For those of you who are sensible enough not to waste your time by obsessively following football, Richard Williams is chief sports writer for The Guardian. On Tuesday his article was entitled “The heart sinks as Fabio Capello misses chance to make a fresh start”.
A fresh start would have been nice, and there could have been no better moment. Laurent Blanc knew an opportunity when he saw one, and decided to “suspend” France’s entire World Cup squad for his first match as head coach. Fabio Capello, by contrast, has merely reassembled the remnants of his Rustenburg rabble for what amounts to a lap of dishonour.
Blanc’s action left no one in any doubt that for him this represents the start of a new era in which younger, fresher faces will be given the chance to make an impact. The French public will not mind if they are beaten by Norway in Oslo tomorrow as long as the performance shows commitment and promise, just as the 60,000 or so who will turn up at Wembley would not have minded an indifferent result against Hungary if they felt they were being shown some sort of vision of the future.
To read his projected team sheet for tomorrow’s match is to feel the spirits slump. Better late than never for Joe Hart and Michael Dawson, who may play most of the match, and there is the promise of a glimpse of Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs. But the continued presence in the starting line-up of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Gareth Barry and Wayne Rooney, en bloc, shouts the message that there will be no cleansing of the Augean stables before the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign starts in September.
England had a very poor World Cup, but France managed to make them look like a tightly-knit unit of footballing excellence and self-discipline. To compare a squad that played badly with one that actually went on strike in the midst of a World Cup is deeply misleading. Laurent Blanc was able to suspend his entire team safe in the knowledge that he would have the full backing of both the media and the fans and that the players were not in a position to complain. Mr. Williams is being either disingenuous or ignorant in arguing that Capello could have dropped “Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Gareth Barry and Wayne Rooney” without risking a backlash from the media or the dressing room. The unfortunate fact, which Mr. Williams must also be aware of, is that there is insufficient strength in depth in the English game for these players to be simply cast aside. The only possible scenario in which this may be feasible is if the English media and fans were willing to write off qualification for Euro 2012 with the aim of focusing on 2014, but of course this is also a fantasy: Messrs Capello and Williams both know that qualification for 2012 is expected and that any slip-ups will be instantly pounced upon. With the first qualifier only three weeks away, this friendly was as much a rehearsal for the qualifying campaign as a catharsis for England’s unfortunate summer failures: it was never realistic to expect a full-scale revamp of the team with young and untested players going into an important qualifier.
Mr. Williams also understates the extent to which the ‘Augean stables’ have been cleansed: only ten members of England World Cup squad remained in the selection for last night’s game. This may not constitute a revolution of the French variety (they lost 2-1 to Norway incidentally), but Wednesday night definitely signalled a new direction for the team.
Deep down, Capello blames the players. That much is clear. So perhaps his decision to recall almost all of those responsible for the World Cup debacle for tomorrow’s match is actually a gesture of ritual sacrifice before the genuine renewal can begin. Or maybe he just can’t think of a better plan.
Maths according to Richard Williams: 10 out of 23 = “almost all”.
The cupboard is by no means bare. England’s unwillingness to devote resources to training young coaches is an enduring disgrace, and the proportion of players in the Premier League eligible for selection by Capello – around 38% – is unquestionably a handicap, but somehow the talent continues to emerge, however unfinished it may be as it comes off the lathe.
I think he manages to contradict himself three times in this paragraph. The idea that there is actually a genuine pool of young talent to draw upon is questionable, and even Mr. Williams admits that is is ‘unfinished’. The problem is that ‘unfinished talent’ is often quite brutally exposed at international level and if the development is not happening at club level there is very little that Mr. Capello can do about that. The only two examples of this rich seam of talent that Mr. Williams mentions are John Bostock (no Premier League Appearances) and Nathan Delfouneso (1 Premier League Goal in 13 appearances): if he really thinks that these players are about to transform England into world-beaters I would suggest he gets some fresh air.
At least the Under-19s reached their semi-final and were beaten by the outstanding heirs to the new world champions. Pearce’s Under-21s reached their European final last year before being soundly beaten by Germany, several of whose team went on to reach the last four in South Africa last month. We know the last crop of Under-17s were outstanding, since they won their European Championship earlier this year, while the new intake, now in the care of Kenny Swain, have just won the annual Nordic tournament in Finland.
A semi-final appearance sounds impressive, but Mr. Williams fails to mention that this actually involved only winning one game (against the might of Austria) out of four: we are not dealing with a group of world-beating prodigies here.
It is what happens to the players after they emerge into the senior ranks that presents Capello with his greatest problem. The exaggerated sense of self-importance instilled by vast salaries and a retinue of sycophants can distort values and behaviour in ways that are hard to eradicate. Those recent pictures of Rooney smoking a cigarette and urinating in the street remind us, with a shudder, that only a few weeks ago he was being talked about as a plausible candidate for the England captaincy.
The Italian is powerless to influence what goes on at the clubs, but surely one way of creating a significant degree of control and loyalty would be to identify a group of mostly young players whom he can mould into the sort of team he wants to lead. He would not be the first international head coach to discover that such a policy entails the controversial step of excluding established favourites in favour of players who can do the sort of job that needs to be done, and others have found that it can work.
Alf Ramsey grasped that nettle when he made Nobby Stiles a vital component of his World Cup-winning team. Capello, however, has shown no appetite for making unorthodox choices based on his own perception and judgment rather than on reputations already established. When he backed Sven-Goran Eriksson’s initial hunch by calling up Theo Walcott he reaped the reward in Zagreb, but then, at the crucial hour, allowed his faith to become eroded.
Now, as he delivers apologies that appear to have been scripted by his employers and picks a couple of young players seemingly to mollify his critics, faith in him has vanished. Even a respectable qualification for the next big tournament will not fully repair the damage. After all, look what happened last time.
Once again, the problem with this is that such an approach carries risks that simply are not acceptable given the weight of expectation and the readiness of journalists such as Mr. Williams to criticise anything that falls short of footballing perfection. Developing a team of promising youngsters takes time and necessarily involves learning from mistakes. The FA know this, Capello knows this and I am pretty sure Richard Williams knows this. If the FA were to publicly state that the focus is on 2014 and that qualification for 2012 would simply be seen as a bonus, then of course Capello could be expected to follow Mr. William’s revolutionary manifesto; in the absence of such a commitment, he would be mad to to do so.