No one’s a prophet in their own.. and, once again, England’s press have watched England in a manner reserved just for England. During the 2006 World Cup, I tried watching other teams play with that English press attitude, and found it an enlightening experience. Even in that extraordinary Argentina-Serbia game, the striped side put passes astray, failed to read each other’s movements, went for the hopeful long ball, showed inexcusable defensive lapses, played a dodgy keeper and generally behaved like a work in progress, not like that thing of legend, the complete team who put in the complete performance.
I don’t think that ever happens. Even Spain in the Europeans earlier this year, who brightened my life and probably yours, required managerial intervention, went through stretches of comedy and incompetence, showed indiscipline and mental fragility and an overdependence on Fabregas. The 1982 Brazilians had no defence. The French side of 1998 had no strikers – Henry was a shadow on the wing. There is always something to criticise, always some way to improve even the unimprovable. The greatest ever England side, the 46-48 Franklin-Matthews-Finney-Lawton group had, as their modern-day counterparts do, a dud “traditional” skipper. Every England skipper you can remember had great England games, except two: Billy Wright and John Terry.
When Fabio Capello was appointed, I felt that here at last was a More Than Mind Games manager, and after four competitive games, all won, with a goal difference of +13, using, for the most part, the same players that Capello’s predecessor had plumped for, I feel deeply complacent about England, and deeply comfortable. There is the sense that this is now being taken care of. One can take rest from ceaseless vigil, relax, do other things, read books and play records, spend long evenings in Hector’s talking about private libraries in the Scottish Enlightenment.
Although, not entirely. Because there was quite a lot of that feeling about Scotland under Walter Smith and Ally McCoist, a sense that the adults had arrived and everything would be all right now. Until Rangers came calling.. Scotland played well against Norway, better than they were given credit for, yet there is that old insecurity back again, that fragility and vulnerability.
The match against Italy at Hampden in the snow was the crucial one, where it all changed back. I heard the commentators saying, pre-match, that the Italians wouldn’t cope with the combination of cold, Scottish passion, and the crowd. They don’t like it up ’em! They don’t want it as much as we do! And “Flower of Scotland” was roared out by a bearded singer and we were told that the Italians looked apprehensive.
It was as though, having gotten so far through actual talent, effort, tactics and the roll of the ball, Scotland had lost faith in all that and hoped to be swept into the Euros on a tide of bullshit. The television pictures told the story: the Italians, lined up for the anthems, looked calm, almost amused. It was the Scots who looked cold, who were hopping from foot to foot or chewing furiously on mental gum.
The Italians scored in the first minute. And this half Scot, driving home with BBC Five Live lit up on the dashboard, couldn’t help but laugh. Instant Karma: a Michael Owen with the crisps moment.
Scotland found themselves again, later in the game. Just like they found themselves against Iceland and Norway: with the roll of the ball, that would have been six points, not four. There’s a team there, just as with England, and Burley keeps trying to bring it out. I think he’ll succeed: he’s done it before, with lesser players than those he has to call upon now.
Capello’s done it: this is probably as well as that group of English players are capable of playing. With the additional five percent that the English always seem to find against the best opposition (e.g. Trevor Sinclair’s career-defining performance against Argentina in 2002) this is once again a squad that everyone might fear. I think a big part of it is simply Capello’s own straightforward belief that he is a good manager and that his methods work. Steve McClaren was and is too curious, too willing to learn and find newer, better ways to have that confidence in what he is doing now.
In the psychotherapy world, the best performers were always the dull, incurious ones who’d learned one way and applied it with the subtlety of knocking in a hammer with a nail, not the ones who kept up with the literature. Those always had the fear – and the hope – of finding that new research would disprove their current thinking and remake it along new lines, in the process rendering their previous practice – what? wrong? invalid? Unjustifiable?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about football in the 3 years of writing this blog, it’s that being right is only part of the picture, and that when it comes to management, being wrong in the right way can work better. Capello is an intellectual Italian who loves fine art and wine, but he seems to understand the truth behind those no-nonsense John Smiths ads too, no doubt without ever having seen them. Amongst the European candidates for South Africa 2010, only Spain also retain a 100% record. But they’ve only scored ten goals to England’s fourteen, and those in a group of, by comparison, consummate ease. And they still have a double-header against Turkey to get past. With Ukraine still in the offing, I don’t agree with Rooney that England are through with their hardest fixtures.
Past two of the three, though, and with flying colours. So I’m calm. And off to do something else.