You could call it the Neil Kinnock factor: a tabloid aversion to men in British public life with thinning red hair. The former leader of the Labour Party got both barrels at his weakest moment and, 15 years on, Steve McClaren has found that attitudes towards our pheomelanin-rich brethren have not softened one bit. Good luck to Prince Harry if he ever thins out like his dad.
There is just one point to add to the tumult and general national self-loathing that will kick in should Russia get those three points in Israel on Saturday: let's not debase ourselves as a football nation by putting the boot into the manager. You may not have supported McClaren's appointment or appreciated the way his Middlesbrough team played football, but to blame the whole sorry mess on one man is preposterous. Just as preposterous as deciding who to vote for in a general election on the strength of one tabloid headline.
As he enters what could be the last eight days of his reign as England manager, facing Austria on Friday and Croatia in the last qualifier five days' later, the bottom line is that if McClaren does not make it to Euro 2008 then he must be relieved of his duties. It will not be the end of the world, however bad it feels at the time; his agent, Colin Gordon, will cross Soho Square from his offices on the other side of the lawn and agree a severance deal to soften the blow. And in time McClaren will get another job, certainly as a better manager for the experience, and, hopefully, take Graham Taylor's dignified lead in letting bygones be bygones.
In the 28 days since defeat in Russia turned Group E on its head, one memory stands out. It was the sense that until the Spanish referee, Luis Medina Cantalejo, wrongly awarded Russia a penalty, England were surviving. After that penalty everyone remembered the game a little differently. Why had McClaren not brought on Frank Lampard (that famously defensive-minded midfielder)? Why were we playing 4-4-2 anyway? In the space of two goals, McClaren went from being a manager who had got it together in time to a joke who deserved nothing but scorn.
Those are just the mitigating factors, of course. The buck stops with the manager, but it is not as if these players have not let us down before. There is a suspicion that had another man been in charge of England that night of 17 October – let's say Terry Venables, for argument's sake – then those newspapers who put McClaren on the gallows might have been looking towards the referee instead. It would have been a certain 43-year-old civil servant from the outskirts of Seville who would have found himself anointed as the least popular Spaniard since King Philip II waved off the Armada.
The point is that McClaren has under his control a group of players whose results in the last three years have been volatile, to say the least, and who have always seemed capable of inflicting upon themselves a grievous humiliation. England's parlous current position really comes down to failure to beat Macedonia at home in October last year. That was a match in which Rio Ferdinand pulled out with a back spasm on the day itself and in which Wayne Rooney was so ineffective he was replaced by Jermain Defoe with 15 minutes to go. That is no excuse, of course, but the same old stories about indifferent form and unlucky injuries have hit McClaren. Out of the players who would have been in his first XI when he took the job, McClaren has been without an average of four for every one of his 11 qualifiers.
Should results go against England in the next eight days then the spotlight will again fall upon the Football Association, who it will appoint as McClaren's successor and who makes the key decisions. It should be noted that the FA is in the rudest of financial health, with a turnover that will reach £200m next year on the back of some eye-popping new broadcasting deals. It is not, as the common perception goes, just a bunch of old farts voting for their own survival but a 124-year-old organisation which includes many people who care deeply about the job they do.
That is not to say that there are not a few characters in there as well. And, funnily enough, some of them are on the 12-man FA board that, in the event of McClaren being sacked, will choose his successor. Among the five representatives of the professional game are David Gill, the Manchester United chief executive; the Ipswich Town chairman, David Sheepshanks; and the Football League chairman, Lord Mawhinney. So far, so respectable. Then there is the Bolton chairman, Phil Gartside, who can at least say he has experience of choosing managers – he has appointed two already this season.
Last up is the relatively newly ennobled Sir David "Dave" Richards, chairman of the Premier League, who got himself in a bit of bother the last time the FA was appointing a manager by saying that whoever it was had to be British – shortly before changing his mind and backing the bid for Luiz Felipe Scolari. I was there when Sir Dave came out with that little gem at a Football Foundation event (a cause that explains his knighthood), and he did look a bit flustered at the time. Probably because Sir Dave, who resigned as Sheffield Wednesday chairman before they began their debt-ridden slide into the third tier of English football, is not given to public pronouncements.
He is, however, one of the most powerful men in football and his choice will sway many on the board. It is worth remembering that in David Conn's brilliant book The Beautiful Game? the former Labour MP Joe Ashton – who was a fellow Sheffield Wednesday director – described Richards becoming chairman of the Premier League as "like the captain of the Titanic being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty".
But when Sir Dave takes the air on deck he can always be sure of the steady opinion of the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, who told The Daily Telegraph in December 2002 that he was "called upon" by God to run the FA (everyone assumed it had been the late Sir Bert "the Inert" Millichip). He said in the same interview that apart from being saved by divine intervention on a number of perilous FA assignments he believed in "God, Jesus Christ and the afterlife". Perhaps we had better make that all-important 12-man FA board a 14-man board after all.
Strangely, God did not instruct Thompson to comment at all on England's failure at the last World Cup finals in his programme notes for the first game of McClaren's reign, in August 2006. In fact, he has said very little apart from that rare interview during eight years in a powerful and privileged position. He shakes the hands of the players before internationals, lines up with the dignitaries for the anthems and then scuttles off to let someone else take the flak. There is barely an England fan in Wembley who could put a name to his face. Perhaps McClaren will be wishing for similar anonymity in eight days' time but, sadly for the England manager, that is one benefit that does not come with the job.Reuse content