The King is dead, long live the King. Sam Allardyce saw his tenure as England manager last a mere 67 days, leaving in scandalous circumstances having offered advice on breaking player transfer rules to undercover journalists posing as businessmen.
Allardyce, who has publicly expressed his desire for the England job for a decade and bemoaned the reluctance of the bigger English clubs to appoint Englishmen – namely himself – has seen the job he most coveted taken from him after only one game in charge, left to forever wonder what might have been.
There is little doubt he could not continue as manager once the news was made public; to actively help someone to contravene his employers’ laws, in a culture where public image is integral, made his position untenable.
Yet how guilty is he, and how much gravitas should be given to the public image in the hostile and unaccountable environment created by the tabloid press?
As it is, in the interim England are left with Gareth Southgate, for so long a likely candidate for the Football Association, yet someone whose image is one that is still derided for being too ‘nice’: a man as grey as the kit he wore whilst missing the crucial penalty in Euro ’96.
Southgate is not a ‘character’. He is the antithesis of the apparently reasonable candidature of Harry Redknapp, a man indicted along with Allardyce in 2006 for corruption in English football, and someone who has only ever been periodically successful in management by being profligate in the transfer market. Yet in the press, Harry is the loveable “wheeler dealer”, whilst Southgate is still the skinny boy next door who bottled it against the Germans. This is the regressive criteria the public is told to value.
This season, the 20 Premier League teams will share a combined £10.4bn from the broadcast of their games both domestically and overseas. Such extraordinary wealth puts into perspective the role of modern sport as entertainment, and the Premier League is the headline act.
Gone are the days of jumpers for goalposts; this is the age of private jets, prawn sandwiches, and player image rights. The working man’s game- for better or worse- at the highest level in England is now a global game for men, women, children, and businesses, from Mumbai to Mexico City.
Traditional supporters from the typically industrial English towns have either seen their clubs slide down the footballing pyramid, or be priced out of the game. Last season, the cheapest season ticket at Arsenal cost £1,014. At Barcelona, it was £73.88.
The great honeypot of football has therefore attracted a swarm of bees the world over, and some of them have voracious appetites. It is not surprising that in a system whereby the agent of Paul Pogba, Mino Raiola, can receive £21m for encouraging his transfer to Manchester United, that the savvy and greedy alike see the sport as something to derive a handsome living from, without ever coming close to kicking a football.
Money is power, and as managers and coaches are as disposable as ever, are they fools for wanting a seat at the table, where their influence gives them access to business contacts, and therefore more preferable circumstances during player transfers, and even managerial positions?
This networking is a fine line to tread, and one that Allardyce has misjudged, yet consider the fortunes of Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson to see how big an impact someone so powerful and connected can have on and off the field. The addendum to the news on Allardyce – that eight current or former Premier League managers have had similar dealings- is evidence of such behaviour as commonplace, even if it remains on the acceptable side of the thin line.
Is there anything more devastating than profiteering and corruption to dismantle the mythology that the more wholesome values of grassroots football still apply in the elite game?
With England trailing 2-1 to Iceland in this Summer’s European Championship, after 34 minutes the English fans found their voice, and began to sing God Save the Queen. It was no doubt belted out by some, yet the rather turgid chorale sounded more like it was being uttered through bitten nails, with no real conviction that the call to high powers- both celestial and constitutional- would save England from what was already looking like another embarrassment at a major tournament.
This was three days after Britain had voted to leave the European Union, and on the football field England were about to follow with another underwhelming European exit.
The strains broke around the stadium before finally echoing into silence, a silence soon filled by another deafening, synchronised, and intimidating rendition of the Icelanders’ “Viking Chant”. It was a fitting soundtrack.
Whatever the merits of Britain’s collective political decision, the sentiment in favour of an exit was one primarily built upon nationalism, a sense of being able to do things better alone, of hostility to the faceless grey suits in Brussels. The implication was that the exit would herald a return to a more prosperous and successful status quo, one that existed so long ago that it could only be imagined through a rose prism.
Allardyce would not have been swayed by player power
This is the regressive and distorted remnant of traditional British values that plague English football; it is the demand that the England manager be English whilst the Premier League benefits from the abilities of international players and coaches. In the absence of systemic cohesion and tactical clarity on the pitch, it is the vilification of individual errors – such as Joe Hart against Iceland, Rob Green against USA, and Southgate against Germany- that cultivates an environment of fear amongst the players to take risks lest they be their generation’s scapegoat. It is the expectation that England should be progressing to the latter stages of every tournament despite the superior conditions and players in other countries. It champions insularity and self-improvement, before the knee-jerk call for wholesale imitation of other countries’ footballing systems after a tournament exit, when selecting the successful elements of other nations’ methods to mirror would bear the greatest fruit. There is a desperation for vibrancy and noise – mostly artificial – amongst a media that gleans the same kind of sustenance from football as the businessmen it will ravage over the next few weeks for destroying English football.
Allardyce was evidently the perfect fit for England’s persistent underachievement at tournaments; often derided as a long ball exponent, it is his sort of compact and disciplined tactics that are well suited to knockout football.
Able to inspire to kind of discipline Fabio Capello managed – without the language gap and, ultimately, alienation amongst the players that led to the Italian’s demise – Allardyce would not have been swayed by player power, nor buckled under the pressure from the media. There would likely have been a few less than stellar performances in qualifying, yet England’s aptitude in these games rarely reflects their subsequent fortunes in the tournament proper, where pragmatism and strength of will is more important than scoring a fifth goal at Wembley.
Rather than aping the technically superior Germans and Spanish, in the short term England can only succeed with a high tempo, swift counter attacking, and defensively solid brand of football that Wales and Portugal employed so adeptly this Summer. When teams sit back, England must utilise crosses with a genuine centre forward as the target: think Harry Kane at Tottenham, rather than in an England shirt. Allardyce’s teams have been fantastic exponents of this, and at Bolton he showed he was able to accommodate the sublime talents of Jay-Jay Okocha: if the calibre of player was there, his style of football rarely seemed to hinder it, an accusation that seems to be persistently levelled at England regardless of the tactical disposition of the rest of the team.
Whatever happens next for England, Allardyce will have to watch it all unfold from an extended period of watering the roses in his back garden, and try to forget that – all too briefly – he once wore the crown.