Tuesday’s England game against France is obviously not going to take place in normal circumstances. At such a time football seems both trivial but also fundamentally important, and there can be no better man in charge of our national team at a time like this than Roy Hodgson. He has a lovely patrician way about him that is reassuring, calm and resolute, but never aloof or cold.
He comes on TV giving it the full owl, looking from side to side, as though keeping an eye out for tasty field voles while he talks. He’s a wise old bird and, I think, given his limited resources, largely does a very good job and what’s more he’s likely to do so for some time yet, if he wants. Getting rid of Roy has never seemed less likely. Unusually for an England manager, no-one really hates him. Hating Roy would be like hating winceyette pyjamas for being too soft and comfy.
But one of the great traditions of the English football media is the long road to the eventual defenestration of the England manager. For over 40 years this followed a well-worn cycle of praise, disgruntlement and then faux disgusted astonishment when the team don’t win anything, or even play very well.
As soon as we lost even just one game, the pressure to get rid of the manager would grow, largely predicated on the notion that England should be playing good football and winning trophies, or at least coming near to winning them, even though it was perfectly obvious to many observers that this was entirely ignorant, wilfully malicious and certainly ridiculous. This dates back over 40 years now.
In the days of the Golden Generation the endless debate was about why our ‘great’ Premier League players couldn’t be as great for England. The answer to this was always that they simply were not quite so great in the first place, were enhanced by better non-English players at club level and when gathered together in an England shirt, merely played to their usual standard.
For all of the Sven Goran Eriksson years I argued that he’d got them playing above their standard, not below it, and it was a mixture of blind jingoism and cheap populist xenophobia that led to over-rating that set of players, in order to make out that Sven was the problem. They did the same trick on Fabio Capello. Remember how we were told for so long that an English coach would put some fire in the players’ bellies and how the imperfect English of the foreigner was impeding our progress? That was a lie told time and time again on Fleet Street and elsewhere. Now, with Roy in charge, no one can say that, and yet the song on the pitch remains the same. It’s almost as if we’ve just been a second-rank team all along and Sven’s three consecutive quarter-finals really were an overachievement and not, as it was painted at the time, a national disgrace.
For the first time in my life, England are by and large, by most people, (including for the first time, the press), judged correctly. And this is to say, as Sarah wrote at the weekend, we are a second-rank side – somewhere between 9th and 16th in the world, who will always struggle to beat a top rank side but usually beat a lower-ranked side. We’ve got a chance of landing a haymaker once in awhile and scoring a big win, like any second-rank side, and we can also lose the odd game to a lesser side. Ever was it thus.
But this has left the press ‘boys’ with a bit of dilemma. We’re at the point in the cycle when they, almost by instinct, want rid of the manager. But how can you get rid of a manager who wins all the games against lesser teams and then loses against a better side and that is therefore, at the very least, consistently performing to par? How can you push the case for another manager when, not only is there no preferred candidate, but it is perfectly obvious that it is not motivation, organisation or tactics that is the problem, it’s the fact that the players don’t consistently have the technique, vision, skill or intelligence needed to beat the best. It’s there before our eyes and is widely accepted. This has left the press with nowhere to go in terms of their great tradition of sh*t-stirring just before a tournament.
Even those who slavishly used to push for ‘Arry, seem to have given up on trying to pretend they believe in the likes of Big Sam, Chunky Pards, Brendan, Sean Dyche or anyone else, as an upgrade on Roy. They can’t go for a foreign manager because they’ve cut that particular nose off to spite the national face.
So here we are in 2015, still in the second tier and there are no more credible sticks with which to beat the England manager. Even so, you can feel ‘the boys’ twitching. Some have tried to have a go at Roy for winning all 10 qualifying games against far lesser nations, as though this is no achievement at all. This was tried against Capello and Sven too, but it’s an old trick and they know it now looks worn-out and tired.
Everyone thought we’d get beaten by Spain and we did. Nothing to see here. Move on. It’s not Hodgson’s fault that the players lose possession in vital places or simply can’t put away a chance when it falls to them. Even the most slack-jawed Mr Angry phone-in caller knows that now.
We are all fairly sure we know how the next year will go for England. We’ll likely lose or draw the friendlies against really good sides and win the other games. We’ll be knocked out of Euro 2016 by the first good side we meet, though ironically, we’ll play our best football in that game, but won’t lose to anyone else, despite not playing very well in those matches.
No-one thinks that if anyone else was in charge this won’t be the case. So given this scenario, if Roy wants to stay on in the job for another two years, do the exact same thing all over again and take us to the next World Cup, he will probably get the chance to do so.
These are uncharted waters. In the past, the baying press pack always get their man, sooner or later, but I suspect it will be Roy, a decent, solid Englishman, who will decide when he’s had enough of them, rather than when they’ve had enough of him. And that’s a bit of a first.