Saturday, 29 December 2007

England expects - but which one?

First published in The Grecian, 29 December 2007, Exeter City -v- Histon

According to the rough survey I’ve just conducted, by day two of the news that Italian hardball Fabio Capello had been appointed England manager, the event had already consumed 4,862 column inches in the national papers.

Actually, I just made that figure up (77.65 per cent of statistics are invented on the spot), but what it signifies is true enough. There’s a media obsession surrounding the national team coach, and the density of opinion on blogs, phone-ins and email message boards suggests it’s not just journos scratching for a living in the speculation mire.

But who, exactly, are all the people who’ve been talking ten to the dozen about The Appointment? (If it’s gone a bit quiet by the time you read this, take it for granted that it’s lockjaw not a demise of ‘opinionitis’ that’s to blame. That and the fact that England don’t have a competitive game until February, when the Swiss are sure to turn up on time.)

But hang on. Doesn’t everyone involved with English football care deeply about England – unless they have other national allegiances, or peculiar Scottish tendencies like mine?

Well, no actually. When the Big Games are on, everyone gets in the mood. But those with greatest enthusiasm for English glory seem to be denizens of the smaller clubs, while fans in the Premier League – especially those affiliated with the Fortunate Four – find it hard to disguise the odd yawn.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, while followers of little teams crave the sweet sunlight of success when England take to the field, draping their loyalty on pitch-side banners which spell out Crewe, Doncaster and, er, Exeter City, the Premiership squadrons are tempted to treat this as a bit below their dignity.

After all, their teams expect to bank trophies or headlines on a regular basis. Whereas England have won nothing of note since that Triumph which has done as much to atrophy the national spirit since 1966 as it did to boost it to unreasonable proportions at the time.

Football tribalism has also, if anything, grown stronger (or at least nastier) in recent years. So it’s a tough call for Boo Boys who have spent their season swearing remorselessly at an opposing player suddenly to switch off the hate taps and start loving him just because he’s wearing an England shirt against Kazakhstan.

For those at the other end of the football universe, different rules apply. We may have our heroes and villains in the top flight, but we can rarely muster up that much zeal or bile for them, especially when they’ve donned a white or red national jersey.

The same applies in Scotland, where Old Firm rivalry spills awkwardly into international allegiances, but most manage to forgive the gold diggers who headed down south for something sunnier than the SPL.

Meanwhile, the debates roll on. What Capello should and shouldn’t do, whether his appointment is a boon or a bane, is a harmless game everyone can enjoy before their eyes roam back to those parts of the sports pages relaying their league team’s fortunes.

But woe betide the Italian honcho when the World Cup Qualifiers come round. Then everyone will have an opinion, and anything less than victory will be greeted with crazed scorn and questioning.

Not that Capello seems too bothered. “Media criticism, why should I care?”, he has been quoted as saying in the face of onslaughts from the Italian and Spanish press. Those pre-match briefings will be as ruthlessly planned as anything on the pitch.

(The author is a St James’ Park regular and wholly unbiased Scotland fan.)

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