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Saturday, 21 January 2012

English Jobs for English Workers

'What competition?'

Handing you over to a man who has obviously read the Magic Spongers blueprint - filing a piece months late - here is the ever-excellent Dan Forman on a still pertinent issue

In October last year (for it has taken me this long to get round to writing this piece) those of you without access to the Times website (or unwilling to pay a pound for the paper) may have had the misfortune to miss this fine, considered piece of sportswriting from Mike Atherton.

Around the same time you may also have had the misfortune to be listening to Talksport when Jamie Carragher was asked about the next England manager, which was what prompted the Atherton article. For those still too tight to pay to read it, Atherton rather more articulately explained and supported the basis of Carragher's argument than Jamie had managed - that international sport should be about the best of one country against the best of another's - players and coaches included. So, naturally, the players and the coaches should be, in our case, English. Carragher even went one stage further, to include all members of staff: "The best doctor in the country should be the England doctor, or whatever." Which, on the face of it, and lack of eloquence aside, sounds fair enough.

But the logical conclusion of this starts to sound a bit odd. Should the England manager's secretary by English? The coach driver? The tea lady? "The best tea lady in the country should be the England tea lady, or whatever". Maybe just whatever, Jamie. Clearly the tea lady has less of an influence on a team's performance than the manager. But in an age where we are constantly told that it is the one or two per cent margins that make the difference in high-level sport, where would this line have to be drawn? If the doctor has to be English but the doorman doesn't, what about the sports psychologist, masseuse, video analyst or chef, if all these things can be said to have an impact on performance worth investing in? Would it apply just to the senior national side only or all the way down through the youth age-group teams?

Of course a lot of this is splitting hairs, but the point is that it is not quite as simple as it sounds and that it would not really be much different if the manager was English but the FA used its financial might to surround him with the best coaches and support staff from around the world. Bryan Robson, for example, backed up by Jose Mourinho drawing up the tactics, Pep Guardiola taking training and Sir Alex Ferguson giving the team talks.

Beyond all this, some more fundamental problems remain. The first of these is, like it or not, EU labour law. As it stands, and is likely to remain, it would be illegal for the FA to restrict its search only to an English manager. Accepting the fact that this is what it is unofficially highly likely to do in the summer, it could not institute a published policy or issue an advert as such. It could ask for a fluency with the language, experience of developing English players and a track record of success in the Premier League, but on all these criteria Arsene Wenger would have an open and shut case for discrimination were he to be overlooked in favour of Alan Pardew, say.

On top of this comes the unique UK situation in which we have four nations competing in international sport within what the rest of the world (and ourselves when it suits us) sees as one country and two within one island that many see as one country. When we say English, do we really mean British? Would that include Catholic Northern Irishman Martin O'Neill? And what would be the Carragher position if Chris Hughton or Mick McCarthy became a potential England manager (don't laugh - they're not that far down the pecking order)?*

Furthermore, would this be a Fifa-imposed rule or something only adopted by the FA? Aside from the legal implications within the EU, Fifa is unlikely to want to restrict developing countries by barring them from bringing in international help. So we are left with what would be a self-denying ordinance in England (albeit one most likely to be shared by a few other of the larger, footballing nations). An FA which is pretty much prepared to spend limitless amounts of money on its national team, flying it first class, putting it up in the best hotels and employing a travelling army of support staff, would be refusing to do the one thing that would make the single biggest short-term difference; buying in the best possible manager.

Honourable? Maybe; but inconsistent too in a country quite willing to cheer Kevin Pietersen centuries or Manu Tuilagi tries. Sensible in terms of pursuing success? Almost certainly not.

And here we come to the real issue. The quality (or lack of) of English candidates. For no English manager has ever won the Premiership or Champions League. In fact, in the last 30 years, you have to have been called Howard or Ron to be English and have won a league title and there are no leading managers called Howard or Ron anymore.

We do have a Harry and a Roy, though. One has taken a team into one Champions League campaign and had one famous victory over an Inter Milan side that also lost away to Chievo that month and later lost 5-2 at home to Schalke. He also scraped past AC Milan last year (as did Palermo in the Coppa Italia) before going out 5-0 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the quarter-final. And yet we are told Harry Redknapp (for it is he) will be able to better organise England than a man who has won seven major league titles with four different clubs, as well as a Champions League (and has also beaten Inter Milan a few times too).

This season, Spurs are certainly challenging and - who knows? - may even go on to win the league. But it is just as plausible they will slide down the table (they still have to travel to Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, as well as face Man Utd at home) and finish outside the top four. That would make Redknapp not much better qualified for England than John Gregory - whose Aston Villa side led the league at Christmas 1998 before slipping down to sixth. Perhaps the most likely outcome is that Tottenham will stay roughly where they are - in the Champions League spots without ever really threatening to take the title. Well that sounds quite like David O'Leary, who finished fourth and third in the Premiership with Leeds and also has a Champions League semi-final on his CV. But somehow that didn't stop Ireland appointing Giovanni Trapattoni as their manager.

Roy Hodgson probably has more of a proven and sustained track record than Redknapp, certainly so if the spending splurges at Portsmouth and Spurs are taken into account. Hodgson has managed Inter to seventh in Serie A and to a Uefa Cup final - and a series of clubs and national teams to similar moderate success. But he conspicuously failed to motivate Liverpool last season in the same way that Kenny Dalglish has managed, or challenge for honours as Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez did before him. A good man (unlikely I suspect to ever appear in court on tax fraud charges) and a good manager who deserved more time and better circumstances at Anfield. But an England manager? Not unless Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren are your archetypes.

Other than it being illogical, illegal and self-defeating then, an English manager would be a great idea, or whatever.

* for those too young to remember the 1988 European Championships** both represented the Republic of Ireland despite being born in the East End and Barnsley respectively

** It was much the same as most other England efforts at major tournaments - we qualified well, hopes were high but were hopelessly out of our depth and came home empty-handed having lost all three games in the group stage. Holland, however, were quite handy that year.

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