The English Patient
As England return to Wembley from another feeble World Cup campaign for their friendly against Norway, below is a chapter I wrote four years ago in similar circumstances post-South Africa for my book, There's A Golden Sky: How 20 years of the Premier League have changed football forever.
ALL WAS rebuilt now and upon exiting Wembley Park tube station for the first time and standing atop the steep, wide steps, the vista of illuminated arch that these days dominated the North London skyline, and which presided over a national stadium of glass and steel that dwarfed the old twin towers, inspired awe and anticipation.
It recalled that feeling as a child when that pitch and those beaming floodlights greeted you as you clung to your Dad’s hand having passed through the turnstiles. Sir Norman Foster’s design was indeed a grandiose new home for the Football Association and the England team. It was just a shame about the football.
After the end of the Empire Stadium, it had become end of empire for the national side. A supposed golden generation of players – David Beckham and Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard - had come, seen and failed to conquer. To boot, Fabio Capello, who was supposed to be haughtily above all these things as he looked up at the stars and down on critics, was being dragged into the gutter like all his predecessors as England manager. The Tommy Cooper lookalike was now even being ridiculed, that ridicule growing with the volume of modern media coverage in proportion to the debunking of his considerable reputation and crumbling of his disciplinarian image.
It is hard to recall now quite how vividly Bobby Robson – revered in his dotage and his death as dear old Bobby, the silver-haired sage – was vilified at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. It didn’t help that the stumbling through a group that pitted his England against the Republic of Ireland, Holland and Egypt was conducted against a backdrop of hooliganism on Sardinia.
In Cagliari, amid the angst and embarrassment of it all, I met a writer by the name of Pete Davies. He was working on a book entitled All Played Out whose premise was that England as a nation was on its knees as a result of a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s government, reflected in the sport of football that she so detested after its half-decade of disasters. It seemed a valid enough theory.
To the amazement of all, however, England suddenly polished up their act and the tournament opened up. They beat Belgium and Cameroon before losing so gloriously on penalties to Germany in the semi-finals. Gazza wept. Robson came home a hero and his place in English football’s Pantheon would go on to be secured as he won titles with PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon before leading his beloved Newcastle United into the Champions League. Arise Sir Bobby
It was all achieved with uncomplaining dignity, not least when unfairly sacked by Newcastle and the figure once labelled a plonker by a tabloid newspaper ended his life as a hero. It just went to show: stick around long enough, smile through the abuse, and eventually, like Bob Monkhouse or Dennis Skinner, you turn from joke to national treasure.
That status was confirmed as Robson stoically bore his cancer. I was on a table with him at a dinner not long before his death, aged 76, in 2009, which prompted the most moving of funerals in Durham Cathedral. Sitting next to him at the dinner, my then partner, now wife, Vikki talked to him of her own cancer. He asked what kind she had. She had a secondary, she said; they weren’t sure if its origins were ovarian or breast.
“Them, pet,” he replied, “are the only two I’ve not had.”
In South Africa 2010, Capello had secured the same group stage results as Robson – 1-1, 0-0 and 1-0, against the United States, Algeria and Slovakia - but there the similarity ended. In the last 16, England were thrashed 4-1 by Germany and returned not to the joyous, ludicrous scenes of Gazza and his fake breasts at Luton Airport and an open-top bus ride taking hours just to get a couple of miles to a hotel, but skulking through a side entrance at Gatwick almost unobserved, certainly unloved.
“I wasn’t happy about that,” one former England captain told me. “They were like thieves in the night.”
Tonight was a more public homecoming. Tonight England were playing Hungary in an August friendly that must have seemed like a good idea to the FA at the time it was arranged. England, after all, had been tipped to reach the World Cup semi-finals, maybe even go on and win the tournament. Instead, it had become a game nobody really wanted. Except, curiously, the fans, it seemed.
‘Twas not always, thus, with memories often failing to recall the time before the real impact of the great boom in the game and the improved marketing skills of administrators when some attendances for England friendlies were embarrassingly low. In September 1995, for example, England drew 0-0 with Colombia at Wembley - the game that featured the Rene Higuita scorpion kick. There were just 20,038 present.
Tonight there would be a remarkable 72,024 people taking advantage of the lower ticket prices forced upon the FA. It was still the school holidays, after all, with Mums and Dads also able to afford to go with their children as a family. There would also be a fair few wanting to jeer and pillory the summer flops and they would consider it value for money.
Talking to some of them as they walked up Olympic Way that led from the tube station to the stadium – not Wembley Way, as it is erroneously referred to; that was another road nearby – it became clear just how tolerant the English could be, in public at least. Annoyingly so, sometimes. For they have too often experienced in following the national team the equivalent of being led up the garden path after forking out for an expensive meal and not even getting a peck on the cheek let alone an invitation inside for coffee.
Football fans may seem like noisy ranters and although it could get to them like that, the evidence being the phone-ins and newspaper-led cacophony, there was also reason amid the madness of the moment. For while there would always be the shaven-headed hard core from among the biggest clubs, England followers were usually not from Manchester United or Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea, for they had top-class football to watch and their sides were usually better than international teams. No, the majority were from Hartlepool or Torquay, Carlisle or Colchester, as their flags of St George bearing team allegiances testified. To them, the England team was their chance to see the big names, to feel involved at the highest level. Initial anger having subsided, they usually forgave, even if they didn’t forget.
Here now, there was even a tolerance towards a man with a microphone urging all of us sinners to repent. I swear he was here 20 years ago as well. But then, there had to be forbearance given that burger and chips cost £6.50, and fish and chips £7, in the food ‘outlets’ flanking the newly tiled walkways. And when a programme would set you back a cool £6.
“It’s cost me about £100 all in,” Jordan Steele, an 18-year-old Aston Villa fan from Birmingham, told me. “That’s £40 for my ticket, £40 for my travel and £20 for my food, drink and a programme.”
It was not the cost that was bugging him, however. “I’m really angry with these players. They let us down in South Africa. They didn’t show enough heart.” So why was he here? “I’m English, I’m patriotic and I’m a football fan,” he replied. And there in a nutshell was the attitude on which the national team, the national game indeed, has traded for its entire existence.
“I’m not going to boo them,” said David Capicotto from Watford, meanwhile. “I’m always going to be behind England.”
“No, I won’t boo them,” added his travelling companion, Linda McDowell. “But they did play really badly. I don’t think they were trying hard enough. They are a bunch of individuals, not a team. But I don’t think you can blame Capello. It’s the players.”
Trevor Blake from Bedfordshire had taken advantage of a total price of £55 to bring his three sons along. The 52-year-old was clearly another of the reasonable England fans, unlike the passing group given a wide berth by most as they sang “No Surrender to the IRA,” and “Two World Wars and one World Cup”, still fighting battles that belonged to other eras. Like 1990.
Mind you, it didn’t help when an England ‘band’, which is basically a small collection of brass instruments - sponsored by Pukka Pies, their shirts informed us as they walked from the car park - seemed to know only one tune: the theme from The Great Escape. It had irritated England followers all over the world. I even preferred it in Tbilisi when England played Georgia and the local band was plonked in front of the press box so you couldn’t hear yourself dictating your report by phone. When they had finished – and they were excellent – the journalists stood and applauded, to the evident pleasure of the broad-grinned, moustacchioed conductor.
“I do feel let down,” said Trevor. “But I’m not going to boo. I’m here to show my support. My worry is that there is not enough of a sense of pride in these players like there used to be with players when playing for England was the peak of their career. Players like Bobby Moore.”
Bobby Moore. A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The very name conjured up an era when all was good in the game, though it surely wasn’t. When I interviewed England’s World Cup-winning captain almost 20 years earlier, he was working as a pundit for the London radio station Capital Gold. England had reached the 1991 Rugby Union World Cup final and the newspaper I was then working for wanted his take on what it was like to play in such a match.
I will never forget the look of bewilderment that came over his face when I asked him if he had ever contemplated how life might have been had England lost to West Germany that day. “No, it didn’t come into it,” he replied as if defeat had never been an option. “No. No. Never.” It was a strange, privileged feeling, sitting alongside a man you had watched lift the Jules Rimet Trophy that was gold, 12 inches high and meant that England had won the World Cup, as Kenneth Wolstenholme told us on the telly. I was 11, sat in front of an old black-and-white television and looked on with wonder.
Then, suddenly of bowel cancer, Moore died in 1993. A nation truly did mourn, and while Sir Bobby Robson was lamented, we knew he had had a decent innings. Bobby Moore had only just reached his half century. The golden boy, fastidious in all he did - “He was the only player I ever knew who folded his underpants,” his England team-mate and my personal footballing hero Jimmy Greaves once said - seemed immortal.
Actually he was. Now outside Wembley stood a bronze statue of him and all were drawn to view it these days, a logjam of people always forming an hour before kick-off. There they could read an inscription, beautifully constructed by his biographer Jeff Powell:
Immaculate footballer. Imperial defender. Immortal hero of 1966. First Englishman to raise the World Cup aloft. Favourite son of London’s East End. Finest legend of West Ham United. National Treasure. Master of Wembley. Lord of the game. Captain extraordinary. Gentleman of all time.
What would he have made of the current crop? The prevailing feeling was that these players no longer saw playing for England as the pinnacle of their achievements. Indeed, it was more like a chore. The Liverpool player Jamie Carragher was honest enough to voice the feelings of many players when he said in his autobiography, having missed a penalty in a European Championship quarter-final shoot-out in Lisbon against host nation Portugal in 2004:
“Fuck it, it’s only England.....Whenever I returned from disappointing England experiences, one unshakeable, overriding thought pushed itself to the forefront of my mind, no matter how much the rest of the nation mourned. ‘At least it wasn’t Liverpool,’ I’d repeat to myself, over and over.”
Modern elite players were comfortable at their clubs. The facilities these days at training grounds were opulent. I was once given a tour of Liverpool’s Melwood by the then manager Gerard Houllier and saw for myself its now manicured lawns, oval-shaped dressing room – designed by him so that there were no corners for players to hide in – players’ restaurant and rehabilitation swimming pool. On rough days, there was an outside covered area for training, though without sides so, Houllier said, players could still feel the weather as they would need to on match days.
There, they were amongst team-mates they respected and were with every day, coached by managers who were among the best in the world. Managers of national teams these days were usually second choices; the first choices like Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger would never give up the day job. The top players also had the Champions League, all-star competition for Europe’s finest. It was clear they felt it to be a far more searching international test.
You also knew how much players were earning from their clubs these days. The minimum for internationals was £40,000 a week, while the former England captain John Terry was on £140,000. The adjective ‘former’ applied to Terry due to him having started what would become England’s miserable year by being accused of sleeping with the partner of a former team-mate, Wayne Bridge. It started a debate about Terry and his punishment but he could surely not stay on. He was, after all, expecting his team-mates to trust him, to go into battle behind him, and this was what he was capable of? In a very modern footballing scandal, the respect was eroded.
Capello certainly thought so and sacked him with the firmest of statements designed to take him down a peg or two. Terry was summoned to Wembley during the London rush hour for a 10-minute, decidedly one-way, conversation. He knew, however, that he could always retreat back to the safety and warmth of his club where his own fans would treat him as a hero no matter the travails on national duty and the contempt of other clubs’ supporters.
Besides, playing for England could seriously damage your wealth and your health. If you were injured, you could be out for months and thus miss all the win bonuses. And by not linking up with England, but resting instead during international weeks, you could frequently extend your career and thus earn for longer.
Carragher, indeed, had retired from international football a while back but been prevailed upon to go to South Africa, inadvisedly as it turned out. Manchester United’s Paul Scholes had declined the invitation. Now the Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper Paul Robinson had also grown fed up of making up the numbers in training on England trips.
In Moore’s day, players announcing their retirement from international football was unheard of. They were retired. “See you next time, Alf,” chirruped the hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst once to World Cup-winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey after an England match. “If selected, Hurst. If selected,” Ramsey retorted.
You wondered, too, what Ramsey would have made of Capello. The Italian was often compared to Ramsey for his perceived quiet, tough, authority and footballing wisdom. Though you could not argue with his success at club level as he won trophies, domestic and European, with Milan and Real Madrid, it was never an image I had personally bought into, though clearly one that had got Capello the job.
For the modern history of the England manager shows that he is always the antidote to what has preceded him. After Robson and Italia ’90, Graham Taylor was thought to be ideal for the blazers at the FA. He had taken unfashionable Watford to third in the old First Division, then Aston Villa to runners-up. He was articulate, young, up and coming. The drawback was that he had a reputation for direct, long-ball football but the theory was that with better players, he would play more of a passing game.
At the European Championships of 1992, England were beaten 2-1 by the host nation Sweden, prompting a headline in The Sun of ‘Swedes 2, Turnips 1’,with Taylor’s face grotesquely imposed on an image of a turnip on the back page. He had become the man who shot Liberty Vallance by substituting the nation’s then sweetheart Gary Lineker in what was the striker’s last tournament and would prove to be his last game before retirement. It meant that Lineker was stranded on 48 goals, one short of Bobby Charlton’s England record of 49. I recall being on the aeroplane home with the team the next afternoon and someone commiserated with Lineker. “Bobby,” Lineker replied to his credit, “was a better player than me.”
Earlier that day, at his press conference in the morning, Taylor had insisted he was trying to get Lineker another game by seeking to turn the tide of the game in bringing on Arsenal’s Alan Smith. Taylor also sought to warn the English game that its so-called stars were falling behind the conditioning and the athleticism of the modern, foreign players in the new scientific training and nutritional regimes springing up abroad. It would be perceptive when overseas players soon began to flood into the Premier League and eclipsed the English.
Taylor, though, was becoming a prophet without honour in his homeland. When England failed to qualify for the World Cup of 1994, he was gone. His reputation would be tarnished further by a Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary that gave him too much rope with which to hang himself but gave us some of the most memorable scenes and quotes in the history of sports television. Among them were: “Do I not like that,” “Can we not knock it,” and “I’m waking up with, you know, the pyjamas soaking wet.”
It was time for a cannier coach. Jimmy Armfield, that England World Cup squad member in ’66, beloved of Blackpool and respected radio pundit, was entrusted by the FA with canvassing opinion within the game and came up with a popular name. Terry Venables had a whiff of notoriety around him given financial affairs that even attracted the attention of the investigative BBC TV programme Panorama but was clearly a cerebral coach and inspired leader and manager of men. Venables had bought Paul Gascoigne for Tottenham from Newcastle and the kid respected him so much that he even - after that boozy pre-tournament stay in Hong Kong, that was – stayed sober during Euro ‘96.
Bonded, England duly prospered, the nation enraptured by hosting a major tournament and singing along to the catchy Three Lions – which suddenly became, and would remain, the national team’s nickname - by Baddiel and Skinner, comedians and hosts of the vogue Fantasy Football TV show. Venables had England playing a more modern way, based on a sound defence marshalled by Tony Adams but with a fluid attacking formation that had Teddy Sheringham playing off Alan Shearer and Gazza, Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton a creative midfield triumvirate.
The FA had asked Venables before the tournament to wait until after it for new contract talks but he refused. He didn’t do auditions, he said. Thus, full of the pride that became his downfall, he departed after England had lost on penalties to the Germans in the semi-finals, again, and a trick was missed when all seemed set fair, for a few years at least, under a popular manager.
As successor, Glenn Hoddle’s image was of being straight and upright, a born-again Christian, though he cherry-picked his religious dogma and used a bit of whatever suited him. He even called on the services of a faith healer, Eileen Drewery, to help players with injuries and even any mental issues. On match nights, she could be spotted, terrified of the press, in a bar at Wembley nursing cigarette and gin and tonic. Such unease was not behaviour to put others at ease.
She once placed a hand over the curly locks of Ray Parlour, the Arsenal midfield player and one of the jokers in the English game’s pack in the 1990s, as she attempted a diagnosis in one of her sessions. “Short back and sides, please,” Parlour chirruped, his lack of seriousness reflecting the scepticism of the public.
Drewery’s involvement opened up Hoddle, once the darling of Tottenham Hotspur as one the country’s most skilful and visionary of midfield players, to the familiar gathering storm of criticism. He was unfortunate to lose on penalties one of the great England matches - a 1998 World Cup last 16 match against Argentina in St Etienne when a 17-year-old Liverpudlian striking prodigy by the name of Michael Owen burst on to the scene – but he had few friends in the Press when controversy broke.
It was quite simple and could make or break an England manager. Journalists – their inflated importance still carrying some sway with the FA’s power brokers despite the dwindling sales of newspapers - stored up moments, good or bad, in their dealings with him. When the piece came to be written about whether he stayed or went, it can be a question of whether there were more ticks than crosses in whatever personal relationship existed; a bit like the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch when they debated how you got into Heaven. Hoddle, an aloof, cold fish of a character who often treated correspondents as if beneath him, did not have enough of the ticks that came with winning games.
Hoddle departed after some comments in an interview about the disabled supposedly paying for the sins of a previous life. Something to do with Buddhism, he reckoned, illustrating how curious it is how some in public football office suddenly think they are qualified to speak on other matters. Hoddle’s vanity was greater than most. When then Prime Minister Tony Blair ventured that Hoddle had been wrong to sound off, the manager’s fate was sealed.
Now came the chummy Kevin Keegan, quite simply a football man who would bang the drum for England and not bang on about more trivial matters like life and death. Sadly, the footballing methods of the bubble-permed superstar player of the English game in the 1970s were a bit too simple, however. England were appalling at the European Championships of 2000, with even a 1-0 win over an even more appalling Germany unable to paper the cracks.
When the Germans then came to Wembley in the Autumn for the last match at the old stadium before the wrecking ball was wielded on it, the heavens wept and England slithered to a 1-0 defeat. Keegan, on whose sleeve could usually be seen his heart, admitted he was not tactically up to the job and resigned in front of FA big wigs in the toilet of the home dressing room.
England, the FA felt, now needed the strong, silent type who would be a tactician, an organiser, rather than just a motivator. Soon, after an astonishing 5-1 win in Munich over the Germans in a return qualifying match for the 2002 World Cup, the nation was in thrall to Sven Goran Eriksson, England’s first overseas manager.
It reminded this correspondent of the film Being There, in which the Peter Sellers character Chauncey Gardiner’s quiet air and rare utterances were mistaken by the gullible for wisdom. Actually, Eriksson came more to resemble Michael Caine in Alfie, unable to keep his trousers and platform shoes on. News of his alliance with the former weather girl and fellow Swede Ulrika Jonsson did add to the gaiety of the nation, mind.
As did a story told in England circles of one night when there was a crisis on at the FA. Eriksson had been caught by a News of the World sting in which a fake Sheikh was offering him fortunes to quit England and he was not exactly spurning them. As he was being driven to the governing body’s headquarters in Soho Square that Saturday, and being briefed by a press officer, he spotted an advertising poster that featured a comely model selling lingerie.
“Do you think,” he was reputed to have asked the aide, “You could get me her phone number?”
Eriksson took England to two World Cup quarter-finals in 2002 and 2006 but we had been told – not least by the FA - that this was the golden generation of David Beckham, Owen, Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. It wasn’t good enough. The nation had had enough of Eriksson and his indiscretions, which also included leaks that he had been sounded out for the Manchester United and Chelsea jobs and would have taken them if things could have been worked out.
Now, the FA decided, the mood was for continuity and Eriksson’s assistant, the former assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United before becoming a successful Middlesbrough manager in his own right, stepped up. Steve McClaren was more of the same, however, too lax and chummy with the players he called JT - his choice for captain, whom Capello would remove - and Stevie G.
McLaren did try to be tough, in taking pot shots at Bambi as he ditched Eriksson’s erstwhile captain Beckham, but so insipid did his England become that he just had to recall the nation’s favourite patriot. When we thought we were getting Sven with teeth, we got Sven with whitened teeth. McClaren’s injury-hit side lost 3-2 at home to Croatia on a rainy night at Wembley – failing to qualify for Euro 2008 – and he became the wally with the brolly (a phrase actually coined by the wife of Andy Townsend, ITV football pundit, and passed on in conversation with the sports editor of the Daily Mail, who duly used it for a headline).
The next day, as the nation gnashed its teeth again, the FA’s chief executive Brian Barwick announced a root and branch review of the ailing English game – that, as the Sunday Times sage Brian Glanville once observed, perennially resembles the theatre and the novel: forever in decline.
A few weeks later, we had Capello (whose name means hat, though he was more of a rabbit emerging from it), on an astonishing £6 million a year. It was three times the salary of the next highest paid international manager, Marcello Lippi – and he had won the 2006 World Cup for Italy. It was a remarkable coup, the FA insisted. Actually, to this critic, it always seemed destined for tears before bedtime.
What England needed was a guru who would oversee the ripening of a talented crop of players such as Gerrard and Lampard who would be freed to fulfil their potential in 2010. And, on top of that, put in place a much-needed, belated coaching structure that would see a flourishing of younger players who could replace them.
A personal choice then was Gerard Houllier, the Anglophile technical director who had done so much to help France win the World Cup of 1998 before enjoying five successful years with Liverpool and also winning the French title with Olympique Lyonnais. I went to Paris at the time to see him and we had lunch near his home on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne.
As our conversation proved, his appointment would have made so much sense, as England would have been getting the best of both worlds: a coach who could empower a group of players desperate to fulfil their potential and instigate a development programme, ensuring that the FA built the National Football Centre near Burton-on-Trent that had been mooted but mothballed for years in a monumental error of neglect.
“You need to develop your coaching,” he told me. “If you want better trained players, you need better trained coaches. You need Burton. You need a place where coaches can go, from national to local, to develop a unity of philosophy. It is what we did in France with Clairefontaine in 1988 and the Spanish did with the Ciudad del Futbol outside Madrid in 2003. It is no coincidence both countries became world champions.”
At Burton, strategies could be put in place to bring on young players. Too many lauded to skies at too young an age had fallen to earth, and even many individuals who had gone on to make the England team had been criticised for their technique come the big occasion. The nation did not know whether it was the coach at fault or the players.
“I would definitely do something with the best young players between the ages of 12 and 15, in terms of their skill levels,” Houllier added, “but I would need to look more closely at whether that is done on a regional or national level. I would then put in some strong guidelines for academy players between 15 and 19 about how to make a team player. This is very important. There is a huge difference between developing a player and developing a team player.”
Instead the FA went for a man in Capello with no experience of the English game and no feel for its culture, heritage and tradition. He barely spoke the language and appeared to show little interest in how the game might improve or develop in the country beyond his few highly paid years. It looked, at the age of 63, as if he was beating a lucrative path to impending retirement at England’s expense, just a gun for hire with little commitment to the country or its players beyond a few years. It also smacked of complacency on the FA’s part as they sought to apply sticking plaster to a gaping wound.
The organisation had grown enormously, like the Premier League, with the advent of Sky and the competition between networks for live games. The FA had the Challenge Cup and England games to bargain with. For 70 years, they were housed at Lancaster Gate, a former hotel and a rabbit warren of offices in West London, until the new-broom chief executive Adam Crozier, the man who appointed Eriksson, moved them to expensive Soho Square in 2000. There, the number of employees almost doubled to 550 before the move to Wembley in 2009, made to save costs but not best popular with staff denied access to London’s West End and forced instead to endure the freezing winter walk to work up Olympic Way.
Wembley became a tortuous example of the FA’s new vaulting financial ambition under the smooth Scot Crozier. After its closure in 2000, the stadium’s replacement was due to be completed in 2003, during which time England games would travel around the country and the FA Cup final be played at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Instead, beset by delays and problems over its £800 million cost and funding, bulldozing began only in 2003 and it was delivered only in 2007.
Ambitious, Crozier moved on to the Post Office, where he upset its staff by earning personal fortunes while slashing costs. An accountant named Mark Palios was brought in to balance the books but left amid scandal when he was revealed to have had an affair with an exotic FA employee – as had Eriksson, who survived – by the name of Faria Alam (pronounced fire alarm, and it failed to go off in Soho Square).
Brian Barwick, previously a senior figure with the BBC and ITV sports departments, became the new chief executive in 2005 charged with maximising television income and was successful in securing deals that brought turnover of £262 million by 2008. Unfortunately, there was a loss of £40 million on that due to the high interest payments on Wembley. Unfortunately, too, one of the England broadcasters, Setanta, would go bust in 2009, leaving a hole in the FA’s finances as recession bit and they struggled to find sponsors.
Almost Barwick’s last act was to appoint Capello in haste to leave England to repent at leisure. The FA had reluctantly embraced only parts of a report into their governance by Lord Terry Burns in 2005, resisting a call for independent directors but accepting an independent chairman. The Labour peer Lord David Triesman and Barwick struggled to work together, however, and it was the chief executive who went.
Triesman was not far behind, however. After ruffling feathers during his short tenure when he declaimed England’s biggest clubs for their level of debt, to the displeasure of the Premier League, private indiscretion caught up with him. He was exposed by the Mail on Sunday for allegations in a conversation with a female friend about corruption in Russian and Spanish football, England’s rivals to host the 2018 World Cup.
By the time of Triesman’s resignation, the FA had also lost their latest chief executive, with the wealthy former civil servant Ian Watmore, appointed by Triesman, plotting the minefield of the game’s governance for just nine months. Football, it seemed, was more political than politics as would be seen soon when it came to that vote for 2018.
The feeling was growing that English football was becoming the Afghanistan of the world game – beset by factions to the point where it was ungovernable. There was, despite what anyone might have said publicly, a power struggle going on internally with the Premier League and the FA vying for independence and control.
The initial alliance of 1992, when it was called the FA Premier League, lasted until 2001. Now it was just the Premier League (having been called the Premiership from 1993-2007) to reflect the overall governing body’s loss of influence. Or, as the League preferred it to be known and as an instruction went out to managers to call it in their press conferences: the Barclay’s Premier League.
The new Conservative–Liberal Democrat government thought they could sort it out, however, and in an example of – in Whitehall speak – running a flag up the pole to see who saluted, began to mutter about a football regulator. It was an idea floated in the late 90’s when the Tory MP David Mellor was charged by a then new Labour administration with establishing a Football Task Force – a sort of Blair Pitch Project.
As the Premier League had grown in strength and influence, the FA had been forced to cede control of much of the professional game. Instead, it did good, unsung, work with the grass roots of the game by helping with coaching and facilities. Most still judged them, however, on the effectiveness of their flagship, the England team. It was what Barwick knew when he appointed Capello as the FA sought to show they could still handle a professional team. There remained elements within the Premier League, however, who were convinced that it was they who should be running both the FA Cup and the national side.
After a few stuttering friendlies that would have more significance on later events than we thought, Capello shut up such critics as me with what looked superficially like an impressive qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup, sparked by the young Arsenal flyer Theo Walcott’s hat-trick in Zagreb as England beat Croatia 4-1. It was deceit by flattery. England’s group proved to be a lame one and Capello and his team would be found out in South Africa. The mind went back to 2000 and Keegan’s England at the European Championship in Holland and Belgium.
When England won that match against Germany in Charleroi, it was like two tramps arguing over a discarded bag of chips. England also lost to Portugal and Romania, as did the Germans, and went home after the group stages. Crozier insisted that England would not let this happen again. There would be a review into English coaching and a new approach. Once more.
“I will look at how we coach coaches at every level, below the senior England team right down to the amateur game, including kids’ teams,” said Crozier, who after his stint at the Post Office became chief executive of ITV, who have been known to miss the odd goal or two.
If that review did ever start, it certainly ended a few months later after Keegan’s resignation and the appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson. All would be well. We had David Beckham and in a few years, a wonderkid called Wayne Rooney would come through. The English were failing again to heed the lessons of history, however, and were destined to repeat them. Not so the Germans after Charleroi.
Their federation, the Deutscher Fussball-Bund, went back to their league, the Bundesliga, and agreed a plan for the development of young players through academies. No big deal - Sir Trevor Brooking, we were told, would be working on the same thing with England as director of football development. The huge difference, however, was that the two parties in Germany had common goals, driven by the acknowledgement that if the national team was successful then so would be the domestic league. Both could prosper. Egos were duly subjected to the greater plan, one to which they adhered even through the dark time of that 5-1 defeat in Munich.
The Germans recovered from that to reach the World Cup final of 2002 and, with an average side before the fruits of the academy system ripened, finished third in their own tournament of 2006. In 2009, their new crop beat England 4-0 in the final of the European Under 21 Championship in Sweden. Then in the 2010 World Cup, almost half that team ran riot against England’s tarnished group. The Germans included the sort of dazzling flair player with a team ethic in the gifted left-footed midfield player Mesun Ozil that the English struggle to produce, as Houllier noted.
None was in the mood for the mitigating factor of a goal by Frank Lampard wrongly disallowed and tonight against Hungary, the public would show their feelings. Still in his job because the FA could not afford to pay him off, Capello was greeted by a mix of lukewarm applause and some boos when he appeared on the touchline half an hour before kick-off. Cue the pre-match music being turned up. Still, better than the loud jeers that greeted some of the players. The advance guard of the goalkeepers was spared as they included the new young hope Joe Hart of Manchester City but not some of the older players.
When the teams were presented before kick-off, it was to three representatives of British forces in Afghanistan – a clever public relations move to quell any revolt in the stands. The thought did occur that the poor trio had surely suffered enough without being forced to go to an England game.
Once the match kicked off, it was the Chelsea pair of Terry and Ashley Cole who were most reviled but not all of that was due to on-field England matters. Sour at losing the captaincy, Terry, it was suggested, tried to lead a players’ revolt over Capello in South Africa but received little support. Cole had cheated on his wife, the publicly sainted Cheryl Cole (a singer with the girl band Girls Aloud and X Factor judge, m’lud) though we had never heard properly his side of the story nor of Cheryl’s foibles.
The jeering lasted only 15 minutes, however. Nor was a banner that read “Never was so little given by so few for so many” held up for long. Capello had given in to public and media pressure and started with a 4-5-1 system as opposed to his tired 4-4-2 and once England got a corner, applause rang out.
Muttering returned on the hour when England fell behind to an own goal, and Wayne Rooney was booed when substituted, In South Africa, he had berated England fans on camera for a perceived lack of support. Fans who had spent their savings on taking in tournaments did not, understandably, take kindly to such observations. He would take some time to be forgiven. Tonight Rooney looked tempted to flash a gesture but settled for a wave.
Then the yeoman Gerrard – captain in the absence of Ferdinand and one of the few to be cheered – stepped up to score two splendid goals and England had escaped another embarrassing, demoralising defeat. Capello remained impassive, as opposed to the frantic, frustrated figure on the touchline in South Africa. It was not impressive, however. Yet again England were playing in straight lines, their movement inflexible, unlike the World Champions Spain. Capello had promised all sorts of new young players such as Arsenal’s talented Jack Wilshere but it was pretty much the usual suspects.
The day before the game, Capello had talked of modern football managers being either monsters or gods depending on the odd result here or there. He had a point and echoed what another England manager, Ron Greenwood, once said about managers getting either too much praise or too much criticism. In the media theatre now, Capello stumbled through a press conference, his English seemingly having worsened in his two years. Funny how it got worse, too, when the questions were difficult. God or monster tonight?
“I always have the same name. I always feel the same,” he said. “I understand you have to write things but for me in the morning, when you shave you look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘OK or not OK?’ I’m sure what I brought was good. I try to do my job really well. I sometimes make mistakes, sometimes I do well like this evening.”
That raised an eyebrow. And it was clear among the correspondents that much respect for a man who had seemed almost mythically fearsome a couple of years ago had gone. The mood among the Press was almost that he was a laughing stock, indeed. Among the players, the word was the hard man who earned plaudits after McClaren for having the players eat together and banning mobile phones at certain times was now just creating a downbeat atmosphere of tedium. A change in results did that kind of thing.
“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure,” said Enoch Powell. The history of the England team showed the same to be true of its managers. Was it fair that so much blame attached itself to them when they were so frequently the victim of circumstances?
Capello himself was soon sucked into the overseas-player argument and paucity of selection choices that was so superficially convincing. After all, Spain had won the World Cup and 77 per cent of players in their Liga were qualified for the national team. In the Premier League, just under 40 per cent were English. On the opening weekend of the competition for the 2010/11 season, indeed, just 91 out of 220 starting players were qualified for England, considerably fewer, too, than in Germany where the percentage was 55.
So much for one of the original aims of the Premier League being to aid the England team. Then again, however, training and playing with the cream of overseas players was supposed to improve the quality of the elite native players. Besides, when Graham Taylor’s team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, more than 90 per cent of players in the Premier League were domestically reared. In 1992, in fact, there were just 11 foreign players in the competition. We should remember, though, than many of the rest were from Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Capello’s choices were dwindling and the situation was worsening with each England manager. Conflict with club managers had also grown. They were not as disposed to the England team as in days gone by when there were fewer fixtures and their playing assets were less valuable. What could he do beyond what any bloke on the terraces could do faced with such problems?
Actually, a great deal. Given the limitations of the job, recruiting the right man was more important, not less, even if the appointment came with less prestige and respect than once it had. The nation may not have had a quantity of player but there was still enough quality to find a squad of 23 decent ones for a World Cup and for the right football brain to organise them in a formation that would bring the best from them. He should also have been able to give them different inspiration away from their clubs so that they did their talents justice. It was why our old friend Harry Redknapp was being touted as a successor. For all his baggage, spotting a player, assembling a team and getting it to perform was what he did best.
It also needed an England manager who would oversee the national coaching centre finally being built at Burton and take an interest in the development of young players. Beyond watching games at weekends and having the odd English lesson at his desk in Soho Square, it was hard to see what else Capello did with his working week.
Any England manager would need some back-up, however, and the creation of a system by the game’s governing bodies, who needed to agree on why it had all happened and what could be done, finally, to close the gap between expectation and achievement. If they couldn’t necessarily help, they had to stop hindering.
That meant, first, the FA and the Premier League working together for the common good or at least ceasing their conflicts. Rather than be suspicious of Sir Trevor Brooking and keep the FA at arm’s length when it came to their academies, the League needed to allow free access and agree standards and aims. Brooking, in turn, also had to recognise that there was good practice already at some of these academies, rather than criticise them.
Just as the national team needed bright young things, so the administration needed new thinking. We were not holding our breath, however. Post-World Cup, the FA were rudderless without a chief executive and full-time chairman, the acting chairman Roger Burden not wanting the latter post. They did have Sir Dave Richards as chairman of what was now being called Club England (presumably so we could have club v Club disputes rather than club v country) and also chairman of the Premier League.
It should have ensured co-operation but instead the charge was of vested interests, with Richards’ probity called into question by many. His latest controversy was in being accused by Fulham of intervening in a transfer deal that sent Peter Crouch from Portsmouth to Tottenham instead of them so as to get more money for strapped Pompey. Eventually Richards would stand down as chairman of Club England but it would take some months more.
After the World Cup, I spoke to Richard Caborn, Sports Minister in the previous Labour government. It was clear he would have put himself forward to be FA chairman and had much to contribute to the national debate.
“The FA has to become a governing body with credibility and influence,” said the gruff, no-nonsense Sheffield United supporter. “It has to assert its authority and bang a few heads together. And it needs to change its mode of governance. It has had four England managers and five chief executives in the last decade and needs some stability. I believe there is a mood for change but I would have to have a clear indication that all parties in English football are willing to change now. The Premier League have been working to keep the FA weak but I think they are acknowledging that something has to be done.”
Naturally he was too combative and challenging for the bigwigs at FA and Premier League and they would go on to elect some months later a safe pair of hands in David Bernstein, a former chairman of Manchester City. It was another opportunity missed when diplomacy of the gunboat variety was more the requirement.
“I wouldn’t mind Richard,” one more enlightened member of the FA’s international committee told me that night of England’s friendly against Hungary as I ran into him on the way into Wembley. He was also enlightened in believing that Capello should have gone after the World Cup. I wondered why he hadn’t. “Money,” came the answer.
Capello had two years – about £12 million quid – left on his contract. I felt sure, I said that they could do a deal with him for £6 million to spare him further embarrassment and punishment and then get in a better, more reasonably priced man for around £2 million a year, thus saving £2 million over those two years. “The FA,” the committee member replied, “are not that clever.”
The answers were not simple, nor clear-cut. But it did need, as a start, a quality of person in the game’s administration, a system of coaching and development that was unafraid to learn from elsewhere in the world, and a manager who cared about the future of the nation’s talent rather than just his pension plan, along with players who wanted to improve and play for the national team rather than being intimidated by it.
The material was not promising, though, and you were reminded of the motorist who asked for directions in rural Ireland and received the answer: “If I were you, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.”
Lord Triesman had also been chairman of England’s 2018 World Cup bid and although the former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, that founding father of the Premier League, had been recruited to fill a gap and beef it up as “international president” – a role he hoped might get him the FA chairmanship until it went to David Bernstein – it developed into shambles.
Despite their wheeling out of what was thought to be a winning trio in Prince William, Prime Minister David Cameron and David Beckham, England would poll just two votes. One of those was from their own representative on the world governing body FIFA’s board, the previous, anonymous chairman of the FA, Geoff Thompson. Russia would be awarded the tournament. Eighteen million quid and England were losers again. There may have been some questionable practices within FIFA, antagonised by allegations in the English media about its probity, but it was clear that once respected English football was lowly regarded these days.
Now the coalition government, piqued by Cameron’s embarrassment in Zurich, would put a tin lid on a miserable year for the FA by announcing, in the shape of the new Sports Minister Hugh Robertson, that there would be a select committee set up by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to investigate the governance of the game.
It would include looking into the workings of the Premier League, said Robertson, but at the FA, David Bernstein and Alex Horne, the new low-key general secretary (the title presumably so that if he left, he wouldn’t add to the list of ex-chief executives), knew that this was really about their organisation.
“If you look across sport, it is very clear to me that football is the worst governed sport in this country, without a shadow of a doubt,” said Robertson. “The levels of corporate governance that apply to football lag far behind other sports and other sports are by no means beacons in this regard.”
You wondered quite what Johnny-come-lately Robertson based this view on and how much he actually knew about football but this was an open goal. There were few willing to defend the FA after their refusal to countenance the major change recommended by Burns and their presiding over the mess that was the England team, despite the fortunes they had thrown at it.
One Irish rugby commentator once said that the state of his nation’s sport was always desperate but never serious, whereas with English rugby it was always serious but never desperate. It seemed to apply to football as well for many years. As I wandered up Olympic Way towards the tube station late that night, however, the beautiful view now behind me, I did wonder now whether things were both desperate and serious. Everything had changed at Wembley but within it, sadly, chance after chance missed, nothing had.
There's A Golden Sky: How 20 years of the Premier League have changed football forever is available at www.amazon.co.uk in paperback at £7.19.