When Sir Winston Churchill criticised Clement Attlee for his want of pizzazz - "a modest little man with a great deal to be modest about" - he was paying Labour's first post-war prime minister a compliment. Long characterised as a reliable plodder, Mr Attlee ended up leading the Labour Party for 20 years and acquiring a reputation as the architect of post-war British society. There are advantages, apparently, in such old-world attributes as lack of ostentation and letting someone else do the talking.
The world of bygone association football, before the onset of seven-figure salaries, might have been created for Attlee to direct. Its job appointments were virtually fuss-free. Billy Wright, legend of the 1950s England defence, first heard the news of his elevation to the captaincy from the conductress on the bus to the Wolves training ground. Half a century later, Steve McClaren's accession to the national managerial throne has been conducted more or less in public: bruised also-rans emoting into their mobile phones; grand eminences of the FA dropping pregnant hints to the broadsheet opinion-formers.
And now, having sat through the selection process, McClaren will have to endure a yet more tedious ordeal: listening to advice. There is no pundit like a soccer pundit - political correspondents are unexacting helpmeets by comparison - and our man will be subject to a riot of helpful suggestions: who to play; who not to play; tactics to follow and strategies to avoid. All this ignores the fact there is only one desideratum for a successful football coach: the ability to win matches. Out of it, though, rises another question, related to strike-rate and trophy cabinets: what qualities should an England manager have?
The answer is: let him be dull. Ditch-water dull. So ennui-provoking, inconspicuous and retiring that - as with Attlee - the newspapers lose all interest in his foibles and go off in pursuit of sterner quarry. Flamboyancy, flair, the maverick outsider and the loose cannon have all been tried in English football and they have all failed dismally. Sven Goran Eriksson looked at one point as if he might possess the right attributes of silent, diligent unobtrusiveness, only to blow a promising hand by way of glamorous girlfriends, sexual high jinks and a fatal inability to keep his mouth shut.
For a convincing demonstration of the advantages of dullness, one need only turn to Leo McKinstry's biography of Sir Alf Ramsey. Its achievement is to expose Sir Alf as a deeply uninteresting man. Happily married, laconic in conversation, routinely deadpan with journalists, Ramsey merely concentrated on choosing the best players for his team and, having seen them win the 1966 World Cup, went back to Ipswich to grow his roses.
Embroiled in club management at Middlesbrough for the past few years, McClaren has not had much of a chance to impress his personality on the public. With any luck that opportunity will never come. The best thing would be for him to pretend he has no personality at all. If I were the new England supremo, I should resolve to take my holidays in a Skegness b&b, avoid being seen with any woman other than my mother and cultivate a deeply innocuous hobby like stamp collecting. These smokescreens in place, I might just - unlike any other England manager since Sir Alf - be able to get on with my job.
D J Taylor's 'On The Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport' is published by Yellow Jersey PressReuse content