In his faintly absurd programme notes for England's first game after the 2006 World Cup finals, the former Football Association chairman Geoff Thompson failed to mention once the frustration and disappointment of the team's exit from the tournament. In February this year he was at it again. England's previous game had been defeat to Croatia but before the friendly against Switzerland, Thompson signed off nine years as chairman of the FA with more banalities. The England team, meanwhile, had been at an all-time low.
It was fair to say that the old boy had a talent for missing the point and three months after England had failed to qualify for Euro 2008, the point was this. How about the head of the English FA saying something – saying anything – on the issue of England's disastrous failure to qualify for their first international tournament in 14 years? How about an apology? How about countenancing a bit of embarrassment on behalf of his organisation?
Yesterday Lord Triesman did something his predecessor never once had the gumption to do. He set a target. He said that England should, at the very least, expect to reach the semi-finals of major competitions. The rub here is that – and you may noticed – mainly England fail to reach the semi-finals of major competitions. Last year they failed to make the final stages of Euro 2008, so Triesman is not exactly on a racing certainty. Rather he is sticking his neck out and, presumably, preparing to stand or fall by what he says. Which is the point of being in charge of a results-based business.
Thompson represented an element to the FA which would rather look the other way when it came to the bad news. Triesman is staring it in the face and there will be no escape should Fabio Capello's England team cease to have an involvement in Euro 2012 beyond the last eight. In the event of that happening, 6 May 2008 will, unfortunately for Triesman, be returned to in all its glory.
In all likelihood as part of some gloomy, we-told-you-so television montage summing up the agony of the tournament. But no one will accuse Triesman of denying his responsibilities.
The new chairman of the FA has not taken long to grasp one of the fundamental aspects of our national football team. That they need targets and they have to be told when they have failed. There is no relegation in international football, qualification starts all over again once the last tournament is over. No one goes into freefall like a Leeds United or a Nottingham Forest and the alternative is a meandering mediocrity, the like of which the England team has been stuck in for too long.
It is a demanding target for Capello but then if nurses, teachers, junior sales executives and cabinet ministers have to meet them then why not the man getting paid £6m a year to manage England. As he does not tire of telling us himself, he has experienced pressure before.
Managing Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid was not a stroll although he could at least acquire new players there. There is still a lingering suspicion that in his efforts to rehabilitate the England team, Capello may pull a few stunts that his predecessors never attempted. With the volume of young foreign players in the academies of England's top clubs, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that Capello, and his well-connected general manager Franco Baldini, could persuade some of them to take British nationality. After all, their target is to get England to the final four of a tournament, not to do it with a team of 11 players who can each trace their family tree back to Henry VIII. The best player in the Croatia team who eliminated England from Euro 2008 qualifying was Brazilian Eduardo da Silva, a naturalised Croatian.
Yes, there is something a little weird about setting England a target of reaching the semi-finals at major tournaments rather than actually setting out to win the thing itself. No doubt there will be a few Germans and Italians sniggering at the English acceptance of failure just as long as they gave it a good shot. But what was Triesman supposed to say? If he had said that nothing short of winning the World Cup was acceptable, Capello would have been justified in raising an objection. If he had said that the quarter-finals was a benchmark of respectability we might as well have brought back Sven Goran Eriksson.
Even the best-laid plans in football are liable to be turned awry by the intervention of what the late Harold Macmillan would call "events". In short, things happen. But the first step of good governance is saying what it is you would like to happen and then facing up to the reality of what to do when it doesn't. The FA, Capello, English football have at least done the first part.
Post 1966 and all that: Forty years of falling short in major tournaments
EURO 1968 Semi-finalists
1970 WORLD CUP Quarter-finalists
EURO 1972 Quarter-finalists
1974 WORLD CUP Failed to qualify
EURO 1976 Failed to qualify
1978 WORLD CUP Failed to qualify
EURO 1980 Group stages
1982 WORLD CUP Second round
EURO 1984 Failed to qualify
1986 WORLD CUP Quarter-finalists
EURO 1988 Group stages
1990 WORLD CUP Semi-finalists
EURO 1992 Group stages
1994 WORLD CUP Failed to qualify
EURO 1996 Semi-finalists
1998 WORLD CUP Second round
EURO 2000 Group stages
2002 WORLD CUP Quarter-finalists
EURO 2004 Quarter-finalists
2006 WORLD CUP Quarter-finalists
EURO 2008 Failed to qualify