You can't pick him, surely?: Britain's sports selectors are having a more than usually rough ride. Guy Hodgson on the choosing game

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The Independent Online
ASK THE man in the street what are the foremost qualities British sports selectors possess and his list would go along the lines of: incompetence, myopia, prejudice and rank stupidity. In his heart of hearts he will be deeply suspicious of the patriotism of the people in charge. This country, consensus would have it, has had more brilliant summers over the last 100 years than men of equal brightness at the helms of sport.

The condemnation is neither rational nor consistent, but it is heartfelt. The higher the common man gazes up the hierarchy of sport, the lower his perception of sense and realism becomes. The British, in the eyes of their countrymen, could not pick cotton.

Take a few recent examples. In rugby, indignation is high in Ireland after the Lions selectors watched their team take England apart in Dublin last weekend and then proceeded to ignore what they saw. In cricket the Gower row is still simmering, while accusing fingers, never entirely turned away from Graham Taylor's direction, will be pointing again if the England manager fails to find the right combination to acquire at least a draw in Turkey on Wednesday.

Add to that the enduring saga of whether Stuart Barnes should have been the England rugby team's stand-off years ago, why specialist wicketkeepers are out of vogue, and what Chris Waddle has to do to regain international football recognition and the last six months have been a season for connoisseurs in discontent.

'The Gower controversy was one of the biggest cricket has faced,' says Allen Synge, author of Sins of Omission, the story of the Test selectors from 1899 to 1990. 'It compares with the D'Oliveira affair, although that, of course, had much wider repercussions. There have been rumblings against selectors for as long as teams have been picked, but it's rare when MCC members call for extraordinary meetings.'

In 1899 the issue was whether Archie MacLaren should be England's captain; now there is a questioning of the entire structure and development of the game. 'I had high hopes of the Dexter regime,' Synge says. 'It appeared to be a simpler system relying on scouts and one man in charge. Instead it seems to have encouraged a degree of stubbornness.'

Doug Insole, the chairman of Essex, was a Test selector for 10 years in the Sixties, and was vehemently criticised when Geoff Boycott and Ken Barrington were dropped for scoring too slowly. 'Being a selector,' he says, 'is like being a magistrate. You feel you are making a contribution, putting something back. But sometimes making judgements is onerous.

'You are a sitting target. Everyone believes they can do a better job than the people picking an England cricket team. If you have tax problems you take them to an accountant. You go to an expert. Selectors are supposed to be experts in their own field but no one treats them as such. In sport everyone is an expert, no matter his accomplishments as a player.'

It is a source of wonder to Insole that the public questions the motives of selectors. 'The thought that people are picking players impishly or in anything other than a deadly serious light is nonsense,' he said. 'In a sense you are more involved than the players. They bat or bowl and go back to the pavilion; a selector's decision will be being judged for every minute of the match. There is a mood in this country: if we win, the opposition isn't much good; if we lose, we're no good. The selector cannot win.'

Nobody learns that belittling truism quicker than an England football manager. It is the eyes that tell the story. Bobby Robson, at times, seemed almost on the point of tears in the face of unfairly loaded questions; Taylor's will freeze over. His mouth smiles but the eyes are icy.

'There is no respect or dignity given to the job of England manager, whoever is in charge,' Taylor retaliated in the depths of an unhappy European Championship campaign last summer. 'There is no status. Whatever the players and I do, all we seem to get is a barrelful of criticism.

'I have to defend this and I have to defend that until I say to myself, 'Hang on a minute, what do I have to defend?' People wonder why the players and myself feel hostile when everybody seems to be against them. It gets to the point where you say, do you need this in your life?'

Nine months on he has an armour of confidence, but whether it is more than a veneer will be discovered only when he is attacked again. 'People are asking me why don't I pick him, why don't I pick the other,' he said last week. 'But I say, 'Oh no. You were criticising me for experimenting too much when I was trying out players, learning about them during my first two years in the job.' I would be the last person to say that the squad is closed. No one can force their way in. But people can't have it both ways and criticise me for not experimenting much now.'

They will criticise, of course, and he knows it. Armchair selectors have choice without responsibility, can pontificate without record. Asked about a comment on his last match in Turkey, that he would be hung if he didn't come back with a win, Taylor replied, 'One thing I've learnt in the last two years is not to make daft one-liners like that.'

He was smiling as he said it but, you suspect, not inside. Pressure has mentally disfigured him and Robson just as it has, to a lesser degree, other selectors who have been the targets of abuse. No matter how much you question the judgement, it is a brave man who withdraws a national icon like Gary Lineker with a goal required during an important European Championship football match.

You wonder, given the criticism that provoked, how many brave decisions there are in a man.

(Photograph omitted)

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