Patrick Barclay: Good luck, old friend – the road from Malmo to Manaus is long
Award-winning writer sends a good-luck message to Roy Hodgson - a man he has known for 35 years
Sunday 08 June 2014
From where you sit, the journey is just beginning – your contract with the Football Association lasts until after the 2016 European Championship and you'll relish the prospect of taking your younger players, matured by two intervening years, to France – but for me it's a culmination. Ever since I got to know you, I've wanted to see what you could do for England in a World Cup. Yes, you were at the European Championship two years ago, but you didn't have enough time. This is the high wire without a safety net. So don't feel under any pressure…
Remember when we first met? It was 24 April 1979. More than 35 years ago. I'd gone to Malmo because if Nottingham Forest won in Cologne the following night while the Swedish club overcame Austria Vienna at home, Brian Clough would be up against your mate and fellow Englishman Bobby Houghton in the European Cup final. It came to pass: Ian Bowyer was to score in Cologne and Tommy Hansson in Malmo. But first, Jeff Farmer, then of the Daily Mail, and I of The Guardian went for lunch with Houghton to hear the story of his life, and when we arrived at the restaurant you were there as well.
You were the successful young manager of Halmstad. Naturally Jeff and I took an interest in your subsequent career, and when five consecutive titles at Malmo were followed by the guiding of Switzerland to their first World Cup finals in 28 years, I became convinced that you should manage the international team closest to your expatriate heart. Your affection and respect for England and their coaches – the likes of Bobby Robson, once your course tutor, Dave Sexton and Don Howe – was manifest in every conversation, and so was your drive to carry on their work, adapting it to the conditions of your time.
At various stages I sought to persuade the FA to appoint you to your current job, but they appeared to think the answer to England's under-achievement lay in paying vast salaries to designer managers from the Italian club scene: Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. Most of the media seemed happy with such expedients. Only Jim Holden of the Daily Express and I were consistent in our arguments for you, and our combined weight seemed an ounce of feathers until, no doubt coincidentally, the FA regime of David Bernstein shocked the nation by overlooking Harry Redknapp in favour of you.
It was frustrating to think of all the millions that could have been saved and invested in proper coaching had Bernstein's predecessors not run England as if the national team were a loasdamoney club. But at least your salary had been driven up – I doubt that you'd have even asked what it was had they come for you 15 years ago – and it was better late than never. But was it too late, too long since you had completed your Swiss sojourn by steering them to your homeland for Euro 96, for England to enjoy the peak of your powers?
I don't think so. For all your Kafka-esque experiences at Liverpool, it was only four years ago that you supervised one of the most inspiring European campaigns by an English club in Europe. A list of Fulham's opponents on the route to the Europa League final against Atletico Madrid tells its own story: Roma, Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk, Wolfsburg, Hamburg… and, of course, Juventus.
What a night that was at the Cottage. I was still trying to get through the turnstiles when David Trezeguet made it 1-4 on aggregate, but Bobby Zamora struck, then Fabio Cannavaro was sent off, and the combination of intelligence and passion with which your players used that advantage is something that will live with me for ever, as will the sight of Clint Dempsey's chip drifting inexorably home to secure victory. Your lads even took the final to extra time before succumbing to Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero.
Now, in Brazil, you are to face the equivalents of Cannavaro, and the reality of Forlan (and perhaps, in time, Aguero), but with even better players such as Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, and trump cards like Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley. Yes, and an infinitely greater weight of expectation, or at least glare of scrutiny, as you were reminded when a balanced assessment of Barkley after the friendly against Ecuador was portrayed – understandably – as killjoy nit-picking.
Comparing them in a roundabout way with Crewe Alexandra was unfortunate too; you'll never be the finished article until you learn to relax and play the media game. Still, I suppose Alf Ramsey, who never bothered with that, did all right.
But do England really expect to challenge for World Cups these days? For much of your time in charge your measured and realistic personality, it seems to me, has conspired in the lowering of expectations. You must, however, get out of that group. And you should, for Uruguay are not as good, overall, as the Chileans who so impressed Wembley seven months ago, and Italy are vulnerable to the pace your attacking players have in abundance. Then the nation will accept a respectable defeat and the honouring of your contract in full, especially if the promise of youth develops in Brazil. Can you complete the formation, in these few short weeks, of something akin to the Fulham who overcame Juventus? It would be quite a feat, but the opportunity is what you wished for.
All the very best, as ever...
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