James Lawton: Should an Englishman really take charge of the national team? It's a no-brainer

Charlton versus Middlesbrough would have been laughed at in Italy or Spain
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The Independent Online

It was a dismal parade of English soccer values on prime time television this last week. Four all-Premiership Cup ties, three of them featuring teams coached by leading contenders to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson, mostly yielded football so poor, so soporific it was hard to fight off a coma.

The exception was Liverpool's brutal demolition of clueless Birmingham, whose Steve Bruce would almost certainly have been interviewed by the Football Association for the England job just a few months ago.

But then, of course, Liverpool are managed by one of those foreigners, Rafa Benitez - like England's other top-five clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.

There are no prizes for catching the drift. The noisy campaign to appoint an Englishman to the nation's top football post has become palpably absurd.

Sam Allardyce's claims have apparently foundered on the basis that having an agent son sends out entirely the wrong message from a putative coach of England's most desirable talent, but just as relevant is the question about whether watching his Bolton Wanderers creates any appetite for seeing such football performed at the international level.

This surely brings us to the big point of the week. In football a manager has one great advertisement for himself. It is the way his team plays. On Monday night Stuart Pearce's Manchester City played abysmally, losing at home to West Ham. On Thursday Alan Curbishley's Charlton and Steve McClaren's Middlesbrough not only failed to muster a goal, they also found the challenge of mounting more than a handful of moves which involved a sequence of two or three passes utterly beyond them.

As Curbishley suggested quite rightly early in the week, judging a potential England coach game by game is a football illiteracy. But so is forgetting to analyse with any depth his entire body of work.

Curbishley has done splendidly at The Valley, producing low-budget Premiership survival against heavy odds. At City, Pearce has made some impressive strides in his infant managerial career. At Middlesbrough, McClaren has had a much bigger budget, but his team continues to drift between isolated success and a terrible bankruptcy. Now, putting aside the publicity jamboree of the FA chief executive Brian Barwick's interviewing process, we have to consider if anything we have seen on the field in the last year or two makes anything like a convincing case for any of the home-grown candidates. Of course not. It is, as the Americans say, a no-brainer.

There is a bottom line to this debate. It is supplied by those major English clubs. Chelsea have a Portuguese, Manchester United a Scot, Arsenal a Frenchman, Liverpool a Spaniard and Spurs a Dutchman. Why? Because they know their supporters are interested in their teams winning, not in some phoney debate about engendering national pride and bizarrely ill considered suggestions that chauvinistic drum-beating will ever be an adequate replacement for serious knowledge and proven ability.

Today's situation is particularly poignant for those who remember that time when England were at the business of winning their one and only World Cup and the country had some genuinely outstanding and innovative coaching talent. Sir Alf Ramsey got the job because he performed a miracle at Ipswich Town, seizing the title from elegant powerhouses like Tottenham and Manchester United.

In the wake of Ramsey's success there were two massive candidates who were never allowed near first base. Brian Clough was one and Malcolm Allison was the other. They were considered "too dangerous" by the FA. They had their own way of doing things, they were outspoken, sometimes outrageously so, but you only had to look at their teams to know that they were utterly brilliant when it came to organising a football team.

Clough seized the title for provincial makeweights Derby County and Nottingham Forest, and went on to win European Cups. Allison produced riveting football at Manchester City with the all-English forward line of Summerbee, Bell, Lee, Young and Coleman, and swept up the title, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Juventus, was so impressed that he not only offered Allison a job but also a private plane to fly his friends over for weekend celebrations in Turin. Allison told him he loved his team and was committed to English football. Both Clough and Allison brimmed with passion and innovation. Clough turned John Robertson, a roly-poly winger, into a devastatingly withdrawn creator of exquisite goals. Allison christened Bell "Nijinsky".

Do England have the beginnings of such native claimants right now? Plainly not. Charlton versus Middlesbrough was a travesty of top-class football. It would have been ridiculed in La Liga or Serie A.

It is time for reality. Barwick and his adjudicating panel have to get serious. They have to make a decision, hopefully with the help of professional advice, and go after their man. Here the order of preference would be Guus Hiddink, who may have talked with the Russians but might still be attainable with the right offer, Martin O'Neill and Felipe Luiz Scolari. O'Neill hasn't done it at World Cup level, but he does have some of the dynamism of his old boss, Clough.

Certainly, he wouldn't have stood for the dross we have seen on our television screens this week. Nor should we.

'New man' doctrine only gets in way when legends are being forged

One of the most uplifting developments in sport, as in life, is the sure-fire emergence of a great man.

Sometimes the process can be a little haphazard, as it has been in the case of Freddie Flintoff. But then, suddenly, the guy is past the post. He has delivered, in a variety of circumstances, the best of himself.

He has utterly confounded those of us who publicly worried that he might be a leading victim of the triumphalism that caught hold of the nation when England won back the Ashes last year.

We didn't like the rush to celebrity, the delayed arrival in Pakistan because of still another book launch, and the early-morning presentation of the BBC sports personality trophy, with the start of an important game just a few hours away.

But in these last few weeks Flintoff has skewered his critics and in winning the last Test - England's first triumph in India in 20 years - he has produced something which, as Angus Fraser has already pointed out on these pages, ranks with anything achieved in the fabled Ashes summer.

And what will be among his greatest rewards? You have to suspect it might just be a consequence of his brave decision, in this age of the new man, to pass on the ritual return to the hospital bedside of his wife when she bore their son.

This means that when the lad asks his dad what he was doing when he was born, Flintoff can say: "Leading England to a famous Test victory on the other side of the world."

If I was a young, reasonably red-blooded boy, I think I might prefer that to the more common response of: "Well, I was doing my duty, son, I was taking video pictures in the delivery room."

Snivelling sprinters deserve scorn

One of the less edifying responses from the English relay team that so pathetically blew their chances of progress towards a Commonwealth Games medal yesterday was that rather than criticise them, the great Michael Johnson should come down from the TV studio and give some help.

Why on earth should he do that? Johnson trained slavishly to make himself a legend of his sport, and whatever ambivalence anyone feels about modern athletics, the sight of him pouring it on in his gold shoes as he won in Atlanta is quite unforgettable.

Johnson did his work and claimed his prizes and this makes him a brilliant presence in any analysis of today's athletic performance.

The snivelling comments of the English sprinters after Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis abandoned the massive challenge of passing on the baton in Melbourne were sickening. Johnson's scorn is no doubt suitably massive.

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