Steve McClaren’s First Game: England v Greece 15 August 2006

Before I go all medieval on the press again… I’m looking forward to this one. More than I’ve looked forward to an England game for several years.

For a start, there’s a new look to the team, and I want to see how it gets on. Gerrard is reported to be delighted to have his favourite right-hand slot; Defoe has his opportunity to show that he should have gone to the World Cup, playing alongside Crouch in what appears to be a well-balanced two-man attack. Hargreaves starts, and in the sitting role, should give Lampard the chance to… well, not everything is new here. Downing starts on the left, and if all goes well, we’ll see something of Lennon on the other side at some stage. England managers tend to get off to good starts (people forget now just how well Graham Taylor launched his time in charge. I embarrassed myself thoroughly last week by forgetting that it was Taylor, not Robson, who made Lineker England captain, in a comment to the Telegraph). I’m expecting a fast-paced match, with Greece spending long periods locked into their own penalty area.

John Terry did me proud in his first press conference. After all the tripe about his being some kind of hangover from a golden age of honest, old-fashioned passionate no-nonsense footballers (a kind of Fred Dibnah in shorts), Terry showed up wearing a watch worth considerably and conspicuously more than my annual earnings. And there have been flashbacks to his less than Finney-esque appearances on the front pages of the tabloids. He’s a fine footballer; he’ll be a good captain; it does no one any good to make him the subject of ill-placed nostalgic fantasy.

Moving on to the issue of psychology.. there’s been more than I expected – especially from the heavy press – of the utterly stupid around the appointment of Bill Beswick to the England squad staff. (Beswick was sports psychologist at ‘Boro, and has worked with McClaren for many years. He and McClaren share an interest in the problems around coaching and managing wealthy, elite sportsmen, and both have spent time in the United States studying how basketball and American football approach this). Radio 5 described Beswick as McClaren’s version of Eileen Drewery. The Guardian described him as a “guru”, and described his work at ‘Boro as having had “mixed results” as though Beswick were solely responsible for the club’s failure to pull off a ’99-style treble. This morning, Radio 5 again, apologising for their earlier insult, compounded it by some more ignorant, childish rubbish about golfers being told to “be the ball, live the ball, move through the ball..” And, “England need a shrink – to shrink down some of those outsize egos”..

At its heart, all of this has the good old British error – conflation of psychotherapy with psychology. (In the United States, it’s made worse because “psychotherapist” and “psychologist” can be used as synonyms). Psychology – including sports psychology – is a world away from psychiatry and that is a world away from psychotherapy. There are few points of contact between the three. One of those points – Dr. Raj Persaud – one of only two people in the UK to be qualified both in psychiatry and psychotherapy – is currently in his equivalent of an FA hearing, battling plagiarism charges.

Psychology is the study of human behaviour, mostly group behaviour. It’s an epistomological area of study, dealing in trends and repetition of results. Sports psychology is the study (and sometimes application, as in the case of Beswick et al) of successful sporting behaviour. Successful sporting behaviour is sometimes contrary to the inclinations of psychotherapy, which is the relief by various mostly non-drug-related means of the different forms of specifically mental suffering and discomfort occurring in people who are not in the bigger scheme of things mentally ill. Psychiatry is the use of drugs and related means to relieve mental suffering and discomfort both in the non-mentally ill population and in those who have fallen victim to more severe, often delusional, forms of mental illness.

When I say that successful sporting behaviour is apt to cross the bows of psychotherapy, I mean that the mindsets of top sportsmen aren’t necessarily ideal in terms of enjoying life, getting on with people, coping with the rest of the world, and so forth. I enjoy watching and playing football, but with what I know of the lives of top players, I’m not so sure that I’d like to walk in their shoes, live in their heads.
I’ll end that diversion here – with one more comment about Radio 5 et al. There is something deeply ironic – so much so, I’m amazed that they haven’t noticed it – in broadcasters who have gone on and on about passion and inspiration suddenly playing coy about sports psychology.

Anyway, what’s McClaren been doing that’s different? It’s been difficult to lay hold of any real information in amongst the playground chatter of the press, but there has been the odd hint. A leaf has been taken from Sir Clive Woodward’s book, and there is much more structure to “England” time, with more team meetings in which the players are encouraged to make their views known. There are to be no more kick-and-tell biographies (and haven’t the latest crop been dreadful? no good gossip at all) and no more WAGs, which will come as a relief to Theo Walcott’s pleasantly sensible other half.

Some of what’s been painted as “new” isn’t: all managers start out as McClaren has started out, playing individuals in as close to their accustomed positions as possible. Erickson wasn’t really guilty of playing men out of position. England’s problem is that they have ten or eleven truly top-class players, four of whom share the same position. Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham – not to forget Joe Cole – all prefer an attacking role in central midfield. Until the last 18 months, we just haven’t had a good enough left-sided midfield player (although I felt Trevor Sinclair rose to the occasion at the 2002 World Cup, and was surprised at his being dropped so soon after the tournamant).

Nor is there anything new about an England manager building a team capable of playing in two or three different formations. Erickson coached England in 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3 “triangle” formation, plus a fallback 4-5-1. If rumour is to be believed, it was the players who jibbed at this, and insisted on 4-4-2. I wonder if McClaren will be given the same treatment? It’s hard to imagine a formation that might have compensated for the sour form of Lampard and Gerrard at the World Cup. And one reflects again on 1966. The wingless wonders appeared in the famous line-up for the very first time in the quarter-final at Wembley – and Erickson was criticised for chopping and changing! Ramsey’s formations changed with almost every game in the run up to, and early games in, 1966, only coming together in the quarters, semis and final. Notably, that final-winning team went unchanged for several straight internationals afterwards. History is written by.. journalists, these days.

Nevertheless, I have a good feeling about tonight’s game and the immediate future for England. There’s more positive news in the shape of Walcott’s goal for the under-21s. One of the heavy press described him today as “shunned in the Premiership, ignored for England”, and said that Erickson had “lost faith in him”. I think it was Tacitus who said that torture was liable to bring forth false witness. It’s one of the prime benefits of a civil society that we can now fulful all our false witness needs without need of the rack or the manacles. Three cheers for democracy, then, and enjoy the game.

P.S. Some enjoyably bizarre opinions on McClaren’s first squad and formation on 606 here.

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2 responses to “Steve McClaren’s First Game: England v Greece 15 August 2006

  1. George Szirtes

    Good first half, deeply average second. The usual idiotic press response. No surprise there.
    Venables is a good sign though. And Lennon has looked good each time he has played.

  2. It was much better on the radio. And, yes, bah to the press.

    I did really enjoy the game, though. Sometimes I think I give the impression of never enjoying football here at this blog. But hearing Crouch net two in front of a deliriious, roaring crowd is a fine thing.