The England Job: Race for the Poisoned Chalice

Tradition is often a wonderful thing. A happy routine that allows us to relive old memories, while simultaneously creating new ones.  It’s a rich tapestry of shared experiences, stretching over lifetimes, generations, even eras.

Occasionally however, it’s not so positive: and if there’s a collection of individuals that can turn gloriously ballsing-up into a tradition, it’s The Football Association and by extension, the England National Team.

The FA’s earliest National Team tradition regarding global tournaments, was to stick their nose up, scoff and blurt out something inflammatory about inferior “foreigners”.  Believe it or not, there was a time when England actually dismissed tournaments like the World Cup on the assumption that our triumph would be a foregone conclusion.  “Why waste the time and effort travelling to Timbuktu just to demonstrate what we already know?” they seemed to say.

When we finally relented and entered the thing, we were of course embarrassed and upset by the National Team of a USA that were already steeped in soccer apathy. We duly returned home with our superior tails between our superior legs.

Then came a period of bucking our ideas up, improving, finally deciding to host the tournament we’d shunned for so long, leading to victory on home soil in ’66.

It was shortly after this that we established the foundations of our existing strong and enduring tradition: that of punching below our weight, underwhelming and disappointing at the majority of major tournament finals.  This of course falls between our occasional practice of not qualifying at all.

Said tradition – firmly and meticulously observed at the ongoing 2016 European Championships – has led to the customary act of the England manager (Roy Hodgson, of course) stepping down, which once more allows us to revel in the time-honoured process of figuring out which poor sod’s facial features we’ll be superimposing onto vegetables for the next cycle or two.

Here then is my half-arsed appraisal of those reportedly linked with the vacant England job:

Gareth Southgate

The early favourite and current coach of the England U21 team has already ruled himself out as a candidate.

I’m not entirely sure why he was favourite anyway.  A decent spell for Middlesbrough, followed by his current unspectacular U21 run, hardly cries “obvious choice” to me.

What it rather terrifyingly cries is “Stuart Pearce Mk. II”.  I’m perhaps being harsh but needless to say, I’m not unduly worried about him dropping out.

 

Glenn Hoddle

Always a solid manager at both club and international level, his link to the job is a bit surprising as he hasn’t worked in the profession since leaving Wolves in 2006.

I’m not sure if this is just paper talk because he’s English and has done the job before. Perhaps the fact that his dismissal last time wasn’t actually football related is a factor. For those who may not know, he was fired after responding to a question on his beliefs about karma and reincarnation, with the following:

‘You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap.’

The sacking was as controversial as the comments themselves, with some feeling he was entitled to his belief and many others feeling that it was highly insensitive and insulting towards people with disabilities.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, people may have forgotten that this was the tip of the iceberg for Hoddle’s tendency to make pointed comments in the press.  I recall him frequently giving a little too much detail in a bit too scathing a tone about his squad selections and omissions.  Ultimately, it was this lack of filters that cost him the job.

Any any case, given that he’s not coached since 2006, if there was a time to give him a second chance at the role, it has long since passed.

 

Alan Shearer

In the frame largely because of his cutting analysis of Hodgson’s decisions in the wake of England’s loss to Iceland and the declaration that he’d like the job.

His managerial experience however, amounts to a caretaker stint with Newcastle United in 2009, during which he achieved a single win and two draws in eight games.

Shouldn’t be a candidate.

 

Eddie Howe

Finally, a legitimate candidate.

Howe is of course known for getting Bournemouth into the top flight for the first time in their entire history and avoiding relegation in their debut season.

Sandwiched between two successful spells at the club, he had a less impressive stint at Burnley.

Eight years into the profession, he’s got enough time under his belt with the right results to be established but is fresh enough to be considered an up-and-comer.

My biggest concerns however are that he’s (a) very new to the top flight and (b) never had to manage the kind of names he’ll have at his disposal for England.  It’s also worth noting that managing a plucky underdog, while an achievement in and of itself, differs from other scenarios.  Many coaches and managers thrive in that situation, only to royally “Moyes out” in others.

Some of England’s worst cycles have come at the hands of managers that were given the job after impressing with smaller clubs.  Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren spring to mind, both infamously failing to qualify for USA ’94 and Euro 2008 respectively.

I’d like to see Howe get some success with a larger club under his belt before throwing him into the England job.

 

Gary Neville

Assistant to Hodgson who has also shown keen analytical skills and tactical knowledge via his punditry.

This however, did not translate into success in his recent brief, ill-fated managerial debut with La Liga’s Valencia.

In fairness to Neville, it has been suggested that he didn’t inherit the strongest or most engaged of squads, and a high-profile struggling La Liga club is something of a baptism of fire.

In any case, the lack of success in the role and the lack of much head coaching experience beyond it, rules him out as a realistic candidate for the time being.

 

Sam Allardyce

Experienced with an assortment of clubs at various levels and a better tactician than he’s often given credit for, he certainly bears consideration and is among the top English candidates.

A highly analytical manager, he has nonetheless earned a reputation (some feel unfairly) for long-ball tactics.  This is most likely due to his leaning toward such tactics in games against significantly stronger opposition.  He is also credited with being a strong man-manager.

Expanding beyond purely English choices, Allardyce tends to stand out less and is probably more of an accomplished journeyman than an elite level choice.

Big Sam has also been dogged by a few allegations of taking bungs.  While he has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing, we’re talking about a Football Association that has a track record of reacting to allegations rather than awaiting conclusions, as well as a media that is especially diligent about muck-raking when it comes to high-profile players and managers.

This reputation, even without clear evidence of guilt, could still be a mark against him.

If we’re set on going English though, he’s a major standout in an otherwise largely underwhelming pool.

 

Arsene Wenger

Twenty, maybe even ten years ago, if Arsenal legend Wenger was open to taking the job, I’d have said “jump at it”.

An intelligent manager, keen talent-spotter and tactically astute, he was cutting-edge at his peak and many younger coaches have cited him as a major influence.  Indeed, many of his approaches to preparation, training and nutrition have helped shape how modern British players condition themselves.

The sad thing is, his dominant peak is well past.  He remains a solid tactician but in the autumn of his career, the game has finally caught up to his knowledge and know-how.

More worryingly, his recent years at Arsenal have been characterized by the tendency to perform very effectively until getting within sniffing distance of a sustained title challenge.  At this point, his team tends to get severe vertigo before stumbling back down to their comfort zone of being on the fringes but not quite contending.

If there’s a team with a tendency to wilt under the limelight, it’s England.  If Wenger can no longer get teams over the final hurdle, when they are assembled from expensive, hand-picked talent, for one of the largest and richest clubs in English football, how can he be expected to do it when restricted to a national pool that seems to have stage-fright woven into its DNA?

His eye for talent may aid in composing the optimal line-ups.  I’m just no longer sold on his ability to get the best out of them when it comes to the crunch.

 

Rafa Benitez

When not describing with exquisite pitch and timbre the day’s specials and full wine list at Zalacain, Rafa is also a football coach.

He has proven himself over a career that includes stints in the Premiership, Serie A and La Liga, to be a very strong tactician.  With numerous trophies to his name, including major league titles and a Champions League with Liverpool, his resume is strong.

I’d say his weaknesses are hit-and-miss talent acquisition and an overzealous compulsion to try to score public, verbal points against any party he feels at odds with.

The former shouldn’t be an issue.  The player pool is what it is.  The latter on the other hand, has earned him ridicule, made him look petty, in the case of Inter Milan, cost him his job and in the case of Chelsea, caused fans to reject him before he even arrived.

A man who can’t stop quipping at journalists over a debate on zonal marking and goes full-Cantona (never go full-Cantona) with comments like “some people can’t see a priest on a mountain of salt”, makes for a very large fish in a very small barrel for the British red-tops.

Funnily enough, he might actually be a decent fit.  His tactical acumen can only work in England’s favour and while it could go either way, his penchant for media squabbles might make their ridicule something he can cope with.  With that said, his rantings don’t always have the desired affect and can even undermine him.  The cringe-worthy “Fact!” rant about Sir Alex Ferguson is a case-in-point.

Not my first choice but a decent outsider.

 

Jurgen Klinsmann

Thanks a lot for throwing this one into the fray, Jamie Carragher.

Klinsmann divides opinion.

Even his triumphs are questioned, with Jogi Loew getting much of the credit for Klinsi’s 3rd place with Germany these days.

His one club management role with Bayern Munich was a messy maelstrom of politics, in-fighting, disgruntled players and accusations of incompetence, mercifully abbreviated by his inevitable sacking.

Anyone who has observed JK’s career will recall that this wasn’t his first acrimonious split from Bayern.  Who could forget his final appearance as a player for them, when he was subbed out early for a youth player and proceeded to kick the bejeesus out of an advertising display?

This followed a bitter goodbye from Tottenham’s Alan Sugar, a disgruntled departure from AC Monaco and a not-so-fond farewell from Inter.  Though his notable charisma affords him a sheen of teflon, it does seem that Klinsmann can be a bit of a tit.

Just ask Landon Donovan and Robbie Rogers.

Coaching wise, he hasn’t shown much tactically, seems to baffle with his man-management and has been accused more than once of focussing training on fitness rather than play or strategy. One feels that if he wasn’t the guy who scored lots for Germany and coached them to a World Cup semi-final and was just say, Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena, he wouldn’t have a job right now.

2015 was far more disastrous than any spell under his two predecessors.

The man flatters to deceive and while he talks a good game, his words are rarely reflected in what his teams deliver on the pitch.  For example, the USA Nats are no more proactive and the culture is no more changed than when he first put out those platitudes five years ago.

Frequently condescending and patronising to the US public, he gets away with a lot via a lack of media scrutiny in the States and I’m certain he would quickly be found out if he got the England job.

 

Alan Pardew

Another solid, English journeyman.

Strong stints with Reading and West Ham, which saw a rapid ascent up the divisions with the former, promotion and a major cup-run with the latter, earmarked Pardew as a capable and upcoming manager.

Unfortunately, his Wembley final (lost to Liverpool on penalties after a 3-3 classic) was followed up by a staggering loss of form.  West Ham endured one of the worst runs in their history and Pardew was sacked.

After continued struggles with Charlton Athletic, he then endured a dramatic spell with a Southampton that had only just come out of administration, were languishing in League One and had a 10-point deduction to contend with.  Results were mixed and a falling-out with ownership saw him onto Newcastle and then Crystal Palace, where he continued to mix the good with the bad.

On top of never recapturing his early days with Reading and West Ham, Pardew has been a walking catastrophe in terms of discipline.

A tendency to make rash comments in the press encouraged Newcastle to bring in a PR specialist to assist him.  Worse still, he’s had more than his fair share of touchline altercations, with the nadir coming in the form of a nasty headbutt to Hull’s David Meyler in 2014.

Too inconsistent a manager and too volatile a character to lead England.

 

Roberto Martinez

Another mixed bag, Martinez is another who has had spells of exceeding expectations with weaker clubs, most notably with Swansea and Wigan.

His high point came in leading Wigan to the FA Cup, which was somewhat tainted by the club being relegated the same season.

A good start at Everton fizzled out after a couple of years, leading to his recent sacking.

While some of his punditry shows an insightful thoughtfulness, there are better options out there.

 

Manuel Pellegrini

Pellegrini is a strong coach who despite a strong resume that has taken him across Europe and South America, has never quite got over the hump of being considered truly elite.

He has won titles in his native Chile, Argentina, Ecuador and England.  He had an impressive spell with Villarreal before being brought to Real Madrid to guide Florentino Perez’s latest attempt at an Eyewateringly-Expensive Dream Team XI.

Despite Perez blowing the GDP of a small economy on Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, Pellegrini wasn’t able to overcome a Barcelona that was just starting to pencil it’s name into the annals of football history.  Predictably, he was canned.

A decent stint at unfashionable Malaga was enough to remove the Madrid taint and he was once again offered the opportunity to run a ludicrously expensive team in the form of Manchester City.

This time around, he was able to secure the league and couple of League Cups.  Depsite this, the 2015-16 season was something of a disappointment, as Citeh joined the collection of big EPL clubs who failed to take advantage of one of the most open title races in years, falling off the pace a little too soon for comfort.

Despite this, his exit was foreshadowed by a rather messy, unnecessarily early announcement by his club that Pep Guardiola would be replacing him at the expiry of his contract.

A strong resume with varied experience.  Certainly a contender.

 

Laurent Blanc

If we’re looking for a relatively young manager whose star is on the rise, look no further than Laurent Blanc.

His coaching debut with Bordeaux was a resounding success, in a Ligue UN that prior to PSG’s windfall, was the most competitive of the top leagues.

While his time with the French national team could have been better, it wasn’t so bad as to significantly hurt his reputation and after a stint delivering the domination that PSG’s wealthy owners clearly crave, he’s now looking for new opportunities.

Could be a strong, long-term option.

 

Harry Redknapp

In my opinion, Redknapp should have got the job instead of Roy Hodgson.  It seems ‘Arry’s legal challenges and Jack-the-Lad used-car salesman act put the FA off.

For this reason, I almost left him out.  However, it seems the FA may actually have spoken to him and if I included Shearer, Harry should certainly be here.

He boasts a consistent resume of success with varying levels of clubs and resources, most notably West Ham, Portsmouth and Tottenham.

Despite never having the opportunity to manage a truly elite club, he nonetheless elevated Spurs to their current status of rubbing shoulders with them.

A classic man-manager, who has a knack for getting the best out of his teams, he’ll certainly have the respect of the players.

The fans will likely welcome him.

The biggest mark against him football-wise, might be a slight lack of continental experience but in fairness, that could be leveled at most of the British candidates.

The top homegrown option in my opinion.

 

Roberto Mancini

Yet another strong contender that doesn’t hold a UK passport.

Mancini had an interesting start to management, with his first two jobs – Fiorentina and Lazio – involving the management of large clubs in financial dire straits.

Despite these restraints, which resulted in the departure of numerous star players, Mancini nevertheless performed commendably, winning the Coppa Italia with each.

He performances earned him the head coach’s job at Inter Milan, whom he led to a period of dominance in Italy.  One minor caveat about his time there, was that it came amid the Calciopoli scandal, which had the notable effect of temporarily taking Juventus out of title contention.  However, Mancini could only play who was in front of him and as post-Fergie United have taught us, meeting expectations isn’t always as easy as it looks.

The prime criticism of Mancini is that despite commandeering strong squads, he has consistently underwhelmed in the UEFA Champions League.  This failure somewhat harshly saw him dismissed and in his subsequent role at Man City, it was also a factor in him leaving. His domestic results in relation to UCL performance somewhat mirrors the dynamic of England’s success in qualifiers, versus actual tournaments..

His time it Citeh was generally considered a success as he delivered the trophies that Sheikh Mansour’s considerable outlay demanded, ending a 35 year trophy drought and winning the league title for the first time since ’68.

Ultimately though, his authoritarian approach killed his rapport with the players, costing him his job.

As the “iron fist” approach seemed to cause difficulties for fellow Italian, Fabio Capello, this coupled with his UCL issues goes against him as a candidate.

 

Guus Hiddink

So I saved the best for last.  I won’t mince words: if he’s open to taking the job, this man should be the next England manager.

There’s hardly an environment or type of team that he hasn’t coached, his list of honours and awards is larger than Roy Keane’s rage, he’s more reliable than casting Kevin Spacey, tactically astute and a respected firm-but-fair manager who has repaired the most fragmented of locker rooms.

After three decades as a manager, he continues to be effective and two interim coaching stints with Chelsea underline his efficiency in rapidly turning around results.

The only thing really going against him is his age: he turns 70 in November.

Despite this, I feel that no manager is better placed to get the England team playing to the optimum level that their abilities will allow, in relatively short order.

If he can achieve that much, we should at least be able to regain a modicum of confidence, a sense of where we truly are as a team and a solid platform to build from.

TL;DR?  Okay, you cheeky buggers: here’s an approximate ranking of candidates based on my grossly unqualified opinion:

1 G. Hiddink
2 L. Blanc
3 H. Redknapp
4 R. Benitez
5 M. Pellegrini
6 R. Mancini
7 A. Wenger
8 S. Allardyce
9 E. Howe
10 R. Martinez
11 A. Pardew
12 G. Southgate
13 G. Hoddle
14 J. Klinsmann
15 G. Neville
16 A. Shearer
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