Few things in football are as black and white as a Newcastle United shirt, as is illustrated by the supposed transformation of Fabio Capello from genius to buffoon in the space of three months. This unlikely phenomenon smacks rather of the regrettable modern tendency to build someone up to the highest heights before taking greater delight in knocking them down, using any available stick, however flimsy, with which to beat them on the way. The current furore over calling time on David Beckham's international career is but the latest example.
It is nevertheless still remarkable how quickly Capello's reputation has fallen, as would surely be confirmed by the sporting equivalent of those (dis)approval ratings for politicians; he has become football's Nick Clegg (72 per cent to eight per cent over an identical period). No England manager in history has fallen from such a height quite so quickly.
Steve McClaren, for instance, was never in the same stratosphere to begin with, the feeling having been widespread from the start that he had been promoted beyond his capabilities at the time, so that his soggy end came as no great surprise.
Sven-Goran Eriksson began with his stock higher than any predecessor, not least for carrying a vaguely mystical aura as the first foreign manager, yet how far did he actually fall? As the regular incumbent of this page, James Corrigan, has pointed out, England actually achieved more at Eriksson's three tournaments than their Fifa ranking merited. Were he to be guest of honour for the next home match, Wembley's welcome would be warm and affectionate; whereas Capello can be grateful that it is only at club games that the announcer booms out the coaches' names to receive the crowd's adulation or abuse.
Kevin Keegan was always known to be a motivator and not a tactician, his sudden admission of the fact after a home defeat by Germany in October 2000 therefore coming as a shock only in its timing, four days before the next competitive game. Glenn Hoddle, the karma chameleon, was one of the more promising holders of the apparently impossible job until unwisely delving into religious philosophy with some comments that he has always maintained were off the record.
The Newcastle shirt was prominent when blame was being distributed for England's lamentable World Cup performance. Was it all the fault of the players, or the manager who selected them and their tactics?
Some saw black, some saw white but more sensible souls recognised shades of England's Euro 96 grey. The coach made mistakes, like a 4-4-2 formation that left the central midfield outnumbered, and persevering with an out-of-form Emile Heskey. On the other hand, the effect of delaying selection until the 11th hour, and picking Heskey and Robert Green, would have been minimised if those two and other players had performed to their capabilities when it mattered.
Capello and his coaches were shocked by how badly the players responded to the pressure of a major tournament. For his part, he accepted making one or two errors and did not, for the record, take "41 days to say sorry" as was claimed in various quarters last weekend. As reported here on 4 July, "sorry" was the last word of his final media briefing in South Africa, less than 24 hours after defeat by Germany, when asked by this newspaper for his message to England fans.
There has been a certain self-flagellation since then from players and management – please, please boo us – of which the unexpectedly thorough revamp of the squad for last Wednesday's game was part. It confirmed that there were indeed England players who enjoyed a great World Cup: Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson and Ashley Young among them. Some of those introduced, or brought back, against Hungary performed better than others, although discussion in any detail about them with the manager was impossible given his continually poor command of English.
Whatever has happened to his language lessons, Capello is at the stage where not speaking through a translator, however well-meaning, is counter-productive. At best it fails to allow for any nuance to come across, and at worst it leads to total confusion.
Aware of that, he has relied on his general manager, Franco Baldini, to speak to players such as Paul Scholes and David Beckham about their inclusion or otherwise in the squad; though Baldini's command of the language is much better, even he can be open to misinterpretation on a crackly mobile phone, and those two both made it clear that they would rather have heard from the man himself.
In the great scheme of things, who makes the phone call is not a huge issue. But like the Capello Index, the retirement of the third-choice goalkeeper (at best) and whether the manager smiles or not when England score (check out the photos of Alf Ramsey as Geoff Hurst completes his hat-trick in 1966), it is being built up into a drama because his team played so badly at the World Cup. If the manager's English is not sophisticated enough to grasp the linguistic subtleties of "Stick It Up Your Beckside" (The Sun), that is probably just as well. He has not suddenly become bad at his job after 20 years. The danger is that Capello – "Every time I speak I have to think 10 times before opening my mouth because you want to find something wrong" – will become disaffected by these trivialities and distracted from his real task.
However, the bottom line for all football managers remains the same. To paraphrase Harold Macmillan, another politician who fell to earth: "Results, dear boy, results." England need two, badly, against Bulgaria and Switzerland next month.
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