Why The Obsession Over British Is Best?

We don't whittle and moan that our music charts are filled with foreign bands or that Albert Camus kept British existentialists out of the best seller lists. So why football managers?

Last Updated: 01/05/14 at 10:27 Post Comment

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Our national identity is a hard thing to define. When I was growing up, calling yourself English (at least whilst on English soil) was only for people from the Home Counties and London. With the exception of Cockneys, those people didn't seem to us to have the strong regional identity that we had on Teesside or in Yorkshire where all my relations lived.

If you're from, say, Harrow, I doubt you feel really strongly about it the way you do if you're from Middlesbrough and for good or ill, probably don't feel it defines you in quite the same way. Also, in my experience, the nearer you are to London, the more likely people are to conflate Englishness with Britishness.

In Scotland, where I now live, there is both a perceived national identity but also regional identities too. The west of Scotland has always seemed like a different country to the Highlands. Edinburgh, where I live, is more like an independent state and one of the few places you can pay £5 for a pint and be expected to feel privileged to do so.

Try explaining how the UK is set up to an American for example and it gets complicated. When I lived in Laguna Beach in Southern California I had a pool cleaner who expressed the confusion really well.

'England is a country, right?' And Wales and Scotland are countries, right? So what's the UK?'

'That's a country too,' I said.

'How can you have other countries inside of a country?' He understandably asked.

'Its a kind of Union,' I said.

'OK, so they're not independent then?'

'No. Well, a bit. Sort of.'

'So how come they're called countries? They sound more like states like the way Oregon is different from California but is still part of the USA.'

I couldn't say he was wrong but he wasn't quite right either.

'So are you actually English?'

'Yes.'

'Are you British?'

'Yes.'

'So, what's the difference?'

I couldn't answer. Is there a difference?

I mention this by way of illustration as to how being British is a complicated business that becomes more opaque the more you think about it, which is why I always mistrust those who trumpet its definitions so certainly. The only thing truly definitive about being British and certainly about being English is that it is vague, woolly and shifting; a mix tape whose selections are always changing. And I quite like that really.

But in football being British seems to matter a lot to some people if you read the papers, listen to the radio or take notice of various pundits. Liverpool's success this year has been vaunted, in part, because of the higher than usual number of Englishmen in the squad. How many times do you hear discussions about 'good young British managers' not getting a chance? One of the first things I heard discussed after David Moyes' sacking was how it would put off clubs from appointing a British manager in the future, as though being British was in itself a characteristic upon which employment might be dependent or otherwise. Can we be clear? Moyes wasn't sacked for being British or being Scottish but for being rubbish. The irony of all this is that it would be quite easy to view Moyes' appointment being born out of narrow, nationalist parochialism.

The progress or otherwise of British players and managers always seems to be an issue. Usually they are said to be being kept out of gainful employment by foreigners. This plays well to a certain section of the public who, critics might suggest, have developed a victim mentality to excuse their own inadequacy.

However, I find all this very odd in football because the parochial championing of British players and managers seems at odds with how we most of us view the game.

One of United's biggest heroes is a Frenchman. One of Arsenal's a Dutchman, one of Chelsea's an Italian, one of Liverpool's great managers a Spaniard. We bloody love a foreigner in British football.

Now more than ever, national origin has never seemed more startlingly irrelevant to the game. Am I especially progressive and liberal when I say I just want to see entertaining players and great characters and I don't mind where they're from?

Same goes for managers. I'd love to see the Carlo Ancelotti eyebrow at Old Trafford, the fact he's not British is unimportant. I'm from Teesside but I don't crave a Teessider to take the United job. So I genuinely don't understand why appointing a British man is less or more desirable than an Italian.

Watching the Real Madrid versus Bayern Munich game, did anyone say to themselves, you know what this game needs for me to get interested in it is some more British players on the pitch? If only Sean Dyche was managing Bayern, I'd care more. I don't believe so. Yet time and again the presence of British players in a team or a manager on the bench is vaunted as, in and of itself, A Good Thing.

I understand why you might want to see someone from your home town do well but I can't extend that to everyone in the country. I can't like Daniel Sturridge more than Zlatan Ibrahimonic because he's born in Birmingham and not Malmo. That's not how it works. Nor, I feel, should it.

We don't do this is in other art forms. Damn that Neil Young for being Canadian and keeping all the good British rock bands out of the charts. And that Albert Camus, he just kept good, young British existentialists out of the best seller lists. So why in football?

The idea that a British manager 'knows' the Premier League and a non-British manager doesn't seems very odd and treats the league as though it's not on worldwide TV and is some obscure little backwater that foreigners would never be exposed to. It's the English Premier League not the Northern Premier League. Yet this seems to be one of the few rather threadbare reasons often offered by ex-player pundits for appointing a British manager. That and the fact he can speak English.

The way Fabio Capello was critcised for not having flawless English you'd think it was a barrier to any success. But of course it's not, as we see time and again. And if Tim Sherwood has taught us anything it is that being as English as strong tea (a foreign import which has been so thoroughly absorbed into our culture you'd think it grew in Upminster) does not make you innately better at your job.

Is this obsession with the home-grown some sort of media-led nationalist fabrication to appeal to the cultural reactionaries? Should I really care if Liverpool have one, two or ten English players in their team? Is it unpatriotic of me not to give a damn and to feel the pro-British arguments are so lame?

Maybe I'm just, what one critic recently called me, echoing John Wayne's bizarre critique of film critic Barry Norman, 'a goddamn pinko liberal faggot.' Maybe. I certainly hope so, but at least I'm not a foreigner.

Johnny now writes superb northern crime novels. We love them. Check them out here: www.johnnicholsonwriter.com

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