So it happened. Sam Allardyce has been sacked following behaviour that has been dubbed ‘inappropriate and frankly not what is expected of an England manager’ by the FA’s chief executive, Martin Glenn. Yet rather than these comments being in reference to Allardyce’s win rate, the behaviour in question involved some injudicious remarks concerning Roy Hodgson, Wembley, Prince William and, crucially, the circumvention of third party ownership, something prohibited by the FA. What will perhaps rankle the average fan most of all is the greed shown by a man on a salary of £3m per annum in seeking to gain a cash influx of £400,000. Regardless of how incriminating one feels his comments actually were or any sense that perhaps there should be some sort of wide-reaching inquiry to see whether the media sometimes oversteps its bounds, there can be little doubt that it calls into question Allardyce’s judgement and ability to represent the FA.
Whilst the Telegraph’s investigation has taken down Sam Allardyce, the fallout for English football is unlikely to stop there. Assistant manager of Barnsley, Tommy Wright has been suspended, QPR manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Leeds owner are both implicated and eight, as yet unnamed, former and current premier league managers are alleged to have taken bribes to fix transfers. For the sports fan weary of seeing their sporting heroes turn out to be not so heroic and governing bodies with skeletons bursting open from the closet this scandal may seem like just another in a long list of ignominy.
In this particular instance the FA will try to paint themselves as innocent victims of circumstance, but due diligence would surely have led to some concern over irregularities uncovered in the BBC Panorama investigation in 2006 and the long-standing relationship between Allardyce and his assistant, the agent Mark Curtis, who has a somewhat substantial rap sheet. In an interview with Telegraph Sport, FA chairman Greg Clark assuaged fears over their vetting process, revealing Allardyce had been asked ‘Is there anything we need to know before we offer you the job? Because it will come out’: What more could they have done? The cynical amongst us might additionally question why, in the same interview, Clark was so keen to highlight the FA’s inability to probe their own sport for corruption: ‘We don’t have judicial powers, so we can’t go and get a court order and do things like that. Only the police can do that’. This presents the FA as simultaneously a governing body that is not that interested in governance.
For the FA, however, it is just another in a long list of unsuccessful appointments which will lead to questions about their ability to foster a successful national side. With regards to ignoring the Panorama investigations, the FA have form. Terry Venables was employed as England manager in 1994, one year after a BBC Panorama investigation alleging various business wrongdoings. When Venables quit the England job in 1996, he cited his busy court schedule and in 1998, amongst other incidents, he was banned for seven years from being a company director as a result of serious misconduct. Next up to the plate was Glenn Hoddle, who would leave the England job after the bizarre incorporation of a faith healer into the England camp and some abhorrent comments about the disabled.
After these reigns there was a respite from immorality, but the choices of the FA have subsequently been reactive rather than progressive. Kevin Keegan, who was squeaky clean, got the job in 1999, but, in his own words, was ‘not quite good enough’. Presumably disheartened by the stock of English managers, the FA, tried out a foreigner in the form of Sven-Göran Eriksson, much to the dismay of certain sections of the media who would rather have had an Englishman even if it was the previously sacked and discredited Terry Venables. Despite his Swedishness and prominently busy private life, Eriksson managed England for three tournaments, achieving a quarter-final place in each. When he stood down after the 2006 World Cup, a Sliding Doors moment left England with Steve McClaren promoted from assistant manager instead of Luis Felipe Scolari, and we all know how that went. Thus a pattern of strategic volte-face emerges: first there is the naive but affable Englishman, followed by a tactically astute and taciturn foreign guru and then back to an Englishman again but this time with lots of passion. Next up was Fabio Capello, of Capello-index fame, a foreigner steeped with club experience. When that did not go according to plan it was the turn of Roy Hodgson, an educated, well-travelled Englishman steeped with national experience who would tow the FA line. Then finally Sam Allardyce, a creator of brash, bullying and, arguably, overachieving teams rather than tactically nuanced stratagems.
The FA, then, appears to be caught between two poles of a dichotomy which moves between an idealism born of envy at the tactical astuteness of other international teams and a pragmatism which appears to be its very antithesis. For every manager who espouses anything like a programme of strategy and finds themselves faced with a squad of players who cannot implement such a programme, there is an equal and opposite manager who sacrifices tactics for the sorts of qualities that the so-called ‘English fan’ is thought to crave. And as the pendulum swings backwards and forwards between these poles, the cycle of England’s tournament failure continues unabated.
Any future endeavour to improve the outlook of England Football, therefore, must seek to break this cycle. Shortly after the Allardyce sacking, Martin Glenn pointed out that the FA ‘haven’t got a process in place’ with regard to recruiting a new England manager. In isolation, this is a reasonable offhand comment, and 67 days was an unforeseeably short reign. On the other hand, it fits into a pattern of recruitment that has been reactive and lacking in a long-term strategy. In all these switches the continuous mantra of learning lessons has focused on managerial types and personalities rather than more fundamental issues. It seems clear that the issue is not necessarily the manager, but the overall national team ethos.
In the aftermath of England versus Iceland, both the BBC and ITV pundits lamented the lack of a national identity. The argument goes that if Spain can play tika-taka football, and Germany can produce free-flowing transitional play, then surely there is a tactic that England can adopt that will suit our cultural sporting heritage and simultaneously make us successful. However, short of platitudinous remarks to this effect, the FA does not seem to have anything close to a clear idea of what this might look like.
Perhaps, for a clearer picture on the long-term plan one can turn to the FA’s website. Unfortunately, under the subsection ‘Strategy’ it is still stated that ‘The Football Association is developing its strategic priorities for the period 2015–2020.’ The 2011–2015 strategy document is 16 pages long, and the relevant section on the national side contains three objectives on one page: ‘improve the technical abilities of our teams’, ‘prepare players for international tournaments’ and ‘make Wembley and St George’s Park inspirational homes’. More concrete ambitions can be found in the FA Report and Financial Statement 2015 where it is stated that there is the target ‘success in international tournaments […] with the eventual target of winning the 2022 tournament’. Yet even within these reports there are no clear indications or plans for how such targets can be achieved.
In Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, Raphael Honigstein tells the story of the complete overhaul of German football in the wake of their ignominious exit from the European Championships in 2000. Through the tireless efforts of a number of key individuals, the entire hierarchy of the DFB was restructured from its scouting networks and coaching systems through to its football academies. All of the available resources of one of the world’s most high-profile sporting nations were utilised in a bid to develop a coherent ethos for its football team. Fifteen years later, they won the World Cup.
If the FA are serious about achieving international success in 2022, their best chance will come not through the all-too-common post hoc yo-yoing that has been the model for the past few decades but through a sustained programme of systemic overhaul. Rather than just slotting in managers within a completely incoherent structure and hoping that they will impose some sort of meaning within the chaos, English football needs to develop an environment which enables players to have the technical ability and understanding to be tactically flexible. The national manager should be the end of that process rather than the beginning. Until that happens, it is likely the cycle of disappointment will continue.