Review: Brian Glanville, “England Managers: The Toughest Job in Football”

There have been quite a few histories of the England team in recent years – before this one, we had James Corbett’s England Expects, and every tournament that the side qualifies for generates more of the same. Most of them are frustrating cut-and-paste jobs, that leave you knowing what the results were and what kind of performance was generated, without their possessing any particular depth. It’s a merciless, cynical genre, and a populist one, making sure never to venture too far away from common opinion in that usual childish, cowardly, late-macho manner common to modern British football.

Brian Glanville has been around as a journalist long enough to ensure that if his book is cut-and-paste, they are at least his own cuttings. And if his book is a long exercise in cynicism and low expectations, they are at least his own, genuinely held opinions. In among them are the real reason for the book – Glanville’s own, illuminating snapshots of memoir. These are frequently marvellous – why is there anything else in the book? A history of England seen entirely through Glanville’s eyes would, on this evidence, be a sporting classic, and this is therefore a missed opportunity. Take this, about England’s pioneering referee and football administrator, Sir Stanley Rous:

..Rous’s support for Winterbottom as England manager was not wholly consistent. In May 1955, when I was living and working in Rome, Jesse Carver, the Liverpudlian who was then managing Roma, one of his many Italian sides, told me that he had an appointment with Rous at the Hotel Quirinale in Via Nazionale and that I might care to come along; it could do me some good.

Rous awaited us, silver haired, formidably tall. ‘Did you have a good journey, Sir Stanley?’ I dutifully asked him.

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he said, impatiently. ‘Who are you?’

Little interested when I told him, he then proceeded, in my obscure presence, to offer Winterbottom’s managerial job to Carver. ‘It’s about time we brought Walter back into the office,’ he said.

Glanville has fifty years of such tales to tell. I can only wish there were more. Like this:

Ramsey..had no doubts about (Roger Hunt). Before the first leg of the Intercontinental Cup final of 1967 at Hampden Park, between Celtic and Racing Club of Buenos Aires, I found myself having tea, amiably, with Ramsey, in the North British Hotel. We went outside, hoping to catch a taxi to take us to the game. No such luck. Eventually, a somewhat battered blue jalopy full of young Scottish fans drove past and drew up beside us.

‘Och, it’s Sir Alf, get in, get in,’ which we did. The badinage soon began. ‘That England team that won the World Cup! So many poor players!’
‘Well,’ said Sir Alf, as by then he was. ‘For example, who?’
‘That Roger Hunt; he’s a poor player.’
‘Roger Hunt,’ said Ramsey, ‘scores twenty-five goals a season, every season. Yes, Roger Hunt’s a poor player!’

It wasn’t always a battered car seat for Glanville. Often, it was a ringside one:

The following morning I emerged from sleeping on a colleague’s chalet floor to be greeted by an alarming sight: Gordon Banks, pale and plainly distressed, staggering across the hotel’s lawn on the arm of the England doctor, Neil Phillips. Food poisoning had affected him and, disastrously for England, put him out of the game. How had it happened, and only to him? Many years later, when I spoke to him about it, Banks insisted that he had eaten and drunk the evening before exactly the same as any other player.

Though it may be merely a wild surmise, it could be worth recording that when the Daily Telegraph reporter Bob Oxby subsequently broke his journey home in Washington to visit his cousin, the well-known Senator Stewart Symington, the senator laughingly told him, ‘That was the CIA! You don’t think we were going to let England beat Brazil, do you? – Brazil at that time being in a state of political turmoil. The mystery may never be solved, but, beyond all doubt, Banks’s illness was fatal for England.

Yet anecdotes of that kind nestle inconspicuously in yards of Monday-morning match reportage. The reportage has reference value, of course, and it is backed up with an excellent appendix – the best of its kind I’ve seen – containing full details of every post-War England match. So if you don’t own an England history, and want all of the figures at your disposal, this is the one to go for.

Glanville concentrates on short-term causes – he is a veteran journalist, not a historian, and tactics, selection, luck and the “impossibility” of the job are his principal explanatory tools. His characterization of the successive managers is as brief and constrictive as that might suggest: Ramsey good, Ericksson bad; Winterbottom couldn’t talk to players (but Glanville does correct one common error in pointing out that Walter had indeed had full-time top-level playing experience for Manchester United); Robson frightened and unadventurous; Greenwood good but too old; Hoddle an occasionally effective enigma. Taylor and McClaren are roped together. Glanville does possess two interesting opinions – he doesn’t rate Clough as a potential England boss, and he feels that Venables came to the job too late:

While at Chelsea, as a teenager, he (Venables) astonished his future co-writer, Gordon Williams, deputed to teach the club’s youngsters English language classes. Asked to write a short story, Terry alone complied, and came back with a tale reminiscent of the famous American writer, Damon Runyon. When Williams evoked the comparison, Venables replied that he had never heard of Runyon.

And as for Clough:

The patriot cry for Brian Clough and Peter Taylor goes up every time England lose a match, but what guarantee is there that the methods which have worked so well at club level would be effective in the international field? Peter Taylor’s book on Clough made it perfectly clear what many of us had known all along, that they are an authoritarian couple, ruling essentially by fear. Between the wars, in the days of the illustrious and commanding Arsenal manager, Herbert Chapman, the fear was of unemployment. Today, though we have unemployment again, the fear is of losing the huge rewards which clubs like Forest can provide. No such hold could be established over international players. Treat them peremptorily, and they would certainly rebel.

(A misapprehended view of Taylor’s book and quite unlike the way either Chapman or Clough actually operated when they were successful – but there it is).

Glanville has written a useful book and one with a few glorious stories – too few – thrown in. But although he tells you what happened, he doesn’t tell you why. Why, for instance, did England turn from being the stupendously innovative footballing nation of 1860-1905 to the incurious career-catchers-up that they’ve been ever since? Why is our international team so unrepresentative of an intelligent, inventive, original and eccentric country? Why, after all but sixty years of (mostly) falling short has there never been any sustained effort to regain a lead over the world? Or even any idea of one?

There are real answers to all of these questions in the history, culture, psychology and personality of the game. But they’re not in Glanville’s book. Or, as yet, in any other.

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2 responses to “Review: Brian Glanville, “England Managers: The Toughest Job in Football”

  1. I thought the toughest job in football was to go into halftime of the Superbowl down by many touchdowns and try to change your strategy. Oh wait…..that’s American Football…

  2. I look forward to your book, james.

    I do think there is anti-intellectual streak in English football and I’d use as an exemplar that Glanville is one of the highly respected journalists in the arena, despite never once having tried to analyse any of the themes you suggest, or even just looking beyond “the last few matches” in assessment.

    If I can be a bit Glanville-ish for a moment, I’d like to highlight the Man City victory over Newcastle. There was a drumbeat in the press about Sam Allardyce both during Eriksson’s time and since. I have no doubt we won’t see anyone in the press rethinking that stance, or even asking why Allardyce is held up as “an innovative English manager…”