The brotherhood of whiteness? (Nah.)

So Euro 2012 starts with further injustice heaped upon the poor beleaguered Greeks, as a Spanish ref wafts absurdly punitive cards unthinkingly at a minor transgressor. Like the Greek economy then, he’s gone, before half-time, with his comrades and compatriots tearing out their sense of furious injustice from their own flesh, or begging for some consideration from stoically dense authority. Thank god, methinks, it wasn’t a German official.

But then they equalise!! Creating an ecstatically righteous medium-distant nation-lifting backdrop to a blog which intends regretfully now to banish them to the furthest but most maybe atmospherically coloured corner of this particular metaphorical writing shed. Where the dingle-dangle view has already shifted mercilessly from the Home Nation’s (Poland) tetchy encounter to er… home, to the Home Counties representatives – to Engerland.

England play in this tournament; they do; quite soon, honest. Despite the media foreplay (when judged against the rabid standards of previous noisily ‘golden’ years) putting the insipid bulk of mute into muted. England are there. In their white stuff, with their unfeasibly impractical yet predictable International Player Hairdo’s and their hip-switching warm-up routines. And the white noise that is the molesting of gum and parping out of reluctant mucous (deliberately and offensively surely?) right down the very lens of your Nana’s telly; just as she returns with the hobnobs; pre family dunk.

How, exactly, are these disparate but almost uniformly ordinary young men going to fare, I wonder? How will they carry the Olympic flame that is our low-burning expectation, this time?

Probably no worse than of late might be one, reasonable answer. Meaning they will #fail as a group in a way that falls somewhere between national disgrace and embarrassment and legally culpable cluelessness on the key  Salford van Hire-Fan-Richter-Fahrenheit-Guttinghood Scale. Indeed students of bloodydiabolicality – to give the science its correct appendage – have been primed judicially in this matter both by the late withdrawals from the squad and from the seeping appreciation that We’re Shit And We Know We Are (this time, finally.) Hence the relatively low-decibel slither into the tournament proper.

But of course that perennial danger of egg-upon-fizzog insists I – as an occasionally responsible blatherer – have at least a token imagining of a rampant Ashley Young and Oxlade-Chamberlain, in some previously unsuspected flush of exuberance destroying opposition defences and making a general mockery of (to be fair) our general pessimism. And Glen Johnson might do a Brazilian – converting with a glorious left-footed curler after a sinuous gambol down the right flank – he might. But such freedoms are unlikely; partly because the Hodgson body politic mitigates against much of that expressive nonsense but also because I suspect even the players, when dissected cleanly by an axe at the waist exhibit the letters WSAWKWA rather than those that spell out ENGLAND.

At previous tournaments – most notably the last Capello-led World Cup – a dispiriting lack of guts/fire/personality have accompanied the universally identified national technical deficiencies. To the point that it seems almost as though the alleged ‘grittiness and determination’ of our True Brit heroes has been mysteriously decanted; leaving us (actually?) with poncy English Show Ponies. (Discuss?)

So for example that same Johnson who on occasion has looked liked a threat going forward from his right back berth melted away in an uber-mare which must surely haunt him and his family still. As did Rooney, more extraordinarily – though it is accepted injury played some part in this. The players truly were an embarrassment to themselves, utterly lacking the leadership, the mental strength and the talent or style to rescue the campaign. That Capello remained in charge having presided over a championship which jabbed the accusative finger more pointedly at him than anybody else was mind-boggling. That fat contract clearly and nauseatingly being his get-out-of-jail stay in post thing.

This time it is different in several respects. One – which may be hugely helpful – is that expectation is astonishingly but also reasonably low. Given the capacity of previous England squads for what has felt to the proverbial man-in-the-street like frankly pretty pathetic capitulation – being ‘overwhelmed’ by either the ‘occasion’ or the opposition or both – the absence of this pressure may liberate those few spirits capable of courting the higher aspiration to excite.

There is optimism around Oxlade-Chamberlain but I personally was disappointed with his performance against the Belgians. He tried unconvincingly to appear the dashing young thing but like Walcott so often before him ultimately lacked the control, the dribbling skills that presumably had gotten him picked in the first place. In short he was nervy and he looked therefore like a school-kid trying to break into a grown-man’s set-up. I hope that unlike Walcott his confidence and his skills genuinely blossom with age and experience and that he does get the opportunity to develop. But – again, like the other boyish flyer – he is not worth a starting place in an England championship side, for me.

Young is an interesting one. Clearly a talent, clearly a danger in the sense that he may be the one to draw Limey ignominy around the globe through worryingly instinctive diving for a key spot-kick. (Imagine if he does that against one of the host nations… to get our lot an undeserved win!! The latent or explicit racism around the place might be lit up rather unpleasantly – even dangerously – by such an incident.) And who knows if it matters… but I personally would feel deeply ashamed and regretful if one of our lot brazenly cheated to get the team through; particularly if – as may well be the case – our general play is negative and ungenerous to the spirit of the tournament; assuming there is one.

I expect the general standard of play to be unremarkable, which again may allow our thin pool of talent to proceed beyond current expectation; but cannot see how England may find that necessary gear-change or splash of sweet, heart-stopping beauty to transform dull draw to foamy win. If Milner starts, I can’t help but see this as a marker for how pallid we currently are – poor Jimmy being more fit-for-purpose in the column role as ‘half the player he was 18 months ago’ than livewire wide-man. There is almost no possibility that he will actually beat an opposition defender, get to the byline and cross; instead he will hold; hold and roll the ball back to Johnson or Parker. This tendency for ease being dully infectious, there will, therefore, be almost no discernible momentum in the English play. And we will be easy enough to stop.

This reads depressingly, perhaps. Yet I cannot make a case for impervious defence or for imperious attack. It will be structured mediocrity; one that may be good enough, or may be swiftly exposed for what it is. And whilst I really do have some respect for Hodgson, perhaps it is pertinent to remind ourselves that there seems no likelihood that England will attack with any verve or belief; again.

What I’d like to see is some genuine fearlessness, some real want of the ball, rather than a repeated avoidance of responsibility – that waiting, that pointless offloading as opposed to constructive and purposeful ball-retention. Generally guys, give us what a wordy old arse like me might call some honourability; the game needs that, the fans (home and away) deserve that.

My view then has to be that England are unquestionably mediocre… but can they just raise something? Please?

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Absolutely drab, Fab.

I didn’t want to contribute to Arrivederci-ville overkill but hard not to, in truth. Who doesn’t have an opinion on the smart exit of the cultured by slightly man-out-time Italian? Who doesn’t have a view of our ‘Arry’s flair, his money, his undoubted love of a loyal dog? (With money.) The thing is ripe for opinion and rich ground for the extrapolation of theories as diverse as the modus operandum of the two protoganists.

The thing with Harry has always been a football thing; an authentic, arm around the shoulder thing whereby mainly through sheer force of enthusiasm, players have been allowed to play- been liberated. Central to this hugely engaging phenomenon has been the personality of the man himself. In fact, it may be the case that Harry is very much the successor to a certain B Clough in the sense that though of course certain tactical mores are available to him, the success is all about inspiring belief. To the extent that matters of team shape and energy seem mere natural extensions of a faith inspired by Redknapp pre-game.

Harry has always done this; been close, been involved, shared the humour and the essential wit of the dressing room and training pitch. Then distilled/communicated/unleashed something of its irresistible force onto the park. Consequently, fans and players alike recognise one of their own – admittedly a brilliantly shrewd and knowledgeable one – who crucially commits utterly to an exciting and free-flowing model of the game itself; a model that coincides pretty exactly with what fans ideally want. So people love Harry; he is viewed first and foremost as a proper football man, or (more exactly, perhaps, given both his roots and his rootsiness?) a proper football geezer.

This slightly trench-coated version has recently come under scrutiny in a gruelling investigation – not without its personal edge – of Redknapp’s financial dealings. It was alleged that Harry dishonestly failed to cough up taxes due on substantial monies arising from football matters. The nature of those dealings – percentages upon transfers in particular come to mind – seemed all a bit East End Alley to many of us but did not, ultimately, either compromise his immediate liberty, or his reputation. Whilst the former of these two facts may be initially of most significance to the Redknapp family, it is clear that the lack of stain upon that manager’s Mac will be key in terms of a likely England Manager’s posting.

I am not I know alone in regarding the £300,000 received by Redknapp as his own percentage of the Rio Ferdinand sale as a rather crass throwback to allegedly simpler times; it feels inappropriate, exploitative, unwelcome. But it was not illegal and contravened no contract other than our own, ludicrously naive one with decency. Harry walked, indeed he strode manfully away – a touch further embittered against the police and the papers no doubt – but on and away he marched.

Meanwhile Fab was presumably smouldering. We can only presume because Capello has rarely opened either his heart or even his gestural vocabulary to us. (Unheard of for an Italian, surely?) If he did, it may be that we might have been more forgiving of his austere but cultured introversion. For though he was a thinker and a man of principle, he never showed us; apparently the will to assimilate and thereby associate barely entered his head. Capello either wanted a clinical (loveless?) respect-based relationship with some abstract notion of The English And Their Football or he wanted… what? High(er) art and music and the quiet life of a man in retirement from the slings and arrows? Who knows.

Fabio quite rightly never pretended to be anything other than an old-school man; believing in punctuality, respect, discipline. As such his appointment made sense at a time when our inclination was probably to punish those show ponies and their revolting circus. International players who binge-drink?!? Top top players who’s vulgarity offends us?!? And the flash gits can’t even PLAY! Let’s get FAB!! He’ll sort them out. And for a while, in a way, he did.

But it wasn’t much fun. Even the winning wasn’t, you felt. Too many obvious frailties; too little obvious progress. Then the World Cup.

The performance of both the players and the Management Team at the last World Cup was surely one of the greats. Rarely has such ineptitude, spinelessness and such petrification gathered together so spectacularly in a single team campaign. It was magnificently, insultingly poor. Fabio had the inspiring quality of a crinkle-cut chip – he was quirky and outdated and bad for us. The anti-ambience he had created destroyed any sign of life-affirming humour at an estimated distance of fifty yards. Performances were beyond parody – especially that of Wayne Rooney – and the manager’s inability to react, to help, actually, was remarkable. It remains a fabulous and appropriate irony that the only thing that kept Fab in his job was the fact the incompetent FA could not reasonably afford to sack him. Ha!!

Now Mr Capello may have quite reasonably resigned on a point of principle. Namely that he should have been consulted on the demotion (vol2.) of his preferred captain, John Terry. If that was the case, he has a point. (Not as big a point as those who argue that Terry simply cannot be England skipper whilst a live racism charge stands against him but a point nevertheless.) But clearly an opportunity has presented itself for all parties in this loveless marriage to walk with some dignity in the ‘different directions’ so oft-quoted in these affairs.

But setting aside the ushering in of  The People’s Favourite, the thing lacks a feelgood factor pretty entirely. Ideally the rashly misunderstood but sadly unintelligible Italian, who will surely be remembered more as drab-Fab than as the hoped-for Cool Don of our own domestic game will be taking a soul-searing alpine route, with some symbolic elephants, perhaps? Inflatable ones; nice pink inflatable ones, on shiny new ribbons, clasped gaily up and over to his beloved Italy, grinning not gurning all the way.

How great would it be if by some happy touristic freak, Harry and Jamie and a spookily risen Rosie came smiling (beerily, post-apres-ski) past?

Ingerland – you must be joking.

There are many precedents for hoofing England sides when they’re down; players and managers having frequently felt the pointy end of a brogue/doc marten/baseball boot/Manolo Blahnik (delete according to choice of accessories or date.) For those blessed with responsibility in the high profile sports – I’m thinking men’s football, rugby, cricket in the main here – judgement lurks cruelly close.

Currently one hypothesis, supported by hugely influential figures such as myself, suggests English football and rugby are still critically enmeshed in post-World Cup trauma; but that cricket is on a significant high. Capello and Johnson presided over such epically lurid debacles that their ability either to motivate or to proactively act seemed paralysed. In contrast, a certain Zimbabwean-born England and Wales cricket supremo has brought direction, unity, discipline and success to his side. Management, it appears, is massive. Perhaps especially when it makes comment superfluous?

Perceptions inevitably link results to the performance or authenticity of managers as well as players; thus Harry Redknapp, a ‘proper football bloke’, good former player and now demonstrably an inspiring coach is admired and respected precisely for the realness of his understanding of the game. Encouragingly, this implies judgements beyond mere (acknowledgements of) rates of success – a belief in genuine quality, no less. Would that we could sustain such generous worldviews.

Paralytically conversely, memorable custard pie-plus moments have surely included the tide of puss emanating from the tabloids towards the unfortunate Graham Taylor – a decent but not, arguably, a brilliant enough or sophisticated enough man to be at the helm of a national side generationally in skill-deficit rehab. Sven, McClaren and indeed now Capello have, on occasion, likewise felt most of the full force of press and public contempt. It –as they say –goes with the territory. Martin Johnson, whilst leaving, accepted that – almost nobly.

The fabulous diversity of opinion over teams we think represent us prevents the meaningful construction of a graph following median/mode/mental views of a particular manager’s status during office; there are, for example, wildly divergent views of Capello’s performance even when England have been cruising through qualification for the majors. (These range from the jingoistically buoyant to the cerebrally disturbed. Just when is he going to sort out Lampard/Gerard/Wilshere, Johnson/Walker?) Certainly the Capellograph would have to twitch alarmingly, as though reporting back from Etna rather than say, The Emirates.

Fabio, like a whole host of previous incumbents, may be in the process of being reconstructed by fluky inheritance. Recent friendlies against Spain (where they were outclassed but won) and Sweden (where they showed little but won) have thrown up sparks. Whether Phil Jones manages to continue to make absurdly serene progress towards a central place (literally?) in the England side whilst shouldering Duncan Edward’s comparisons may now be influential. Whether the likes of Rodwell/Walker/Wellbeck, through a kind of swifter natural expression of their talents come to Capello and England’s rescue may be… influential. The truth is, Capello has found them chiefly/only after

a) injuries to seniors

b) depressing performances by seniors.

My last word on the Italian is that having presided over such a shocking World Cup, having failed utterly to inspire or change a visibly desperate side, he should have been gone.

Martin Johnson has. With that familiar mixture of churlishness, largeness, restrained vitriol and … almost some emotion, he jumped the ferry before being escorted down the plank. England RUFC, having hugely overachieved at the previous World Cup under a player-undermined manager, appointed Johnson hoping for quiet, broodingly Churchillian leadership. He couldn’t do it. In his absence, there now ensues a near-interesting and even mysterious phase of non-appointment, featuring a non-Mallett but lots of clattering in the background. As with the football scenario, a sea-change in direction as well as personnel may trip or bumble towards us, either obstructed or otherwise by the RFU furniture. But given that Shaun Edwards has stayed righteously in Wales, it seems too much to hope for radical improvement.

It may be, therefore, seasonally unfortunate for all of us that we are denied much-needed sporting cheer due to a current lack of England cricket -that being by some distance our most upliftingly successful game. Suddenly, it seems, we have a worryingly stable and consistent crop of outstanding players. And a generally brilliant team ethic. This has not happened entirely by chance – although the contemporaneous emergence of top individuals (Strauss, Cook, Trott, Swann, Anderson…) clearly helps, cool and authoritative leadership off the pitch has been critical. To the point where the following notion bounces in.

Surely numbers stricken by Seasonally Affected Disorder could have been hugely reduced by heart-warming exposure to the further exploits of Strauss , Cook et al this winter? Contemptuously tonking all-comers at Test Level would plainly be markedly beneficial to the national psyche so, why on earth did the government fail to act on this? Couldn’t somebody have rigged up a few Tests/few big screens in shopping malls and…

Back to cool and authoritative. At a time when crises of management or certainly leadership run rampant over our whole lives(!) some contemplation of what works might seem appropriate.  (A yes for cricket, no and no for footie/rugby.) But, sporting opinion and contemplation being mutually exclusive, maybe I’ll bawl with the rest of them… Just who is running this ship, anyhow?