Having just finished Duncan Hamilton’s wonderfully vivid account of Brian Clough’s last twenty years in management, something occurs to me: English football remains in thrall to that kind of personality. “Provided you don’t kiss me” is full of witty, insightful, and sometimes tragic anecdotes, but one of the overarching themes is the value of Clough’s intangible presence. Whether in the context of his handling of the media, or his creation of extraordinary teams from ordinary parts, his management evidently relied upon a personality cocktail which emboldened players, terrified critics, journalists and club directors, and allowed him to achieve in spite of a famed intolerance for football’s micro detail. In the final chapters, Hamilton concludes that – in addition to the personal difficulties which imprisoned him – Clough’s professional lifespan was eventually shortened by his refusal to evolve with the sport and add layers of modernity to what had become an archaic approach.
On Tuesday, England will play their last international fixture of the year, entertaining Spain at Wembley in a friendly. Humiliating result excepted, it should bookend the beginning of Gareth Southgate’s official reign as national coach. In the aftermath of the Sam Allardyce affair, Southgate is the obvious, safe choice for the Football Association and has proven himself a capable coach during his time with the U21s.
Nevertheless, the response has been less than enthusiastic. Anything relating to England is now typically greeted with apathy, but even in relative terms the response to Southgate has been lukewarm: he’s perceived as mild-mannered and inoffensive, and lacking in the mythical, motivational voodoo which many still assume to be a principal coaching ingredient.
It’s short-sighted and typical of the reflexive, half-baked thinking which accelerated the country’s football decline: England’s situation demands a technical response rather than just a loud voice and Southgate’s appointment is sensible. His promotion comes under less-than-ideal circumstances and only after the The FA made its Allardyce blunder, but it nevertheless significies a growing internal comprehension for where the national structure’s deficiencies currently are. Southgate is a company man, but in the good sense: he is educated on where the pockets of talent lie in the age-group teams, is a loyal disciple of Dan Ashworth’s England DNA initiative, and his appointment signifies the extension of those beliefs to the top of the coaching tree.
Regrettably, that is not the consensus. The Clough reference may seem tenuous, but it’s relevant in the sense that he continues to represent many of the qualities desired in a national coach. At club level, we applaud those who innovate and think, and celebrate the Pochettinos, Klopps, and Guardiolas, but with England the cult of personality prevails – the desire is for a silver-bullet solution rather than a methodical untangling, and that fashion dictates the importance of the person ahead of the process.
Even in 2016 and after many, many examples of why, it still needs to be stressed that England are not defined by the individual job performance of one man. In the modern era, successful international sides have, without exclusion, been the product of healthy infrastructure. Team-selections, tactics, and dressing-room atmospheres have partly enabled those performances, but they have more commonly been defined by what occured beneath the surface – by the relationships between clubs and football associations and by the manner in which developing talent is harvested, refined, and used. It’s not a coincidence that the two most successful European nations of the last decade, Spain and Germany, have each been supported by association-wide directives governing style and selection; England deserve criticism for falling so far behind, but not for trying to recover that ground with equivalent initiatives.
Southgate is the consequence of joined-up thinking rather than just another pie-in-the-sky lunge. He represents the extension of a strategy – and one which is already bearing fruit. Youth football may not draw much interest, but it’s still important to acknowledge the improvements within the FA’s various representative teams. England won the 2014 u17 European Championship, reached the semi-finals of the same competition this year, and won the Toulon tournament last June; the success is important, but the common style more so. These teams haven’t been reliant on clusters of freewheeling invidiuals, but on established shapes and indoctrinated forms of attack and defence. Players are being bred who are flexible, they’re comfortable with the ball and in a range of different positions, but the notable aspect of their development lies in how easily they move up the system; in the u19s, u20s or u21s, they seem to understand their responsibilities from their first involvement and performances have attested to that. Talking of “pathways” may borrow too heavily on 21st Century management-speak, but it’s a salient point nonetheless. Time will tell if this is really the case but, for the moment, the level of talent mobility – the tendency of players and teams to grow proportionately to their age – seems greater than ever before.
Pertinently, other than Ashworth himself, none of that improvement is really attributable to one particular coach: not Steve Cooper, not Aidy Boothroyd, and not Southgate. But maybe that’s crucial: maybe it’s the crux of the argument behind Southgate’s impending appointment and the clearest sign yet that The FA now understands the flaws of the manager-as-saviour fallacy?
When the system works, it’s right to trust it.