As Lancaster was being sworn in on Thursday, football was growing restive
again. “It’s gone on too long. Nobody seems to know what’s happening,” said
Terry Venables, who took England
to the semi-finals of Euro 96. Pointedly, Venables said it would be wrong
for a coach to parachute in with a “ra-ra-ra” days before the France game,
which would be the plan with Redknapp.
England’s first fixture is 10 weeks away and the country is without a manager,
an obvious starting XI and their best player (Wayne Rooney) for the first
two group games. The deposed captain, John Terry, is due in court on a
racial abuse charge when the tournament is over.
Pearce may have watched Lancaster’s appointment and felt a skip in his heart.
Is this the year of the No 2, when studious, partisan men leapfrog bigger
names to be handed the ultimate responsibility? In rugby, yes. In football,
no, not least because Pearce is associated in this squad’s mind with the
austerity and sterility of the Capello years.
After England’s Six
Nations victory over Ireland — their fourth in five under Lancaster
– several of us gathered in Twickenham’s interview area to hear the players
declare fierce loyalty to Lancaster, who had given many of them their shot
at the big time.
Only the most star-struck governing body could have ignored this groundswell,
and needlessly appointed an overseas coach, who would have taken at least a
year to get to know the players Lancaster is so intimate with.
But there is another lesson for football. Lancaster was not a one-man band.
Like all good teachers, he understood chemistry, philosophy and politics,
yoking up with Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell. This respected, energetic
and ideas-driven trio dragged England in from the cold of self-laceration
and public disdain.
Mallett’s appeal, supposedly, was a glittering CV that contains no World Cup
victory, and is therefore overstated. Lancaster is short on experience but
has three years to acquire it before the next World Cup. Around English
football, there is deep bitterness among aspiring home-grown coaches at the
lack of encouragement from above: some of it emanating from the Euro 96
generation, where Gareth Southgate is the lone flag-bearer at the top of the
The Lancaster-Rowntree-Farrell combo offers football’s overlords a template of
how England could look post-Capello, post-Pearce. The re-emergence of
Venables and Glenn Hoddle in conversations about England’s past and future
at least restores the connection to the country’s brighter phases, after a
£50 million experiment with foreign expertise (with Steve McClaren squeezed
between Sven-Göran Eriksson and Capello).
Gary Neville may be too deeply embedded in media work to summon but the Tony
Adams-Alan Shearer generation are ready for enlistment: not as returning
stars but as students and motivators. The English game needs its Matthias
Sammer and Fernando Hierro to support Southgate and turn the tide against
the blazers and committees.
So Lancaster’s elevation struck a blow against the superficiality of
chequebook solutions, in favour of making the most of whatever promise
exists around the domestic game. This opens the gates to all upwardly mobile
coaches. In football those doors have been locked and the best minds
excluded by a self-protecting bureaucracy.
Lancaster spoke a lot about unity and it was all there in his coaching team,
where the three amigos packed down like a front row to move things on.
Football should give it a go.
Balotelli is a myth, not a professional
Mighty Boosh devotees will recall the Howard Moon character introducing
himself as “the man,
the myth — the maverick!” Mario Balotelli could do likewise, with emphasis on
the “myth” after his gatecrashing of an Inter Milan press conference and
latest hoo-ha with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City’s training ground.
The fallacy is that Balotelli is some kind of footballing genius who merely
requires shaping. Sorry, but this is fantasy. The farces far outnumber the
It took a conversation with Francis Lee last week for me to fully recognise
Balotelli’s fatal flaw: acute self-absorption, which renders him incapable
of seeing that sometimes (and especially in a tight title race) talented
players have to do things to “lift their team-mates”, to use Lee’s phrase.
The private drama Balotelli scripts around himself precludes identification
with the team — the group — hence the drooping shoulders and the plod around
the pitch when he loses interest.
My alarms first rang when he declined to celebrate a goal with the rest of the
team at West Ham in his early City days and instead trudged away in
This week’s double distraction tends to suggest again that he is a highly
entertaining myth, not a serious professional.
Sugar’s act always packed a punch
The death this week of Bert Randolph Sugar, American boxing sage, silenced a
machine gun of wisecracks and anecdotes about the fight scene and its cast
of champions and chancers.
Sugar wore a fedora and chomped on an unlit cigar while keeping alive the
Runyonesque spirit of the fight trade, especially in New York. On seeing the
British press arrive, he’d bustle over, deliver a one-man stand-up show and
then return to his pals cackling. Some of us suspected his wise-guy routine
was a bit of an act. But it was a hell of a good one.
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