World Cup 2018: is managing England an “impossible job”?

Gareth Southgate is the latest brave – or foolish? – man to take England to the World Cup. Simon Barnes looks back on a history of public humiliation

(Getty)

In former times, when the crops failed, the ruler had to be sacrificed. Future fertility could only be guaranteed by this extreme step: so, as the time approached, getting rid of the old ruler was a task taken on with wild, unstoppable enthusiasm.

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We have grown beyond such notions – but when it comes to football, we revert to ancestral type.

When the England team fails, the nation demands the public humiliation, the sacking – if you like, the symbolic death – of the manager. The sacrifice of the leader is a vital national rite. For Gareth Southgate’s sake, when his team kick off England’s latest World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday night, we had better hope for a winning start. Or else it could be the beginning of the end, not just for England, but for Southgate himself.

No one leaves the job with their reputation enhanced. That includes Sir Alf Ramsey, who won the World Cup in 1966. He was fired as a dreary old stick-in-the-mud eight years later when England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals – after 11 years in the job, a prodigious time by today’s standards.

Sir Bobby Robson was praised to the skies on his death in 2009; one of the great men of football. But as England manager he was called a “Plonker” in the press and told “In the name of God, go”… even though, in World Cup terms, he was England’s second-most successful manager of all time, having got the team to the semi-finals in 1990, where they lost on penalties to Germany.

But comparative success is no defence. Under Sven-Goran Eriksson, England reached three successive quarter-finals – two in the World Cup (2002, 2006) and one in the Euros (2004) – yet he was called “the man who betrayed the golden generation”. We couldn’t wait for him to go… only to be replaced by Steve McClaren.

McClaren had an unusual experience for an England manager: volleys of loathing from England supporters during a 3–0 away victory, in 2007; but then, the opponents were Andorra. He was sacked not long afterwards, after losing at home to Croatia and failing to make Euro 2008.

“You feel you have 65 million people pushing you,” says Eriksson in a revealing documentary, Managing England: the Impossible Job. It features interviews with many of those who have taken on the job and, to varying degrees, fallen short. Eriksson tells us he has one regret – that he didn’t hire a psychology coach for penalty shoot-outs, especially for the World Cup of 2006: “That was the year we should have done it. We were a better team than quarter-finalists.” Portugal won on penalties.

England has contrived some extraordinary ends for its managers. Glenn Hoddle was effectively sacked for heresy. Sam Allardyce was sacked for showing off to undercover reporters – but all they actually uncovered was his liking for a glass of wine. Kevin Keegan resigned after losing to Germany and weeping in a lavatory at Wembley. Graham Taylor was depicted as a turnip.

The public of course blame the newspapers. Certainly, their wild, illogical, fundamentally absurd treatment of a succession of England managers is a phenomenon of our time, worthy of a doctoral thesis. But here’s a fact: when newspapers get out of step with their readers, they lose business. The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy was so offensive to the people of Liverpool that, nearly 30 years later, the paper is still not much bought in the city. If newspapers covering the England manager were similarly out of step, people wouldn’t buy them.

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Sure, newspapers and other sections of the media inflame the situation. But the need to persecute a losing England manager springs from a deep need in the people of England. When things go wrong, they need someone to blame. They need someone to suffer, and in public. That, in the end – at the very end – is what the manager is paid for.


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