Economists speak of the “this time it’s different” syndrome: the false belief that underlying fundamentals no longer apply and that the situation bears no resemblance to past catastrophes.
I, too, convinced myself rather foolishly that this time would be different for England at the Euros in France. This was a young, talented, hungry team, in an easy group, in a tournament low on teams with genuine quality. Why shouldn’t they make it to the semi-finals at least?
Events in Nice have since made such optimism appear utterly unfounded and naive. But I still cannot accept that these players, for all their various, much discussed short-comings – the tiredness, the inability to engage with the media in a grown-up manner, the psychological frailty, the inherent lack of appetite for personal development and learning about their own profession – were incapable of beating Russia, Slovakia and Iceland this month.
Hubris, the foremost bane of the “Golden Generation” in the last decade, is no longer a decisive problem, and neither is a dearth of young, technically proficient players getting regular playing time in the Premier League. We can all agree that there should be more ogf them, but Roy Hodgson easily had enough quality in the squad to play some decent, more successful football.
The Football Association cannot cure of all the game’s ills. Many of them are not of their own making to begin with. The FA will not be able to reduce club wages, force Premier League media officers to treat their players like adults or make foreign owners hire local coaches to reduce the nation’s reliance on external expertise.
But what they can and must do, right now, is to make sure that the considerable wealth of talent that does exist is better utilised in the near future. Appointing the right national manager is absolutely crucial in that respect.
The list of potential candidates, English or otherwise, doesn’t make for an uplifting read. Before the FA’s task-force starts running off in half a dozen different directions to sound out possible successors to Hodgson, however, it’s vital that they first think long and hard about the qualities the new man should bring to the job. They must resist the urge to go for a name, to be dazzled by the brand. Instead, they should look very closely at the methods of the coach in question and talk to as many of his players and co-workers as possible.
How good is his training, really? Are players able and willing to perform to specific instructions or simply trusted to get on with it and rely on their own qualities? Does he have the natural authority to connect with players; can he unite a dressing room and invoke courage where fear has festered? Is he stubborn and confident enough to back his own judgement in the face of 60 million critics? Is he, at the same time, also smart and flexible enough to produce a plan that’s good to look at even though some of the pieces will still be missing?
And most importantly: what kind of football does he stand for and how likely is it to bring success in light of the players available? It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Hodgson’s reign was at its most coherent and convincing when the post-Fabio Capello crisis called for a pragmatic, defensive approach in 2012. As soon as the emergence of exciting attacking players raised expectations of a different kind of team - “We should have a go!” the newspapers cried, ahead of the 2014 World Cup - the 68-year-old was lost.
Another good idea would be the installation of a former player as general manager of the national team to lighten the head coach’s load. The role would entail liaising between manager and the FA, being in charge of all organisational matters and the creation of an environment conducive to togetherness.
As a former pro, he’d be able to look at things from a player’s perspective and set the tone for behaviour, ambition and attitude. He could relieve the manager of some of his media duties, make it possible to concentrate on what really matters: the coaching. Needless to say, the two men must work in tandem and get on well with each other.
The irony of the latest disaster this summer is that England had already done most of the hard work to make the situation different this time: they had the players. And they will have the players for Russia 2018, many of whom will have enjoyed the coaching work of Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp and Antonio Conte by then. The future is bright enough. If only the FA can pick the right man, or men, that is.