James Lawton: Is McClaren trying to build a strong team or just do a better PR exercise?

McClaren's appointment of Venables hints at insecurity
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The Independent Online

On the day that David and Victoria Beckham launched their "his" and "her" perfume brands the most arresting aroma, finally, was not the sweet, some might say cloying, smell of his unbridled success as a celebrity icon and money-making machine in international football, but maybe something more bracing, something carried on an authentic wind of change.

This, anyway, had to be the hope as Steve McClaren launched his new England. It was necessary to believe that the decision to omit "Goldenballs" from the England squad for next week's game against Greece was something more, say, than a public-relations effort to distance the new coach from the regime of Sven Goran Eriksson that ended so ignobly in the Ruhr Valley a few weeks ago.

That is a fear, frankly, which cannot be totally expunged by any officially conveyed impression. McClaren has launched his crusade on the oldest and best principle that the nation's shirt - and captain's armband - should always be a hard-earned right and not a privilege granted to some endlessly favoured but underperforming son.

If this is indeed McClaren's motivation, he is entitled to the warmest recognition of a strong and necessary decision. Beckham's leadership and performance in the last World Cup were again a parody of what might have been reasonably expected, and, in one psychologically huge move, the new coach has created at least the sense of fresh and much tougher imperatives facing anyone now selected for England.

It is certainly engaging to think that the footballers who represent their nation have at last been told to take the flowers from their hair and clear away all the illusions of grandeur that have been stockpiled in their heads.

But is it quite right? Is the Beckham decision gesture politics or a genuine attempt to recast the ethos of the team? There are worrying reasons to ask such questions and at the top of the list is McClaren's enthusiasm for the appointment of Terry Venables, a football man he has never worked with, as his influential, even talismanic assistant.

This, the suspicion must be, is something drenched in public relations. Even more disturbingly, it also hints at insecurity in the man who now has the freedom to shape a new England.

Venables is not an assistant. He is not a man to bring on the training cones. He is a brilliant football man with great empathy for players, a deep understanding of their nature - and their fears. Like many football men of quality and knowledge, Venables was aghast at the style and the methods and so many of the decisions of Eriksson, and in negotiations with the Football Association he has apparently made it clear that he wants a role where he will have some weight. But where, in reality, will this leave McClaren, who for most of Eriksson's regime was a man who not once uttered a public whisper of complaint?

It brings us back to the essential mystery of McClaren's role for England during the Eriksson years, and the basis of the FA's decision to appoint him as the Swede's successor.

Did he have too much influence, or too little, and what will he expect of Venables if decisions are made that offend his sense of what is right and wrong in the running of a winning team? Will Venables be silent? And if he isn't, will he be the expendable one if results go wrong, and his influence has been seen to be high? There is only one answer to that question.

There is also a simple, brutal truth. It is that only one man makes a team. Of course he can take advice. Of course he can listen to views ... and then, if is he the man, if he is a Ramsey or a Busby or a Stein, he can do what he believes to be right. There is one great demand. It is to lead, to be your own man, confident that you are the one who is going to make the difference.

Running a winning team is not a job for a committee, even one formed by just two ostensibly compatible men. Always there has to be a breaking point. In the end, football is about instinct and opinion that has to be put to the test, and this is confirmed by the rarity of a collision of the great managers when they do not have more than nuances of disagreement. It has never worked.

Historically, you might say the partnerships of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, and Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, broke the mould, but then you have to understand the special circumstances. Clough and Taylor were old friends and team-mates, and Taylor had a wonderful eye for emerging talent. But he never questioned the authority or final decisions of Clough, a motivator of genius. Mercer was a wise old football man scarred by his days in management and he gave the brilliant Allison sufficient scope to make his reputation. But ultimately even that relationship soured.

Reel back through more recent generations and where do you find two men sharing significant responsibility. Would Guus Hiddink or Phil Scolari or Martin O'Neill, Jose Mourino, Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger seek out as work partners men of even comparable experience and reputation? It hasn't happened and it never will.

The dynamic of leadership in football is as simple as the game when it is played at optimum levels. It is about shaping the team, picking the right players, trusting them and having them trust you. Authority, a clear sense that one man is in charge, is the basis of that trust. It may be true that no man is an island, not in every aspect of his life, but in football that is exactly what all the great ones have been.

Men like Bobby Moore, the Charlton brothers, Geoff Hurst and Nobby Stiles knew the moment they assumed they knew what Ramsey was thinking, they would be making problems for themselves. He led, they played, and the basis of their relationship was that their manager had assumed total command. He announced it was his team, his values, and that would remain so as long as he was in charge.

The problem with the Venables appointment is not in his nature but that of the game. The more influence he wields, and the more valuable his insights, the more he diminishes McClaren's own position. It is naïve to think that players do not understand the currents of power and influence. A winning manager has to carry a certain distance, a degree of mystery. Bill Shankly surrounded himself with knowledgeable assistants, and one of them, Bob Paisley, displayed true managerial greatness when he reluctantly took control at Anfield. But before that moment, he lurked, just about permanently, in the shadows.

You might say that McClaren played a similar role in the Eriksson regime, but, for heaven's sake, to what effect? Did he challenge the sense that players like Beckham had assumed influence out of all proportion to their contribution? Did he voice his amazement, publicly, when Eriksson made the atrocious decision to put the utterly untried Theo Walcott into a World Cup squad? No, he did not, and does he expect the same compliance from Venables, a man of strong opinion and great personal pride? He is ill-advised if he does.

You might say that McClaren did well to reject Steven Gerrard's Beckham-style, public pursuit of the captaincy. But his decision to prefer the more consistent, and modestly stated, candidacy of John Terry was not exactly flawless. Why did he appoint Gerrard vice-captain? It is a new and valueless position, and smacks of the seeds of still another hierarchy within the dressing-room. It is hard to imagine Venables approving ... or that Ramsey, whose famous response to Hurst's cheerful farewell, "See you the next game, Alf" was "If selected, Geoffrey", would have believed what he was hearing.

He would have been dismayed by the idea that there could be any rank beneath captain other than that of a place earned by consistent performance and a clear demonstration of the character and commitment required to play at the highest level.

However, none of this is to dispute the essential merit of McClaren's decision to announce that the days of the preferment of David Beckham are over. It was a necessary resolve to inject fresh leadership, and opportunity, into the England side and it is one that can be challenged by the former captain only on the field of play. The Venables situation is rather more delicate, but it it is also about leadership - and the fear that McClaren has surrendered his own before he has begun.

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