England is going to win the World Cup in 2022. How do I know? The new Chairman of the FA, Greg Dyke, has told us so. At least he’s set a target for that. Sure, you might think that England winning a World Cup in the desert state of Qatar in the summer seems unlikely. Yet, the target has been set so it will be achieved.
But actually, maybe we won’t have to wait until 2022. Former England manager, Glenn Hoddle, tasked with raising our footballing game, reckons the target could be brought forward to 2018. Hoddle can even apply percentages to targets. Spain has a 35 per cent chance of winning the World Cup in Brazil next year apparently. England somewhat less than that but Hoddle is keeping his cards close to his chest on what the actual number is. What does a 35 per cent chance of winning even mean? Betting odds have become the currency of the new footballing managerialism. It’s as if the FA has contracted itself out to McKinsey in partnership with Paddy Power.
So tonight’s game against Montenegro is a pretty pointless exercise. Basically, the team has no chance of winning the trophy its competing for. The man charged with transforming the game thinks there is an outside chance they can compete in 2018 and the Chairman of the FA has little hope for almost a decade. Give it your best lads but we won’t expect too much.
This new footballing managerialism fails on its own terms. Any management amateur will tell you to define S.M.A.R.T. and stretch goals. Dyke and Hoddle speak the language of S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, assignable, relevant and time-bound.) England should win the world cup by 2022 and it is the job of the FA and team management to do so. But setting a target nine years hence is hardly a stretch. The Premier League is one of the best leagues in the world and should be able to produce a team of eleven men at least capable of going on a winning run of six games to win a tournament.
Tonight, England are likely to win (would you say a 58 per cent chance Glenn?) but in doing so we’ll see our best footballers fail to control simple balls, misplace passes with abandon, shoot from 40 yards out, cross the ball in the midriff of the first defender, and remain rigidly statuesque in defence. If Montenegro gets a few shots on goal we might see a goalkeeping fumble or two.
Given they have nothing to hope for until at least 2018, it is little wonder that England’s players have spent the week debating the meaning of English identity rather than focusing on the task in hand. The row over the potential of Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj to play for England has diverted Jack Wilshere and Roy Hodgson. It turns out it’s a phoney debate anyway. He wouldn’t be eligible. But if you’ve no real hope on the pitch then you might as well spend your time debating pub-style hypothetical ‘what ifs?’.
We have gone from management as blind hope to management as detached and distant pragmatism. So while we’re setting targets, Barcelona football club is training hundreds of youngsters in the simple art of control, pass move. One touch, two touch, possession, pace, composure. It is driven by skills and it’s relentless. Surrounding it all is a club that sees itself as a national expression (the Catalan nation). It is there for the fans. It exists for their glory. Its meaning is to feed a sense of worth and transcendent identity. The method is continuous. And it is there to serve. What’s their target? To win every minute of every game in every season in their domestic league and beyond. Football is craft masquerading as sport over-interpreted as art.
And when you look at the successful club dynasties in the English game the same combination of method and meaning, fused by inspirational leadership, is apparent. David Peace’s much maligned but brilliant Red or Dead, a novel on the life of Bill Shankly, captures this beautifully. Its monotony is precisely the point. Footballing legend is built on monotony and incrementalism. And why was Shankly doing it? For riches and glory? No, for the people. How do you think Bill Shankly would have reacted to being given a target nine years hence. His target would be for the next minute of any given day.
In Matt Busby, Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jock Stein, or Brian Clough we see similar traits. Clough was infamously passed over by the FA on a continual basis. The attitude of these managers is that the club is all, the method is relentless. Their target is win every single moment. Out of these moments emerge great teams and great teams win trophies. The people are then happy. Surely a national team can find meaning in what it is doing? If they fall short, then so be it. Few England teams have reached their potential in my life with notable exceptions in 1990 and 1996. They both fell short but the margins are small. And they could hold their heads high.
So save us the empty managerialism. Give us meaning and relentless improvement instead. Whatever number Glenn Hoddle attaches to England’s chances next Summer, the managerialist technique won’t improve those odds one bit. Actually, it will lessen them. So do what the greats have done. Oh, and make sure Daniel Sturridge sees plenty of the ball.
Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His new book ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ is now available.