James Lawton: From Dagenham to San Canzian d'Isonzo, great football men talk the same language

The job is not to reconstruct the side but hose down their most dispiriting values
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The Independent Football

You won't believe this but even now, a good 24 hours after issuing a ringing endorsement on these pages, I'm still waiting for a gold embossed invitation from the Football Association to a little tactical tête-à-tête with the new manager of England, Fabio Capello.

Frankly, it was an exchange of views and perspectives I had in mind, nothing heavy, just a suggestion here, a prod there. But, so far, not a tinkle. Almost as shockingly, Max Clifford, the great publicist, is also twiddling his fingers, along with various orthodontists and hair stylists.

OK, Fabio does have to reorganise his life a little bit, lock up the lakeside villa in Lugano, secure that nice little Picasso, say arrivederci to Il Papa and various politicians back home who stand to the right of Genghis Khan, but really it's not good enough. After all, how long does it take to organise the dispatch of a modest holding gesture, maybe a case of your favourite Barolo? Steve McClaren was not so slow to bid for the "understanding" of the fourth estate.

So, surely it is not too precipitous to ask of Signor Capello quite what he's about.

So far all you get for your trouble from those who know him well is the kind of scorn dealt out by another Italian, Signorina Sophia Loren, when she was portraying a lady of the night before cameras in the Via Veneto. Filming stopped when a truck ground to a halt in a great hiss of airbrakes and the driver leapt out of his cabin exclaiming, "Dio Mio, you look just like Loren how much?" Sophia uttered a rough expletive popular in the streets of her native Naples and got on with her business, which seems pretty much the style of her countryman Fabio.

It seems that, unlike his immediate predecessor, he would probably opt to clean the floor of San Lorenzo's kitchen with a toothbrush rather than chew the fettucini with a bunch of sports writers or spin doctors. This is a pity because the gregarious owner, Lorenzo Berni, would no doubt have enlivened the evening if Fabio had shown any sign of wearying under the weight of analysis of all that had gone wrong with England down the years. Lorenzo's favourite theory is that Shakespeare was an Italian, so beautifully convincing were the nuances of his accounts of life in places like Venice and Padua and Verona.

Who knows, then, it may not be such a leap to imagine that one day it will be said that Fabio Capello was, among other things, like Lorenzo's version of Shakespeare, a man who spent his life living in the clothes of another nationality.

If so, what kind of Englishman is about to burst out of the designer suit? Preliminary, and very encouraging, evidence is that it might just possibly be, in certain vital ways, one rather like Sir Alf Ramsey.

Ramsey did keep his politics pretty much under wraps, but he was a fervent patriot who had huge affection for John Wayne, who was not exactly a pin-up boy of the New Statesman. There are maybe more significant similarities.

Though Ramsey did develop respect, even affection for a few sports writers, they could not be described as his most natural bedfellows. Indeed, some of them had the knack of driving him into an instant, albeit interior frenzy.

One of them was Jim Rodger, a diminutive and somewhat relentless reporter for the Scottish Daily Express. Once, when Ramsey got off a train at Glasgow station, "Wee Jim" piped, "Welcome to Scotland, Alf". The future knight of the realm replied, "You must be fucking joking". Eric Cooper, Manchester-based and billed as the "Voice of the North" by The Express, once challenged a Ramsey theory, just days after writing a piece disputing the manager's thinking on rare extensive team changes. The article carried the banner headline, "It's Hokey Cokey, Alf". But of course it wasn't, it was another stage in the development of a side capable of winning the World Cup. In any event, Ramsey's reaction was to take off his jacket and invite Cooper outside.

Fears that Capello might react similarly if he should see, say, a picture of his head superimposed on a turnip on the back page of The Sun, are probably excessive because, unlike Ramsey, the Italian tends to be impervious to any written word that is not encased in expensive leather binding.

Where the comparisons are plainly most obvious is in the absolute conviction of both men in the matter of making a team. As players they were both meticulous and aloof. Of Capello it was said: "He was also separate in little ways; he always seemed to be analysing what was going on around him."

The same picture is painted of Ramsey, the emerging player-tactician at Tottenham Hotspur, in Leo McKinstry's definitive biography, Sir Alf. This is the Wales international and Double-winning team-mate, Mel Hopkins, on the elusive nature of the man who led England to their one point of world dominance: "Alf was hard to get close to. The Spurs team of that era was like a family, doing everything together. But out of that team Alf was the loner. He would not mix much when we were having a few drinks. He seemed a bit more sophisticated than the rest of us. He went his own way. He was a serious type who measured everything in life, not just his passes."

Yet both Ramsey and Capello would emerge as strong leaders and in some respects, father figures when they became coaches. George Cohen, the World Cup-winning full-back who was favoured by Ramsey over the more eye-catching, overlapping Jimmy Armfield, was particularly devoted.

When the FA first turned to a foreign coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, Cohen reflected, "Alf would have been shattered to know that one day the FA would decide there was no Englishman fit to lead the national team, and whatever he thought of the qualities of Eriksson, I'm sure he would have said something like this: 'Yes, most certainly he is a very experienced football man, but what does he know of an Englishman?' Whether this is so relevant today in the cosmopolitan world of football I'm not so sure, but maybe there should be something beyond the normal demands of a good coach-player relationship.

"Maybe it is important to have a sense of your country and the real meaning of it when you go out to represent it on some great stage. Ramsey's assumption was that the players he had picked out would grow when they got into England shirts."

Capello will no doubt nurse the same hope but first he will lay down the kind of professional standards that underpinned all of his great predecessor's work. We can only guess at the first results of his instincts but we probably already know enough to presume that the weaknesses displayed by Eriksson and McClaren will die on an extremely withered vine. Rio Ferdinand will not be endorsed, as he was by McClaren, if he should ever say after a particularly dismal effort that performance did not matter, only the result. Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen and David Beckham will almost certainly be reminded of the old principle that a thousand effusions will never match the value of a decent performance. It is probably too late in the day, and the arc of his ambition, to persuade Paul Scholes that at a much younger age than some of Capello's greatest performers, including Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, he might still have an international future, but perhaps Jamie Carragher, still such a resolute force in Europe and the Premier League, can be assured that he might still be able to compete for his country without the fear of some lurking humiliation.

Capello's job is not so much to reconstruct England as hose down some of their most dispiriting values. Owen, for one example, will not be able to make the egregious claim that none of the Croats, who produced more genuinely creative football in five minutes at Wembley than England did in an entire qualifying campaign, were good enough to make McClaren's team.

We do not know yet the warmth of Capello's nature and some of us, it seems, probably never will, but we do the dispassion of his eye. At this point it is the greatest gift he brings to the England team and we don't have to stagger out of some fancy joint like San Lorenzo to know it. He will see it as it is, and he will then proceed. That's what Sir Alf did all those years ago and it is what all the great football men do, whether they are from Dagenham or San Canzian d'Isonzo.

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