuous impact. It concerns a flurry of player meetings at the time of Rio Ferdinand's banishment from the squad after his drug test problem. Eriksson was having dinner with his fellow coaches when Beckham appeared and signalled for his presence. The report was that the manager went along, his meal unfinished.
Whoever gets the captaincy under Capello is almost certainly well advised not to attempt the same trick. Il Capo, like most Italians, enjoys his dinner – and his authority as head of the family.
What he is most keen on, it seems, is that professional players do their work with a hard-headed application. He is used to such players: Baresi, Maldini, Van Basten, for example, needed no more than hints and nudges, not written instructions.
On the face of it Ferdinand, the organiser of Manchester United's notorious Christmas party, is not an obvious choice as captain, and perhaps an even less likely graduate in the Capello school of super- professionalism. But, who knows; he has certainly responded brilliantly to the whip of Sir Alex Ferguson with some superb performances this season. Maybe Capello – who must have been impressed by the defender's brilliant handling of Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor when he watched his first game as English national team manager – will see in Ferdinand's ability to rise to a challenge, when it is carefully spelled out, the seeds of coherent leadership, at least on the field.
About one thing, though, it seems, we can be sure. Whatever playing for Capello's England turns out to be, it will be never be a lark. And who can say this doesn't represent a giant stride?
Munich aftermath shows the past was a different world
Remembering Munich is to recall in so many ways a different world. But perhaps nothing illustrates this more profoundly than one amazing fact.
It is that just 13 days after the disaster, less than two weeks after goalkeeper Harry Gregg, particularly, and Bill Foulkes, displayed extraordinary courage and selflessness from the moment they realised they had not been seriously hurt, they were playing again for a desperately assembled Manchester United team in the 3-0 FA Cup victory over Sheffield Wednesday.
It couldn't have happened today. Grief counsellors wouldn't have permitted it. This is not necessarily a criticism of the mores of today. Perhaps they got it wrong in that shattered football club. Maybe it was asking too much, but then they were a lot closer to the Second World War and all its sacrifices. It was still the norm to soldier on.
However, it is searingly instructive to look at a picture taken in the United dressing-room after the win over Wednesday. There are nine winning footballers and two others who have eyes locked into the middle distance. They are Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes.
Some time later Foulkes had a reaction. He was left out of the team for a few weeks before returning to the action – and a place in the team which marched to the night of the great resurrection at Wembley when the European Cup was finally gathered in.
The old hero writes about it in his re-published autobiography, United in Triumph and Tragedy (Know the Score, £17.99). The publishing decision was timely. The book is, of course, timeless.
Formula One must take urgent action against racists
The idea of a British sports minister lecturing Spanish motor racing fans would have been bizarre a few years ago, but there can be no such reaction when Gerry Sutcliffe voices disgust over the racial abuse hurled at Lewis Hamilton this last weekend.
Anyone unfortunate enough to be in the Bernabeu Stadium in 2004 when England's black players were greeted with barbaric noises whenever they touched the ball can only have felt a renewed horror while watching the filmed reports from the Circuit de la Catalunya.
We still have many problems, especially in football grounds, but they do not include the disgusting problem which surfaced again in Spain.
Hamilton's response was entirely appropriate, stressing his liking for a proud country and its people but also registering great sadness. Let us hope that the Spanish government and the motor racing authorities will recognise a screaming moral issue. Meanwhile, the sports minister is right to make the case for zero tolerance.
Motor racing too often puts financial advantage before an instinct to do the right thing. This is an urgent test of their ability to deal with a particularly ugly problem. No expense should be spared in tracking down the racists and making sure they never return to their sickening business.Reuse content