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Review of the Year 2009: Fabio Capello

The right man – at the right time

In the last 12 months, Fabio Capello has become the poster boy for a new age of austerity in English football, one that is deeply longed for among the nostalgia-mongers. After all, they say, he is the unsmiling, unflinchingly serious authoritarian who has tamed the most unruly bunch of naughty kids in the country: the England football team.

Actually, Capello is a lot more complicated than the clichéd view of so many commentators who watch him from afar. To those of us in the press pack who follow Capello, and the England national team, all over the world, he has revealed quite a bit of his personality over the last year and it has shown England's Italian manager to be quite different to the drill-sergeant persona created for him.

Capello has led his England team to an impressive nine wins out of ten in the World Cup qualifying campaign – and the defeat to Ukraine came after they had already qualified – which means that England are the bookies' third favourites for next summer's tournament. By June, Capello will arguably be the subject of more newspaper pages than whoever has won the General Election, but that will not faze him one bit.

The first myth about Capello is that he is deadly serious. In fact, he tells jokes all the time although his patchy English means that we are never quite sure when he has reached the punchline – not that it deters him. He once made a joke about how Wayne Rooney's "matrimonials" (his word) should help to calm the striker's notoriously spiky temperament. It got such a big laugh that he has told it several times since.

Capello has not mastered English to the extent that we would have expected when, at his first press conference in January 2007 he promised to learn the language in a month. As a result, he often finds it frustrating when he is trying to get his point across. The day before games he is infinitely more cogent than in the post-match whirl when he appears frazzled by the emotions of the game.

The notion that he does not read the newspapers, or ignores them altogether is not true either; he often remarks to one reporter in particular that he has read his piece that morning although that tends to be the Gazzetta dello Sport's long-serving London correspondent. Capello does have people close to him who keep an eye on what is written in the English newspapers. He recognises that every England manager needs to have a decent relationship with the press.

His dealings with the players make him a much more distant figure than the likes of Steve McClaren, who always threw himself into training, or Kevin Keegan, who would occasionally join in with the team bus card schools. Capello plays a full role in training, unlike Sven-Göran Eriksson who used to watch mute from the touchline, but there is no matey banter. He stops games mid-move and shouts at players. No-one answers back.

Although the players talk warmly of the new regime in public – and every new England manager is heralded as a breath of fresh air by his players – the private feeling is that they do not particularly like him. They do not like having to wait outside the dining room for him to come in first. They do not like the restrictions on the food they are allowed to eat. But every footballer knows that when a team is winning, it is the manager who holds all the aces.

One of the most instructive moments in Capello's year came while the England team were in their hotel eating a meal during the international break for their last two World Cup qualifiers against Ukraine and Belarus. Mealtimes are sacrosanct for Capello and he spotted that Emile Heskey was texting on his mobile in contravention of one of the manager's golden rules.

Those present believe that Capello used it as an opportunity to put the wind up his team. They had made serene progress through the qualifiers and, for once, were being lauded in the newspapers. It was a chance to shake things up. The England manager silenced the room with a full-volume rant. At one point a metal food cover fell to the floor with a crash but apparently Capello did not miss a beat.

The 5-1 thrashing of Croatia to clinch qualification was another high point of the year although England lost friendlies to the only two nations at shorter odds than them to triumph next summer in South Africa, Spain and Brazil. When England faced them in 2009, Capello was without many of his strongest players. On both occasions it looked like the depth of resources enjoyed by England's opponents was too much.

While the rest of us may worry about what lies ahead if England come to play either side in South Africa, Capello seems strangely calm about the prospect. He assures us that these games were vital; that he has "learned things" and when the time comes he will be ready. At least I think that is what he meant. With a track record like his, you just have to trust him.