England’s Most Formidable Opponent? The Media

Posted: April 25, 2012 in Football, Media
Tags: , , , ,

Fabio Capello’s premature departure from his post has been met with the usual media hyperventilation that accompanies the exit of an England manager – an over-excited mix of conspiracy theories about the nature of the exit and the inevitable cranking up of the who’s-next-in-line-for-the-job speculation machine. It’s understandable that the position of national team manager in a football-mad country should be the subject of such hypnotic-like focus from the forth estate. But is this coverage truly deserved? Is this obsession with the national team’s managerial position really warranted? Is the barrier to international success really down to the identity of the man in the hot seat?

It seems to me the position as head England coach is nothing more than conductor for the public bile that comes after the next inevitable failure. And when it comes to the England football team, failure is inevitable – and there isn’t a manager in the world who can change that.

Capello’s resignation has merely brought forward, by a few months, the completion of yet another revolution of the merry-go-round that is the England football team. The completion of the latest revolution differs from previous ones only insofar as there will be no inquest into the teams failure at a recent major finals, but the other key aspects will still be present – one manager leaving under a cloud of antipathy and relative failure, another being appointed under a sky so bright as to induce uncontrolled bouts of tragi-comic, misplaced optimism for the subsequent two year ride.

Unfortunately the merry-go-round analogy provides the only opportunity for the words ‘England football team’ and ‘revolution’ to be mentioned together. For even the seemingly inevitable appointment of Harry Redknapp as Fabio Capello’s successor (representing a rare example of the FA giving the job to the best available man) will offer nothing more substantial than the proverbial band aid on a broken leg.

The causes of the national team’s failure are wide and varied, ranging from the bizarre insistence of having kids who are barely able to see over the ball playing 11-a-side games on full size pitches, to the continued practice of allowing over-zealous parents watch their little ‘uns play, with the resultant hysterical roars of ‘encouragement’ being about as helpful to the child’s football development as a similar roar would be in their off-spring’s geography class as the teacher asks junior to remember the capital of China.

Playing 7-a-side games on smaller pitches, free from parental pressure would far better serve the youngsters development, in terms of both technique and temperament. At a more senior level, the FA could help by insisting on a winter break in domestic football. However, were England to suddenly adopt the best underage practices and the FA to switch masters, from money to football, the 500 pound elephant blocking the path to goal would still remain – the media.

Even with the installation of Redknapp, a manager who enjoys the type of favourable press treatment that’s beyond the dreams of many of his contempories, the media will continue to make the England job impossible. From exposing or fabricating lurid, distracting – and ultimately irrelevant – details of the private lives of key personnel on the eve of tournaments to petitioning for certain players to be selected over others for non-football reasons, Fleet Street will remain the Three Lions’ most formidable opponent.

Whether it’s superimposing an incumbent’s face onto a picture of a garden vegetable or hiring a ‘fake sheik’ to blatantly entrap (as the media did to Graham Taylor and Sven Goran Erikson, respectively), the England manager needs to have the skin of an elephant and the behavioural fortitude of a cub scout to survive the media’s personal onslaught alone. And then there’s the small matter of managing the team…

The era of the England manager being able to select the best players available are consigned to the same dustbin of history as the one containing players puffing on woodbines at half-time. Today the England manager must bow to pressure to include the media’s favourites, usually players with either a sizable celebrity profile, a weekly column in a national paper, or both. How else to explain how such an ineffectual, footballing nonentity as David Beckham can have twice as many caps as Paul Scholes, unarguably the greatest English midfielder of his generation? The professional media skirt-lifter Beckham has 120 caps to shy, retiring Scholes’ 60. How else to explain why no England manager over the past ten years has had the courage to drop either Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard, both household names thanks to the media, as the insurmountable evidence has shown the pair to be unable to play together? Or why Michael Owen, who last affected an important game of football in 2004, still has several powerful voices in the media petitioning for the injury-prone Man Utd fifth choice to spearhead England’s attack?

The answer, as we all know, is PR. The modern English footballer’s media presence is one part ability, ten parts PR machine. Agents, sponsors, press officers and celebrity profile all play a part in which players newspapers decide to favour over others. The promise of an exclusive interview (preferably with vacuous wag in tow) matter far more to papers than any football ability. The best an England manager can hope for is that the most high profile celebrity players even slightly resemble the best players available. And then there’s the egos.

Thanks to a media that runs almost exclusively on hyperbole, any player who has a handful of impressive club performances is elevated to the status of World Class, or Best Defender/Midfielder/Forward in the World. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney have all been described thus. An even mildly critical analysis of each would show these descriptions to be laughable. But this matters not a jot to the players themselves, who are only too happy to believe their own press. So what’s the upshot? You get an international team of prima donnas unwilling to do the unglamorous tasks all teams need to do such as tracking back and putting their bodies on the line. ‘That’s for other less talented players to do’ seems to be the prevailing attitude among England’s elite.

Compare and contrast with the media in other countries, where a degree of common sense is exercised and the cult of having ‘pet players’ is alien. Despite covering arguably the greatest side of all time, the Catalan media operate with a level of constraint that would be unimaginable to their English counterparts when it comes to assessing the individual merits of the Barcelona team. The result is the regular sight of Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest ever player, making tackles in the defensive third of the pitch.

But the effect of the media doesn’t end there. Not content with creating these egotistical, footballing Frankenstein’s, the forth estate then proceed to make such unrealistic demands of the national team so as to judge any manager who falls short of winning every game 5-0, playing like Brazil circa 1970, as an absolute failure. Incidentally, those calling for Jose Mourinho to get the nod seem to forget that the ‘special one’ is also the precious one, throwing his toys out of the pram at his recent treatment by the Madrid media who haven’t appreciated his ability to turn some of the planets most gifted artisans into the Stoke City of Spain. If Mourinho thinks the Madrid media are overly-critical, their coverage will seem like a Goebbels review of the 1938 Nazi Anschluss of Austria by comparison with their English brethren. Sensitive, flawed, human? Then the England job aint for you!

Redknapp. Mourinho, Pearce, Donald Duck, the identity of the next England manager is irrelevant, nothing more than re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic. As long as the media operate as they do, the best the next England manager can hope to achieve is to do better than his predecessor, which, no matter how much better, will never be enough for Fleet Street’s finest.



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