x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

A human turnip, or just a hapless England football manager?

England's Euro 2012 squad is led by a man who doesn't match the norm for football managers.

During last weekend's celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, a festival of pomp and patriotism that eclipsed all other considerations, it was almost possible to forget that the England football team were about to compete in the European championships.

But now, with the bunting and the Union Jacks furled, fans of the beautiful game are bracing for another two weeks of underachievement, missed penalties, goalkeeping howlers and an early ignominious exit from the competition.

For this only one man, as custom dictates, will be held responsible.

Who'd be England football manager? In the catalogue of worst jobs in history (ratcatcher, leech-gatherer, Lenin's corpse-keeper), England manager may seem appealing. But despite the glitz and glamour, not to mention the financial remuneration, the job remains the ultimate poisoned chalice.

As previous incumbents will testify, the unfortunate individual who carries the weight of the nation's football ambitions instantly becomes the victim of ridicule, opprobrium and vicious satire the moment the results go pear-shaped.

How times have changed. Once upon a time, the England manager was second only to religious leaders in terms of courtesy and respect from our domestic press. Indeed, Alf Ramsey, England's most successful supremo (he claimed World Cup glory in 1966) rarely had to deal with criticism. He was so tight-lipped that he made pre-match press conference taciturnity into an art.

No longer. Nowadays, England managers must hold press conferences if they so much as change their socks, let alone their strategy. Every word is endlessly scrutinised. The moment they (or their players) put a foot wrong, they are hunted down and verbally pilloried.

Former England manager Graham Taylor was mercilessly ridiculed as a "human turnip". And Steve McClaren is even now portrayed in television adverts as a byword for incompetence and bungling - five years after he left the job.

The new man, Roy Hodgson, who managed the UAE team 10 years ago, has been in the job for only a few weeks and has yet to manage England in a single competitive match, but he has already tasted what will be on offer if results go against him over the next three weeks. His slight speech impediment (known in the acting profession as a "weak R") has already been cruelly lampooned in the press, while his birdlike features and ornate coiffure have led to him being dubbed "the owl".

Yet Hodgson is far better equipped than his predecessors to deal with an avalanche of criticism. In this line of work, cultural sophistication is measured by how many Porsches you own, and it is a badge of honour to have never read a book, but Hodgson is something of a philosopher. He speaks five languages, collects wristwatches, can quote chunks of poetry and enjoys classical music.

Indeed, he more resembles a secondary schoolteacher than someone schooled in the furnace of sport. And his refreshingly rounded view has already changed the emphasis in England's Euro preparation.

In a break with the tradition of sequestering themselves in a country hotel to prepare for a tournament, Hodgson's squad have installed themselves in the heart of Krakow, Poland's second city. This gesture has already won them friends among the locals, and offered the players a chance to sample some of Poland's famous hospitality.

Another welcome departure from the normal myopic obsession with offside traps and midfield formations was the squad's decision on Friday to visit Auschwitz concentration camp, a few kilometres from the city centre. The trip may not make any difference on the field of play, but it made a profound impression on all who attended and will help them to keep a healthy sense of perspective once the competition is over. For football is still essentially just a matter of kicking an inflated bladder around on a patch of grass.

And who knows? Hodgson's inexperienced, injury-hit squad, already dismissed as no-hopers, arrives for the tournament unburdened by expectations. They might just confound their critics and do rather well. And if they do lift the European Trophy in Kiev on July 1, I for one will be absolutely delighted. For in Hodgson's case, it really couldn't happen to a nicer chap.

After all, as the Italians say: La vita a volte gioca brutti scherzi or, loosely, "It's a funny old game …"


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London