Eleven Roaring Lions

“Eleven Roaring Lions” was a phrase used by a recent commentator here to describe the England team he saw as having been let down by Sven Goran Eriksson.

Of course, it makes them sound more like WWF wrestlers than footballers, but there you are: that’s exactly the kind of thinking that British football is stuck with for the time being. So I was cheered, briefly, by this interview with Steve Coppell, manager of Reading. Eleven roaring royals, driven by their gaffer’s heart on the sleeve passion?

Coppell does not often yell at his players. Although he claims to have a ‘good shouting voice’, he prefers calm logic to an old-fashioned rollicking. ‘Players don’t want to know “You’re shit, you’re useless.” They want to know what to do to turn it around in the second half.’

His emphasis on clear guidance, his cool-headed approach and his refusal to react in an over-emotional way have been important features this season, when Reading have responded well to their moments of adversity.

It reminds me of Eriksson, too, and also of Paisley, Busby, Stein. I wonder if all of these people who jump onto the net to urge managers to shout at players, to kick them up the backside, to treat them as undeserving, lazy, overpaid prima-donnas behave that way in their own lives to the people they come across. And I wonder if they get the results they want. And when they don’t, do they reassess their approach?

The Selhurst days finally came to an end after a personality clash with Simon Jordan, the current Palace owner who presented a scathing view of Coppell – unlike most who have worked with him. ‘I found him very difficult,’ said Jordan. ‘I walked in to see him, having spent 10, 11 million pounds on the club, and he was very strange. Uncommunicative, unhelpful. He was so negative he interfered with the signal strength on my phone.’

Dick Knight, the Brighton chairman who employed Coppell not long after, heartily disagrees. ‘I think Simon misjudged Steve’s seriousness. He is probably the most analytical mind brought to football management for many a year. His preparations are detailed to the point of fastidious. His briefings are second to none. He spent hours with the video in the afternoons breaking down moves in slow-mo to work out how the opposition operate. He is very perceptive.’

It can’t possibly be working, can it? Reading need someone to inspire the players! Insert string of spittle-flecked clichees including one about losing the plot. Radio 5’s evening sports magazine, Sport On Five, featured a couple of dinosaurs with West Ham connections last week. I tuned in too late to catch their names, and I quickly lost any curiousity as to who they were when one, for reasons I scarcely comprehend, launched into the club’s new Icelandic chairman for showing enthusiasm in the form of turning up for matches, wearing the scarf and talking about the history of the place.

Apparently, because he hasn’t been travelling up and down the country for twenty years following the club through wind and rain he “can’t feel” the way more well-established “fans” do. He hasn’t “earned the right” to talk about Bobby Moore and the rest.

I don’t know where this leaves young fans. I felt the strongest about my team when I was 12. And I expect this gent wants players to show the fans’ passion – but by his own analysis, where are they going to get it from if they are born in Argentina or Nigeria or Ireland? Where does Steve Coppell, a lifelong northerner, come in at Reading?

So let’s count up Coppell’s “offences”: intellectual (he has a university degree); doesn’t train with the players (he has a serious knee injury from his playing days); doesn’t shout at his players; takes an analytical approach to the game; doesn’t come from the area and hasn’t supported the club since he was a little cockney sparrer born within earshot of Bow Bells.

Not management material. It can’t possibly be working. Thank goodness West Ham have a manager who understands the club, and players born locally, and a passionate fan base who know what the Premiership is all about:

(Sarcasm off), that’s what’s so fascinating about British football. Practically none of the old saws are actually true. Almost all of them are misconceived, wrong. Yet how many decisions are being made, right now, in the hope that they will be right, this time?

I came in with eleven roaring lions. (And you can have ’em; just keep them in straw and dead goats and you’ll be fine). Eleven men, and they wanted an English manager to inspire them, a “traditional” English captain to “lead by example”, a plan B because we were stuck with 4-4-2. They wanted Gerrard out right, and they wanted him in the centre. They wanted Joey Barton, because he’d insulted his potential international colleagues and this was an excellent thing. They wanted Venables, and then they didn’t. They wanted passion and commitment, and when they went four games in a row without a win, they wanted to put the whole nightmare into reverse and… what?

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